The Dench Diary:
Looking through the work of Elliot Erwitt, and Martin Parr in the library of Bournemouth Art College in 1990, I decided to take photography as a career seriously. If you could travel the world, make people laugh and think then that was a fine way to live. If you could have a few drinks along the way then that was the life for me. Having been fired from all previous ‘proper’ jobs except for a stint selling trousers in Top Man, self-employment and photography seemed the only option left.
According to the tax man, I’ve been a professional photographer since 1998. Twelve years later, I own no property, have no savings, shares or bonds, no car in the garage, no garage. I do have a number of global accolades, memories in the bank and have had the privilege to work in over 50 countries across the planet. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Until this year, I’ve always made my living and my losses from photography. After a rotten April and May – only two commissioned days’ pay – I joined a recruitment agency to pay some bills. Three days as a garden labourer and 11 as a canteen assistant at Capital Radio followed: “Would you like honey on your porridge, Toby Anstis? Brown sauce with your bacon, Jamie Theakston?” I bumped into Johnny Vaughan on my round to stock the office fridges. He clocked me for a moment and did a double take. I’d photographed him recently for a five-page feature in the Telegraph Magazine. He looked well. This is where we meet; my introduction to you. These are interesting times, difficult times; perhaps the biggest hurdle of my career: how to adapt and diversify. ‘Photojournalism is dead’ is a constant headline and I’m starting to believe it. The game is survival and the game is on. I’ve £20 in the bank and just had to delay my rent.
This is unexpected. I check a News International remittance: ‘Payment due date: 30 July’ then in brackets: ‘payment should be received within eight working days of the payment due date’.
August 1st: A new month brings renewed optimism. July was a success; a chunk of money invoiced and August is off to a flyer. My new project, England Uncensored – a laugh-out-loud romp through this badly behaved land – is profiled in The Sunday Times Magazine. I get three pages including the cover; six images in total. Not great, not bad but they’ll pay £1,000 on publication. The reason I approached the STM is because from previous experience it gets the best response. The industry takes notice. In January they gave six pages to my project LoveUK to promote a solo show at the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff. Publication coincided with Valentine’s Day; it’s good to have a peg. The Sun picked up on it and ran a portfolio across its centre spread. Direct commissions followed and some regional papers picked up on the exhibition. I’m hoping for a similar response.
2nd: The morning is spent waiting for The Sun to ring and emailing the Dailies about England Uncensored. There is no response. I turn my attention to an upcoming commission. My kind of job: four days are booked in with a writer later in the month. It’s a cover story on ‘Traditional London’ for a German travel mag. I’m to do another day on my own and I have a list: pubs, greasy spoons, wooden escalators, Routemaster buses, clubs and casinos. More than a day’s work but it’s a quiet week so I will give it two plus half a day’s research. Start Googling ‘traditional London pubs’.
3rd: 7am and it’s sunny skies; a snapper’s delight. I’m thinking saturated primary colours; red Routemaster buses. Head out early before the sun peaks. Think about shooting some stock on the way. It took me a long time to take stock sales seriously. This was a mistake. I thought of stock as left over pictures and that those who shot stock deliberately were good amateurs or cheesy pros. When I started putting my projects with Corbis in 2005 and monthly sales began averaging around £800, I took notice. The market’s dived. I have around 3,500 images for sale online across three respected agencies. The last sales report was a fat blob of a zero. I try to flush this from my thoughts and spend the day running after red buses.
4th: Today I must submit my entry for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize – the premier photographic portrait award with £12,000 up for grabs. Over the years, I have had entries exhibited in 1999, 2001 and 2003. The last seven years have drawn a blank; a few years unselected and a few I couldn’t afford to enter. This year, I have entered one portrait that I think has a real shot but I’m chancing two entries. Set off to get them printed at The Printspace and deliver them to the London College of Communication. Total cost of entering two prints: £118.
5th: There comes a time when I think every photographer should turn their lens towards home. For years I’ve avoided this, following the principle: ‘not on your own doorstep’. Recently, it’s become clear that I owe my hometown of Weymouth a lot. I was born with sea salt in my nostrils. My earliest memories are colourful: deck chairs, beach huts, bumper boats, Punch and Judy. All have shaped my work along with the seaside sense of humour. I’ve two commissions booked in for Coast magazine: one in Bournemouth on the 14th and one in Margate on the 21st; not much in-between. It’s a shoot window. I have an idea for a series on photographers who shoot the town in which they grew up and discuss how it influenced their work. Could be magazine, online, multimedia or exhibition. I try not to think too much about it. Trust my gut and pack my kit; it’s time to go home. Have been recruited to go to Eastbourne to help my sister move house. One of the diversions of being freelance is that if there’s a family emergency or sickness, it becomes my responsibility; freelancers can always reschedule.
10th: I begin shooting in Weymouth. Everyone and everything feels sticky and damp. You leave the beach smelling of cigarettes. Bars sell jelly bean-flavoured cocktails and T-shirts declare: ‘I Luv Da Muff’. What strikes me most, walking around, are the snatched conversations, mostly blaming immigrants for one thing or another; even the gingers are getting a bashing. I’m thinking an audio-visual piece might be the way forward but am unprepared. I stop a pensioner wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, ‘Sex, Drugs & Sausage Rolls’. He tells me to “piss off”. Walking the beach, I’ve been called a ‘paedo’ twice. The local paper headline today reads ‘Man stabbed in night of violence’ – this depresses me. I wasn’t there to document it. I know I’ll have to try a late night shooting the town. This depresses me further. I take the open top bus to Portland Bill and shoot some nice calming coastal stock.
11th In May, I was asked to exhibit at the Getxophoto festival in northern Spain. The theme is ‘Leisure’ and Martin Parr is to cut the ribbon. In the past I’ve been referred to as ‘the affordable Martin Parr’ and ‘Martin Parr’s drunken brother’ and it tickles me to be involved. Six of my images are to be exhibited on 3,000 coasters in bars across the area. How my work should be viewed. There’s an urgent email from the curator and I spend the morning formatting pictures for the brochure and captioning.
12th Documenting my hometown is not as straight forward as I’d hoped. As a product of the town, I’m shackled to its past and its people and have spent more time sipping wine than snapping winos. Tom Stoddart once advised that if you do a personal project, make sure you think it through, keep focused and do a thorough job. He wouldn’t be pleased. I end the day at 3am kneeling in the sand on Weymouth beach with my head in a deck chair. I am 38 years old.
13th Friday the 13th. The date says it all. Sleep until opening time; shades on and down the Red Lion for hair of the dog. Four glasses of wine with ham and chips does the job and it’s back to bed.
14th Up at 6.30am for a train to Bournemouth where I’ll be spending the day shooting a beach hut community for Coast magazine. The coast is about as far as I get to travel these days. In 2007, 76 days were commissioned shoots abroad; 2008, 56 days; 2009, 15 days; this year, three and all to France! I watched Clooney’s Up in the Air last night and wept. Foreign travel has been one of the major casualties of budget cuts. I miss the thrill and finger the BA executive club silver card that still hangs, fading, from my Domke. The shoot goes okay. On paper I have a clear list: eight pages, a double-page opener of the group then six single page portraits of hut owners. One doesn’t turn up so I find a replacement and between the rain I think there’s enough brighter weather to deliver a good set.
15th: I stall my ‘Shoot Weymouth’ plan, call my family down for a holiday and shoot stock intermittently: some images of my daughter bouncing around and of Weymouth’s annual highlight – the carnival.
21st: An assignment for Coast magazine in Margate. The traditional seaside ‘freak show’ is making a comeback. This is a terrific feature to shoot. I meet The Headless Lady, Girl in a Goldfish Bowl, Electra resplendent in satin pants and Ukulele Eric, who asks if I’m straight. Assume he’s the funny man. The highlight is taking a portrait of the flea circus proprietor Dr Jon while a man bathes in the sea behind.
22nd: I have a screening at this year’s prestigious Visa Pour L’image Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan. It’s my fifth screening in 10 years and I’ve only made it to one of them. Admittedly, I’ve been there for some of the others but too distracted to go; regular attendees will understand. This year, I’m determined to go. How many festivals of photojournalism can be left? My project LoveUK will be shown on the evening of the 31st during professional week. I design a quirky email invite ready to send out on Monday. If News International pay up for the ‘England Uncensored’ feature, I’m on the plane.
23rd: This week, I’m booked to work with a journalist to complete the ‘Traditional London’ feature. I’ve not heard from her and begin panicking. I’ve had to turn down other work to accommodate this commission and arrange care for my daughter who is on school holiday. I email, call and text without reply. Finally an answer. She’s not coming. I calm down and decide to be positive and ring the picture editor. All’s okay and I’m to proceed alone. This is good news.
24th: The ‘Traditional London’ shoot goes very well. I’ve been told to tone down my cynicism and shoot with more of a wink than a wallop. I try to sneak in some bum shots and wit. It’s a refreshing reminder of why I get up, go out and take pictures. Every day offers a different challenge, from the weather to the effects of the previous night’s imbibing. Ian Berry once commented that if your first encounter of a day’s shoot doesn’t go well, you might as well go back to bed. I concur. Fortunately everyone I meet is welcoming and I start the week on a high.
28th: Read Clive Booth’s dispatches in the September issue of Professional Photographer magazine; an account of a corporate commission embracing 12 countries. A photographer only reads of others’ success. This particular account hurts. I was in the final few being considered for the job. My understanding was the client thought my folio a little too risky. This is happening with more frequency than it was a few years ago. I resolve to produce a more corporate folio and start raking my archive for shots of pens, cufflinks and smiling office employees in suits.
30th I have an email remittance from News International, I’m to be paid for ‘England Uncensored’ – ‘payment due date 31 August’. Made it by the frame of a film. Off to Perpignan for one last hurrah. All aboard! Then I read in brackets underneath, ‘payment should be received within eight working days of the payment due date’.
A version of this first appeared in the October 2010 issue of Professional Photographer Magazine