When I belatedly discovered photography several years ago, a book being consistently recommended as an essential component of my self-directed education was David Hurn and Bill Jay’s On Being a Photographer. Eager and anxious to make up for lost time, I acquired a copy and began devouring it as rapidly as possible. Upon reaching page 89 however, I distinctly remember being stopped in my tracks, forcing myself to repeatedly reread the text:
Examine the lives of people who have truly excelled in any of the arts – music, theatre, dance, sculpture – and they all have one characteristic in common: the capacity to commit themselves wholeheartedly to their chosen disciplines. They do it every day. No excuses.
The fact is that photographers at the highest level have committed themselves to continuous and dedicated practice. Fierce single-mindedness and self-motivation are essential. It is very, very rare to find a part-time photographer in the front ranks. This leads to an uncomfortable conclusion.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the very best photographers of the past and present – whether reportage photographers or artist-photographers – have been/are professionals.
Through professional photography (they) practice their craft on a continuous basis and, in so doing, become better at it.
Despite the obvious logic underpinning the argument, I found myself almost irrationally perturbed by that statement. Having just relocated from Australia to London and ensconced in a job that was both interesting and well-paying, I had no option or desire to abandon it all for the haphazard existence of a freelance photographer. So then, barely a year into photography, were my legs to be severed from beneath me before this grand new adventure had truly commenced? Was I doomed then to remain a weekend warrior, an effete dilettante spending more time talking about photography on the Internet than actually doing it?
In an attempt to avoid this fate, I knew that it was essential at my stage of development to photograph regularly somehow. After considerable to-ing and fro-ing, an accommodation was eventually reached, one that was more on my terms: I began bringing a camera along to work, photographing my surroundings. And as this project progressed and I slowly learned my craft, I became increasingly fascinated with other photographers who had been in a similar situation, those who had found themselves recording their own jobs:
For ten years, Michael Julius worked as an emergency medical technician in Putnam County, Florida. Over that time, his experiences coalesced into the body of work called Rescuing Putnam. He currently lives in Taiwan, teaching English with his wife Hannah.
My friend Michael David Murphy first introduced me to Julius’ work; I was immediately captivated and began a dialogue to find out more about the project. I began by asking him about Putnam County:
This community that I spent the last 10 years in is about as Southern as it gets (or as a nod to nearby China: ‘Southern with Florida Characteristics’). In a draft for a statement, Hannah and I constructed a setting that still feels true to me:
“The residence of Putnam County, North Florida sprawl across a rolling 827 square miles of sand, pocked with hundreds of small lakes, and tucked in tangly forests. They live in trailers and shacks, along webs of unpaved roads. Their automobiles tend to be permanently coated in sugar sand. This is the South of sweet tea and collard greens, Jesus and short, hard falls from salvation. At least, that is what I saw ten years ago when I arrived as a new paramedic. As a rookie I was characteristically gung-ho for getting caught-up in this tangle.”
Putnam County is listed as the 7th poorest county in the state of Florida. It’s what I heard often from administrators and officers in the rescue service but I never had any real facts. I just now confirmed it but these numbers are from the 2000 census. With the economy as it is I’m sure that it has worsened. In particular among those who have often found their way into my ambulance the means of living tends to be in the semi-skilled trades. Most of my former patients work in various manual labor jobs and many are basically self-employed. They do a roofing job on occasion, clear some land with a borrowed bush-hog, grind stumps or find their way to a construction crew to work for some shaky contractor. Money is always tight but they do the best that they can with what they have. I have on occasion given money to family members so that they could put enough gas in the work truck to pick up sick relatives from the hospital.
I then asked Michael why he began photographing his job:
I have been a photographer for most of my life…but never in any professional sense. It has long been my way to go live and just record things. Photography has always been, for me, a way to just be in the world. I have spent so long practicing this craft in such a specific way that it is basically impossible for me to have any kind of substantive or fulfilling life as a professional photographer. I actually ended up as a medic because I knew it was going to be an experience. I ended up in the woods in an ‘everyman’ place like Putnam County because I trusted in providence to deliver me to a place that would be interesting. Putnam County was the first rescue service to offer me a job.
I photographed my job on again and off again for 10 years. But there were times when I didn’t have anything particular on my mind, so it wasn’t any kind of organized intent. I also spent a couple of years during this time living in New York and working as a photographers’ assistant. I came back for the holidays when there was extra money to be made in overtime and in the summer when many people took their vacations.
One of the reasons I found ‘Rescuing Putnam’ so stimulating was that it was shorn of many of the dramatic and frankly hackneyed visual conventions associated with photojournalistic projects of a similar vein. To me, many of the photographs seemed almost exhausted, with the protagonist trapped in a bizarre dream world. I enquired about this:
When I first got into this line of work the opportunity to see something important, and more than just see – to participate, was probably my biggest motivation. I wanted an ‘essential’ experience. I wanted to help and I wanted to see life lived (then not) at the edges of our physical existence. Perhaps it sounds morbid but I wanted to be involved in a space that people pass through. My first fundamental and life-changing experience of this was a save early in my career. My partner and I were delayed by, of all things, a gray fox that ran in front of the ambulance, leaped into the woods then back again two more times. When we reached the residence, the patient’s wife was in the yard screaming, “He’s dead! He’s dead!” In the house we intubated this prone man. We were already familiar with him. He had chronic respiratory problems and a tendency to call us just before he would slip into respiratory failure. He was blue and his heart rate was slowing; however, our interventions were successful and his skin color improved. He began to regain consciousness, though it wasn’t until we were at the hospital that he really began to recover.
Beginning with that damn fox, what happened at that call changed me forever. My partner, the son of a Baptist minister, was steeped in this kind of peculiar Southern elemental experience, yet we both still get a little breathless when we recall that night. It was also the night in which I became a clinician. Watching his skin color change, which was at first subtle, then dramatic, gave me a new set of eyes. But something else happened. When I was intubating I had a very clear image of extending a hand to a man slipping down the steep slope of a hole. It’s real enough in my mind that it’s all wrapped up in my recollection as an actual part of that night. It was very moving and reminded me how important the work is. A few months later, he did finally fall in. He called too late. I will never forget him.
Statistically, this is a career that doesn’t lend itself to a lengthy service. The average career span for your basic garden-variety medic is 3-5 years. For me, the burnout was as much about the physical toll on the body as anything. Every three days I would essentially stay up all night. This, compounded by the repetitive aspect of the job, is exhausting. By repetitive I mean that I eventually realized that I was seeing the same people over and over. Some are actually sick though many are not, or at least not in an emergent sense. The skill-set to evaluate the needs of your sick and hurt patients eventually became a hindrance because I saw how so many of them were in fact not sick at all. It’s frustrating. Towards the end of my career I told a drug seeking patient, who had just finished performing a hilariously bad seizure, “You know, seizure patients usually urinate on themselves.” I wanted to see her piss herself. That’s pretty cynical.
We end up at the same houses. Houses full of thieves and alcoholics, with the same adolescent boys sitting on fence posts, or car hoods, or tossing footballs; and, when we arrive they pitch their thumbs, mumbling, “They’re in the back.” And in the back are the same old patients, face down in their vomit. It breaks my heart to see these boys conditioned to this. The very last patient of my career spit on me and said, “Clean that up, bitch”. It’s a river of misery and it goes on forever.
In the last couple of years I began to entertain the idea that what we do is often not so helpful. To the truly sick and injured we are a godsend, and to be involved in their care is something I can barely describe. It’s a euphoria. It’s a sense that you are involved in a seriously important part of life, and not just their life but life in its larger sense. We really do participate in that space that people pass through. It’s a privilege. To the rest, which is to say ‘most’ of my patients, I have often wondered whether we actually harm them by taking away a certain amount of self-reliance.
But please don’t confuse this with simple disenchantment. I am certainly not done with healthcare. When we return to the states I will continue my career as a nurse, and eventually, a Nurse Practitioner. I want to be involved with helping people help themselves. I may drive an ambulance to see myself through the schooling but only to transfer patients from facility to facility. I can’t serve as a medic the way that I did. I don’t want to go back down there.
‘Rescuing Putnam’ is a prime example of why I find insider photography so compelling. It doesn’t suffer from many of the constraints of ‘straight’ documentary work: there is no requirement for objectivity and seriousness, or to paint the subject in a respectful politically correct light. By very definition, the photographer cannot be an unbiased observer and instead is an active participant in the work. The gloves of detachment can be removed, to be replaced by stronger, often darker emotions.
The long-term immersion inherent in many such projects also often lends a different atmosphere and almost claustrophobic intimacy to the photographs. Unlike many traditional projects, it’s harder to take time out, to switch subjects or change locations if inspiration wanes. In many ways, the photographer is almost trapped, forced into creating something meaningful within a strictly defined combination of physical and temporal constraints.
The following works are some notable insider projects that I’m aware of:
Can you think of other good examples?
Corey Arnold spends half the year working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska.
Compare and contrast his work to the Magnum photographer Jean Gaumary’s seminal Pleine mer.
A NPR interview with Arnold can be found here.
A review by the Sydney Morning Herald can be found here.
John Pilson worked on weekend and night shifts for a Manhattan investment bank between 1994 and 2000.
Pilson’s photographs were published as the book Interregna.
A review by Jeff Ladd on 5B4 can be found here.
Juliana Beasley worked as an exotic dancer for eight years.
Beasley’s work became the book Lapdancer.
An interview with Beasley on the Modernist can be found here.
Chris Shaw spent ten years on the night shift in various London hotels.
Shaw’s experiences were published as the book Life as a Night Porter.
A review by Douglas Stockdale on The PhotoBook can be found here.
A review by Jeff Ladd on 5B4 can be found here.
Arnold Odermatt was a traffic policeman in Switzerland from 1948 to 1990.
A review by Frieze Magazine can be found here.
A review of Karambolage by Lensculture can be found here.
A review of On Duty by Jeff Ladd on 5B4 can be found here.
As for myself, between 2005 and 2007 I was employed at a multinational investment bank in the heart of London’s financial district, the Square Mile. A dense, organic maze of passageways and alleys interconnecting a series of distinctive, futuristic high-rises, it became to me the most visually stimulating area in the entire city. During a period of unprecedented financial prosperity and excess, there were distinctive, often surreal scenes to be chanced upon and I was soon photographing extensively both inside and outside of the workplace. So for two to four hours each weekday in good weather and bad, I found myself exploring and cataloguing every nook and cranny of this weirdly wonderful hive of capitalism.
In many ways, the work that constituted this project became my photographic education. I was able to shoot on a consistent basis and gradually teach myself some of the lessons required for conceiving and executing a long-term project. Ultimately this didn’t just assist in my development: it bought me the time to ascertain what I really wanted to photograph, to find out what I was best suited for. After eighteen months I left my job to travel and upon returning to London, there was no real appetite for resuming the project. By this stage I had already discovered other rainbows to chase.
More questions than answers
Do you agree with Hurn and Jay’s statement, especially in light the major challenges confronting the photography industry today? And if you have rejected the two traditionally ordained paths of commercial photography or academia, how do you manage to pursue your photographic projects? What kinds of concessions have you had to make?
I’ve known photographers talented enough to survive on not much more than the prize money provided by various awards. Others have had the resourcefulness to ferret out seemingly unrelated grants from the most obscure government and non-profit organisations. I met a young Frenchman in Spain who paid for his film by trading yen, dollars and euros on the foreign exchange market. And I know a surprisingly large number of individuals in London who don’t really need to work at all, thanks to inheritances and other fortuitous financial windfalls.
My approach has been to devote as much time as possible outside of my five days a week to photography. Concentrating on a small number of ambiguously defined projects, I’ve been able to avoid the necessity to spend an extended period of time in any one geographically specific location. By excising superfluous activities from my life (such as unwanted responsibilities, television, pool-side holidays and all daylight social engagements), I’ve been able to commit more than a hundred days a year to the actual act of making photographs.
Nevertheless, only time will tell if this is still one compromise too far and that David Hurn and Bill Jay were right after all. Or perhaps, as an old friend once confided in me, all that really matters is whatever particular delusion you’re labouring under, the one that convinces you to continue making photographs whenever and however that may be, consequences be damned.
All photographs in this article © Michael Julius, Corey Arnold, Andy Summers, John Pilson, Juliana Beasley, Chris Shaw, Arnold Odermatt and Hin Chua respectively.