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.

Unearthing the Photo Essay

1- The Narrative

Reflecting on my reading of Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s [Story] (Freeman, 2012)

Cover of the Photographer’s story (Andre Nagel, 2019)


In my Work in Progress Portfolio submission for Position and Practice, I perceived a need to take a deeper look at how I need to present my work that it is less repetitive and more engaging. I identified this work by Michel Freeman as a good base to start from before engaging in deep research about the subject. I found a small Gold Mine…


” The camera is only one tool for telling a story” for us, this is our prime interest. This means that as photographers we need to understand the fundamentals of story telling. regardless whether it is  “written or spoken words, theatre film or still images, paintings or a cave wall.”

Freeman defines narrative as ” telling an account of something: how it happened.” He describes in some detail how photography was caught up in narrative since its inception and how the technology development made this more possible through time. Photographs replaced drawings in newspapers and came with a heightened perception of truth. He adds: “it took approximately a century in the form of digital manipulation, to take photography back to the very thing is was to replace!”

Technology such as smaller format cameras, the sprocket film and high-speed lenses with low light capabilities., faster film enabled photojournalism.

But it was not only the technology that drove this: “The camera and 35 mm camera came of age in Europe at the time of social and political upheaval” Photography also synced well with the “liberalism idealism in arts of the democratic and socialist movement in that time. It is not surprising that it led to politically inspired documentary photography seeking to challenge war and social injustice. It also aligned well with modernism that “rejected tradition and the decorative, instead of embracing abstraction and, clean lines, functionality and even mass production” it slowed for a new era, capturing scenes from life and art with spontaneity and conscious realism.

He then proceeds to introduce the classic story structure from literature and screenwriting to set the scene for his exploration of the narrative in Photo-journalistic and documentary photography. He uses three photo stories or essays to illustrate how uses the narrative in photography in his practice. (Freeman, 2012)

The classic Narrative formula (Freeman, 2012, p13)


I believe Freeman has a very clear understanding of the world he saw photography development and his analysis is spot on. His books have been a tutor in my life since the 80’s when I purchased his 35mm Handbook where he while, teaching me the basics of using my camera, introduced me to the professional world.

In this book, he impressed me by how he described the natural alignment and convergence of journalism, photography and it associated technology advancements and the socio-political environment and how photography was able to serve the need of that era which continuous to date.

The narrative approach did three things for me. 1) It gave me a language to describe the purpose of photographs shot in a series. 2) It redirected me and removed the pressure of having to take key photographs all the time opening a world of opportunities. Not all of the photographs in a story need a Barthesian Punctum. A minor photograph may be used to establish the background, open the photographic essay with with a dramatic opening and buildup towards a key photograph that as an climax presentation of the punctum, and end of with a closing photograph leaving you to ponder the series as a whole 3) It allows me to assess how I can approach the way I present the photographs in an order that will reduce repetition and introduce rhythm and pace in terms of composition, angle and point of view, subject type, colour and impact and other visual factors. 4) It enables me to curate my photographs not merely on an intrinsic level but also its contextual importance in a series of photographs.

Of course, a photographic story can be told in one photograph, a small group, what Freeman calls a 3+1 combination, for magazines or a photo essay of 200-300 photographs in the form of a published book. But the ideal narrative form needs at least some a setup, a buildup, a climax and a close to be effective, whether as elements in a photograph or a series of photographs. I will be exploring this in my project work.

The contemporary practise of wedding photography is progressively adopting the story/ narrative approach in the renewed interest in high quality published albums. Some Master wedding photographers such as Roco Ancora, Joe Buisink and Yervant has adopted it within their style. The photo album or presentation is no longer a collection of photographs but a published essay on the most important day in the life of a young couple.

I did a stint in doing wedding videography which informed my photography practice in a major way. When my wife and I curated the thousands of photographs and needed to cull the photographs to about 300 for an album we intuitively broke up the day into chapters with each building up and leading into the next. Our climax was mainly the post-wedding Romantic shoot and we always looked for a “show stopper that will end of the Album. The wedding narrative is generally set but I never considered using the story approach in my personal documentary work until now.

Freeman, as a seasoned travel and documentary photographer has a large repertoire and years of practical skills and is prepared to share his skill in such a simple, pragmatic and delightful way.

Reading this book during week 3, where we discussed the tension between Art and Commercial work and how art is also commercial work, I was continuously seeing how for Freeman’s commercial work, event reportage and essays, is an art form. and it is the narrative within his work that elevates it in the traditional definition of art.

In conclusion,

I have come to realise the huge impact of how understanding narrative and its value within my photographic practice. Photojournalism and Documentary photography has always been underpinned with some form of narrative. For the photographer, the prime objective is the visual narrative, making it an integral tool in the arsenal of a photographer. And if this fails either personally add a literary narrative or collaborate with someone to add it. This has been the practice in many photographic essays I have read.


Freeman, M. (2012). The photographer’s story. Lewes: Ilex, pp.8-39.