On photography, purpose, and ‘monetisation’

When I started this blog back in 2010, the idea that people could make any actual money from photography online seemed pretty much impossible. Even though Instagram was still but a twinkle in somebody’s eye at that point, people were already far more likely to spend time on a closed platform like Flickr than they were to click through to your blog, where you’d at least have a fighting chance of running some kind of ads, or an online shop.

There were some notable exceptions to this of course, but all too often, it seemed like those who somehow managed to garner a large following on their own domain then ended up with the desire to monetise it in every possible way; a transparent desperation that appeared rather disingenuous to many of us who were primarily interested in sharing our creative passions. Perhaps it’s just a misplaced sense of pride or foolish notions of integrity, but I still find something rather guache about the juxtaposition of art alongside a list of Amazon Affiliate links.

That isn’t to say I don’t think that people shouldn’t make money from their photography. Quite the opposite, and for the longest time, the logical way I saw to do that was to actually take photographs. I spent years in nightclubs, going to festivals, convincing bands to let me go on tour with them, and newspaper photo editors to give me a chance. I desperately wanted to avoid falling into what felt like the trap of doing weddings, which meant that when I did, I almost always did them for costs (that’s a whole other post for a whole other time).

Ultimately, I realised that I don’t actually like being a photographer. Or at least, I don’t like taking photographs for other people.

After years of chasing £50 invoices from huge publications like the NME, or fighting with clubs over an extra £10 a shift (figures they all could easily pay, but which for me meant the difference between being able to pay rent or not); being constantly patronised by anybody else in the room with a camera; taking abuse from drunk people and security staff for no good reason at all; coming out of a venue at 3am only to find my car with all its windows panned in; having to spend weeks wrangling a photo-pass for an event on the off-chance that I might be able to sell a couple of pictures to a newspaper afterwards, and turning up only to find that I was never on the guestlist as promised – or even worse – that the promoters who were often owned by millionaires had decided to impose a mandatory ‘donation’ fee on the gate that I was expected to pay in order to get in and work… the people who were never happy; those who said their bar staff would do the same job for free; the over protective relatives; the ‘first three, no flash’ where the band were lit by strobes. Fuck. That.

Only when I ditched my road weary and severely beaten Canon 5Ds, sold off my fancy L glass, and instead started experimenting with weirdo Russian lenses and ancient cameras did I rediscover my love of taking pictures for the sake of it. Taking pictures of friends. Documenting my life.

Of course that then left the question of how to make any money off of the work I was doing. Or maybe, I didn’t need to at all – and for a long time I chose not to bother. I was liberated from the demands of others, and just took whatever pictures I wanted whenever I wanted to, and shared them on my blog, with no real concern about whether anybody looked at them or not.

Lately though I’ve been thinking again about this. I can’t help but feel like I’ve missed a trick along the way; that there might be some kind of way to maintain and support an obsession with photography without having to sell your soul either to those with unreasonable demands, or (worse), to the God of Content. Ultimately, it’s less about making money, and more about finding a new way to share and engage with a community of folks interested in what you are doing (and not get swallowed up in the anonymity of something like Reddit).

I’ve been making videos over on YouTube about my experiments with music over the past few months, and found that you can fairly quickly build up decent numbers of subscribers if you are prepared to ‘show your work’, and can’t help but shake the thought that if I had invested time into a channel for my photographs rather than blogging that I would be in a much better position, and perhaps I should just start now – but then it becomes a whole different ball game. I want to take and share pictures, not create ‘content’ about taking pictures, with one eye constantly on the Revenue tab.

For now, I’m toying with the configuration of ads on this site, but so far the results have been hilariously bad. Either Google plasters huge banners in between every picture on every post, or includes nothing at all – and so far I have earned precisely £0.76. Not really worth the instrusion. My apologies while I get that fixed.

Whatever happens, I need to find some kind of consistent motivating factor to help provide a renewed purpose for taking pictures. While doing it ‘professionally’ was a curse, it also provided some kind of confidence and photographic identity, which I feel has slipped away intro nothingness. For the past year I’ve barely lifted a camera, and I’m not really sure how to find the drive to do so again.

Maybe I just don’t really like being a photographer at all.

15 thoughts on “On photography, purpose, and ‘monetisation’

  1. If it’s any motivation, you should start posting some pics of all the coffee experiments you have been doing 😜. Regardless, I like the pics you post, the documentation that you do with them. Look forward to seeing more of them soon.

    1. Thanks Saru! Those are kind words. I’ll hopefully find some motivation again soon.

  2. “Maybe I just don’t really like being a photographer at all.” – maybe you just a photographer and not a money maker.
    All the troubles you described here, they are about doing business.
    i have the same problems, so i’m thinking a lot about this. By a lucky chance my incoming is from IT but i limited with time and only able to photograph during evenings/nights and weekends.

    1. Very true Victor. I’m struggling with motivation to take any pictures at the moment at all. The pandemic is partly to blame, but only partly. I need some kind of actual purpose to taking pictures, as I’m bored of doing everything I have been.

      1. i really understand you. i know a few ppl who got the same mood due to the Pandemic situation. Somehow i felt very different during the 2020 and now in 21. i refused to stay at home during the lockdowns and attended the never stopped political protests every week as a active member and as a photographer. Plus different pirate nature blues jams. I think all this it kept me afloat. Not sure if this can work on someone else.

      2. I hear that. I was the most productive I’d ever been as a photographer last summer, ironically. I took every chance I could to get out, but then when the restrictions came back in October I lost all my motivation stone dead. I am going to try a few things to try and recapture that over the next few weeks, and see how it goes.

      3. Good luck my friend. Will wait for some results 😉

  3. This resonates so much with my own experience. It took me two years to realize I’d never be happy as a professional photographer. And that was a long time ago, before everyone had a camera in his pocket.

    I had long periods of my life where I lost the pleasure, and the habit of taking photos, other periods where it was all about family, and others where it was all about gear…(well, it’s always a bit about gear, let’s be honest).

    Lately though, I found a renewed pleasure in going out daily with my camera. It’s not about making any money, I have a job as you know 😉 but it’s about honing a craft. I found myself in a place where I still learned the theory but had forgotten all practice.

    I found pleasure again in re-learning from scratch, included all the hesitation in going towards strangers and taking their photos that I am slowly shaking off. I look at Instagram for inspiration, not a goal, and I publish on my blog because that’s where my family and friends come.

    What really made a difference though, is that I started printing and framing a few of these photos, some to hang on my own walls, some to gift to friends.

    That’s when I realized that digital photography was never meant to be on screen only, like before it analog photography wasn’t meant to be only negatives and contact sheets. Photography’s real purpose is to produce physical artifacts of all sizes that you can watch without any technological interferences. And a relatively small number of these. Access to too many images is the best way to kill the joy. You know what they say about all things in moderation…

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Paolo! I also resonate with what you’re saying about forgetting the practice. It’s easy to assume that you can just go back and pick things up right where you left off, but I had the same kind of experience. Friends who started taking photographs long after me but who had consistently shot bypassed me significantly in terms of skill, and it took a while to build it back up.

      Ironically, last summer was one of the most productive times I’ve had in ages. I guess because I didn’t really have much else that I could do except get out into the half boarded up city and take pictures. I had to force myself to see boring things in a different way, or approach strangers, since I couldn’t travel at all. Like you said, seeing the pictures in print in the zine was great, and gave them a totally different life. Perhaps that’s something I need to revisit…

  4. I feel ya, Steve. I’m no “pro photographer”, I just do it for myself. Getting into film photography over the past 18 months has been a lot of fun for me. But I don’t look at it as a way to make money.

    I am somewhat of a “pro artist”, though, and I can relate to what you said, especially about chasing down clients for cash, clients who can easily pay you. I usually feel good about being an “artist”, but I’m not always enthused about the actual work, procrastinating as much as I can. (Right now I have one assignment that should be done right now but don’t have the motivation.) I like drawing mostly, but doing it for others is tough, and can suck the enjoyment out of it.

    And this is the crux of the struggle: I like being “a creative” of some sort. I like the idea of earning money from a skill I have rather than make widgets in a factory. But being creative is tougher than going to a nine-to-five and punching away at a machine. How can one continue to do their craft when their enthusiasm for it ebbs and flows? I don’t know if I’ll ever figure this out, but I’ll keep on plugging away for now.

    1. Thanks for sharing! It’s reassuring in a way to hear other folks’ experiences, even if they aren’t necessarily… good. Ha.

      > I usually feel good about being an “artist”, but I’m not always enthused about the actual work

      I think this is a great way of putting things. I’m going to think about that a bit.

  5. I went threw the exact same phase you’re going thru, and it took me a good 12 months to realise that I like taking photos, but not being a photographer and all the associated business crap that goes with it. Just gotta learn to be selfish.

    1. Hey Phil, thanks for sharing. I guess the question is whether I even like taking photographs at all!

  6. Midwest Justin August 4, 2021 — 20:42

    This was hard to read. I feel really bad for you, man. While I’ve never attempted to make any money with photos, I’ve struggled with professional identity issues and things of the sort, and I don’t know that I have any answers for you. But I do have empathy and wish you the best as you figure things out. I watch some of the popular film YouTube channels (Matt, George, Jason, Caleb, Nick, Vuh, etc.—one or two I don’t particularly like, even), and I’d certainly support your foray into that hemisphere if that’s where you want to go, but my fear is that it’s going to have its fair share of frustrations like your business headaches. The pressure of constant content creation makes my stomach turn.

    Again, I feel for you. These are difficult issues to face.

    Have you considered a book project? I honestly don’t even mean just a book of your photos, but something about photography that includes your writing/reflection? I’m always impressed by your writing style and ability to describe and entertain. That’s why the blog genre suits you so well, I think. It’s just a whisper of an idea that could potentially focus your work for a while. Another option is to put the cameras away for a short period and give yourself time to reflect and reset. I feel like it’s always a bad idea to force ourselves to suck it up and just go do the thing even when we don’t want to, so maybe a little distance for a bit might help?

    I feel as if I’ve offered absolutely no help, and I really wish I could. Suffice it to say that I’m rooting for you, and I hope you find some inspiration soon.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Justin. It took me a while to reply as I wasn’t quite sure what to say in response, and didn’t want to just half arse it, so I apologise for that.

      I hear you on the YouTube thing. I make videos about music and synthesizers and things already and have built up a decent following, so it could be doable, but honestly I just never really understood how you could do something like that for still images. With music it’s such a natural combination, but photography… It would end up just as a gear channel, or having to focus more on the videos than taking photos when out and about, and that’s not really waht I want to do.

      The book idea is an interesting one. I’ve actually put together a few zines in the past, and they’ve sold fairly well (in my own modest relative terms), but I shied away from putting any kind of text. Perhaps that is something worth considering. I used to write a lot more on the blog but ended up much more wary of doing that for whatever reason, and so I often just post pictures now, but maybe I need to just get a grip and do it.

      You’ve given me a bunch to think about, so thank you!

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