Photographers Theo McInnes and Chris Bethell have both been nominated for this year's Magnum Graduate Photographers Award. Here they share some wisdom.
Photographers and regular Huck contributors Theo McInnes and Chris Bethell have both been nominated for this year's Magnum Graduate Photographers Award. Here they share some wisdom on how to make it in the documentary photography world.
There’s no surefire way to make it as a photojournalist, no one-size-fits-all solution for beating out your path. In fact, with the internet changing the way publishers and publications operate, it can feel more daunting than ever to step out and to shoot.
But photojournalism is alive and kicking, and for young, emerging talent there are opportunities galore if you know where to look for them.
Chris Bethell and Theo McInnes are two young photographers charging headfirst onto the photojournalism scene, as regular Huck contributors and working for a host of other publications and clients too. They’ve both been nominated for this year’s prestigious Magnum Graduate Photographers Award, so we invited them into our office to share some advice about how to hustle when you’re starting out in the industry.
Chris Bethell: So, who are you, what did you study and when?
Theo McInnes: I’m Theo McInnes, I studied photojournalism documentary photography at London College of Communication from January 2015 to January 2016. What about you, Chris?
CB: I’m Chris Bethell, and we were on the same MA course. I’ve done a Foundation course and a BA too. What are you working on now?
TM: Didn’t ask for your life story, mate… Right now I’m doing a mixed bag, really. A lot of photojournalism, which is good. I do a lot of work for Huck – bits and bobs for VICE, bits and bobs for other publications too, as well as lots of boring shit that you have to do really to get the money and pay the rent. Yourself?
CB: I’d say lot of photojournalism, a lot of editorial work, I used to do a lot of events but less of that now.
TM: So, what’s your first bit of advice?
CB: Well, I think that when it comes to photography courses in the UK, you’re often told you’ll get a lot of industry contacts. Sometimes it’s true, but institutions put a lot of onus on the idea that they’ll set these relationships for you and get you into work. The reality is you have to do this yourself. It’ll be much better for you if you get the ball rolling solo while you’re still studying.
TM: For sure, being freelance can be difficult at times, and leaving university and having to start from stage one? It’ll take a while to find your feet. If you can do that while you’re still studying you’re going to have a big advantage. How did you prepare while at university for making it a full time profession?
CB: I was quite lucky in the respect that I completed my BA part-time, so that suddenly gave me a lot of extra time than you’d normally get in your third year. I spent that time contacting studios in Manchester and ended up working as a general assistant for a few places, and working on supermarket furniture shoots.
I guess that’s the best thing you can do while you’re still studying, even if you’re studying full-time. Doing just one day a week, even if it’s voluntary, not paid. I think it’s really beneficial to get in there, get the experience, to start learning in a work setting as well as on your course.
Here’s a tip to get into these places, actually: whenever I contact a new studio, I’ll offer to do a week of work and do the first three days for free. Every time I’ve said that, they’ve kept me on for the next two month slots.
TM: Yeah, when you’re starting out the free job is a key – when someone asks you to do a job for free, it’s never the most enticing offer in the world. But you need to think about it in terms of what you’re going to get out of it, more than just money. If all you’re focused on is getting money, then don’t become a photojournalist.
You have to think like, “This magazine is throwing me a bone, they’re letting me do a job for them.” Think about how that’s going to benefit your photography.
CB: You do have to evaluate that, though. Say, for instance, a huge client like Adidas was going to ask you to work for free or for minimal money, then that’s maybe setting a precedent for the rest of your career – one you’re never going to be able to hike up to a higher rate.
It’s good to build up your portfolio, and to do work for smaller magazines and publications, like you say, for exposure. But if it’s a bigger magazine with an actual budget, then even if you’re just starting out you should expect to be paid.
TM: Another really valuable thing to get out of university is the people you meet, not necessarily the people who you’re hoping to get a working relationship with – industry contacts or whatever – just other likeminded individuals who love photography as much as you do. It’s so great having friends like that who you can just bounce ideas off.
CB: Yeah, making sure that you still have a network of people who you can share, work and grow with once you leave. Grow that network. I always say to everyone, ‘Instead of going networking, try to make friends.’
If you go to a networking event and shove your work in someone’s face for an opinion, they might give you some feedback, but people will appreciate you and will maintain a longer relationship if you go up and just chat to them about what they’re doing, about this and that. Make it clear that you just want to learn from them and be friends with them, more of a mutual respect relationship. This is what’ll help you progress.
TM: Exactly, you will meet these people, you will make friends with these people, and you will start building this network. Naturally.
CB: Plus, photography events always have free beer or wine.
TM: Always go to the exhibitions for the free booze, if nothing else.
TM: Another thing that is key from university and throughout your career is just marketing yourself. Unlike Chris, I didn’t have a photography education when I applied for my MA course; I did a geography degree and only decided after finishing my undergrad that I was going to go into photography. When I started my MA they were like, “Oh, give us a link to your website.” And I was like, “Shit. A website? I need a website?” and of course you need a website.
Your website is your first point of contact, where industry professionals are going to see your work first. Instagram is another great tool that you have at your disposal to get your work out there.
CB: Instagram is really great for building your network of followers within the photography industry. It sounds really simplistic to say but Twitter is for writers, and it’s pretty much the best way of reaching out and finding that network of writers to contact and people to speak to. Then you can start pitching with writers, which helps.
TM: What’s your advice for photographers trying to get a commission at somewhere like Huck?
CB: Whether you want to work on editorial or in commercial photography, just make a list of all the places you like the work of, of the places you’d like your work to be seen in. It’s as simple as going through their websites and finding the right people to contact.
Check out their “about us” sections, or look inside the print issue. If you have no luck just head onto Linkedin, you’ll be able to fund the layout of the company emails from someone else. e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org – you can just follow that formula with the name you want. And then start emailing.
TM: And just keep at it! Making phone calls might be a thing of the past, but even if you don’t get a response, or you think it’s the best pitch in the world and they say no, don’t let it knock your confidence. Just keep sending emails and get on their radar. Soon you’ll have an idea that they like.
CB: Editors are really busy, and don’t often have time to reply. One of the good things is if you get a response and they say no, it means they’ve flagged it. If they criticise it, they’ve taken an interest; it’ll give you something to build upon.
TM: We touched on this earlier, but you can’t expect to be able to make a complete living straight away just being a photojournalist. Sure, if you’re lucky and talented it will happen, but when I first started my Masters I said to myself that I just wanted to do documentary photojournalism. But before long, you realise it’s not going to happen.
Do the nightclub jobs, shoot portraits for a corporate client. It’s money you can use to shoot projects you care about. The work you want to do in photojournalism can often cost a lot of money, and you won’t always get paid a lot for it.
CB: When it comes to portfolio reviews, evaluate which you want to do. Look carefully at who is reviewing. Are they voices you want to hear? Are they people you want to commission you?
Go into these situations not expecting to get work out of it, for them to publish your book. Make friends, start conversations.
TM: What do you reckon about competitions? There are so many…
CB: Competitions can be great and bad. If it’s a free one then you should always enter because why the hell not! The way I always decide on whether to enter a competition with an entry fee is by looking at the judges. The likelihood of winning a competition – even if you have really good work – is minimal, but the best thing you can get out of it is making sure a judge sees your work. You know it’s going in front of them, and when you contact them after they’ve seen your work they’ll hopefully remember.
TM: Yes be selective, but pay the £30 if there’s an editor you want to see your work.
CB: Check out the Disphotic blog. There’s a list of loads of competitions available – free and paid for – that Lewis Bush has found.
TM: How did you get your first job at Vice?
CB: In keeping with the whole ‘send your work out always’, what sparked my whole career was one email. I’d been going to Leeds Festival for about seven years, so I sent an email to the photo desk at VICE asking whether I could get a free photo pass to Leeds the next year. ‘Here’s some pictures of me and my mates dicking about from last year.’
I sent it off not expecting much, and got an email back saying no. But they said they liked my photography and asked if I could shoot something else for them instead.
Everything I’ve ever done in my career has really come from that one silly email. Just send it out, you don’t know what will come from it.
TM: Exactly. Sometimes it can feel one step forward, two steps back, but enjoy it and fucking keep at it. Keep taking pictures. If it’s ever a chore, then don’t bother. Go and do something else.