The message I missed in 1980 that could have made all the difference.

My reading of Michael Freeman’s book, The Photographers Story, made me revisit one of his earlier books I bought in 1980 called “The 35 mm Handbook” (Freeman, 1980). As I paged through it, and obviously due to the reticular nature of the mind I picked up a section pertaining to the Professional practice and assignments. This was a year before I started with my Higher Diploma in Electrical Engineering (Electronics). If I read this with the mindset I have today, I would have taken a completely different path. I share this with those that don’t yet realise the importance of this semester being able to shape your future.

Freeman on Assignments

Speaking about assignments, Freeman warns that “if you become a professional photographer you will face a special problem. You will be relying on work commissioned by people for their own purposes. and you would be unlikely to be able to exercise much control over the assignments until you are well established in your particular style and area of photography (Freeman, 1980).”

Freeman offers an alternative or additive advice wrt. assignments. Idealistically one should “undertake only the assignments that will further the development of your style and technique, and work only for good art directors what will make the best use of your photography and from whom you can learn (Freeman, 1980.”

He further states that “as a rule, the most interesting assignments are interpretive, relying on the individual photographers’ skill and judgement to succeed. … combining interesting and demanding work, personal prestige and high fees. (Freeman, 1980).”

It all comes with a caveat. “It is unreasonable to expect the art director responsible for the commission to assign inexperienced photographers with no track record. By nature, interpretive photography is always something of a risk for an art director picture editor- and they rely quite heavily on the photographer to deliver far beyond the briefing. New photographers will mostly be assigned work that can be more rigidly determined from the start or come from a client who cannot afford the higher fees demanded by photographers with strong reputations (Freeman, 1980).” “

In the end, Freeman concedes that compromise is inevitable unless you abandon the commercial role, concentrate self-assigned commissions (Personal projects) and support yourself through other means.

He states that as a professional photographer, “you need a constant flow of work, not only for financial support but also to keep your style and name in front of potential clients”

He warns that doing pedestrian work will at best, dull the edge of your perception, and can sometimes completely alter the direction of your photography away from more interesting and creative ideas.

He suggests a practical plan to “re-assess regularly both your creative development and the type of assignments you are receiving. Assuming your work and reputation continually improve, you may be able to discard those assignments that are limiting. As the fees you demand rises, you may have no choice but to break with those earlier clients who have fixed low budgets. If your reputation gets stronger and your working time is full, you will get increased control over the work you are offered. Freeman suggests that you use this control to improve the quality of assignments and clients you accept (Freeman, 1980).”

Finally, Freeman warns that “taking assignments with clients with low standards, may encourage you to think your work is better than it is (Freeman, 1980).”

My reflection.

What Michael Freeman suggested in 1980 and what Lydia Pang and Gem Thatcher recommend in 2019 is merely a reflection on approaches based on two contextual drivers, A growing vs contracting Professional Photography market, and our changing landscape or work environment. Supply and demand will always drive what you do in terms of assignments and how much you ask for your services. I believe a shrewd professional photographer regular asses this demand and adjust his/her strategy many times in their lifetime.

Number one in all strategies is to keep on providing authentic, unique eclectic work i.t.o. style and personal focus. Even if the demand reduces.

In a growing market where demand increase is selective of your assignments and increase your prices. Keep yourself current and busy with paid assignments, continuously improving, establishing your style and build your rapport and reputation with your customers. If you do it right there won’t be time for self-assigned assignments (personal projects). You will be in control in what you want to do overtime and be able to grow your personal style, prestige and salaries within the domain of these assignments

In a declining market when demand decreases, be slightly less selective about your assignments, adjust your fee to a realistic and appropriate level matching your skill to your market value at that time. As you may not get assignments that fit within the ideal category, You need to fill or make your ‘free time” available for doing personal assignments to develop yourself and rediscover new paths that you want to pursue. Do not forget that you may be able to collaborate with like-minded professionals and it may be possible to share in the costs and of course the benefits, financially and reputationally. Investigate whether the slump is due to a changing market or due to a general market recession. it may require you to realign your personal vision. All professionals need to continuously reevaluate, rediscover and reeducate themselves today. In my blog: Lydia Pang on Commissioning I discuss how she, as an art director, changed their strategy in a market where they can no longer afford rock stars. They decided to reach out to up and coming (inexperienced) low-cost professional photographers that align with their already determined viewpoint and purpose. this is a great opportunity for those that want to enter the market. For those that has been in the market for some time,will need to you need to lean less on your personal relationships within corporates, engage with the new generation of creatives within these corporates, see that you are current in terms of technology, deliver work and display their work on the new platforms these customers seek to employ for their outputs and learn to compete with this new generation of photographers. and finally, play down the “rock star” status…

As Freeman pointed out Art directors will still need to manage risk. They still would still seek “experienced” professional photographers with a proven capability, but maybe more prescriptive…hence the statement they will give assignments to photographers that share their style and vision.

Because the cost of doing personal projects have reduced due to the digital workflow and the ability to get to be seen by corporate customers, the option suggested by Freeman of doing self-funded assignments is a more worthy endeavour than ever in this recessionary times and changing the landscape. Those that hold true to there vision, will become the “rock stars” in the future when the demand for eclectic photography increase and money becomes more readily available. But professional photographers need to make sure their development and style and skills are developed to meet the ever-changing demand for their services. Being unique will always make you a scares resource but being in demand will get you assigned.

Just another thought, Like Lydia Pang and Gem Thatcher, you may seek to pursue an alternative role in the photography environment to either augment or replace your current role. Become an Art director, curator, Photo editor, producer, video blogger and/or art and photography teacher. Even consider doing work in video and filming. There is a convergence happening at the technology level and the industry is expecting the operator being able to do both. In this world, there are no “holy cows” and not even the need to label yourself as a photographer only. Rather label yourself as a creative working in the photography environment.


Freeman, M. (1980). The 35 mm handbook. 1st ed. London: New Burlington, p 286.

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