Ten years as a freelancer is a milestone worth marking. Employed members of staff might earn some small recognition from bosses and colleagues, but freelancers often just have to slap their own backs. So here is an honest, slightly indulgent account of the last decade.
Ten years ago this month I was made redundant from my last full time employed role as communications manager of a telecoms firm in west London. One Friday afternoon I was taken to a meeting room by a slightly over-casual HR manager and told a ‘structural review’ was happening. My job was under discussion and redundancy was possible.
Cycling home that day I stopped around the halfway point, a short distance from Chiswick Bridge. Here I pondered the river as sweat trickled down my spine and endorphins fizzed, dramatising my self-pity, worry, rejection, failure, upset, panic.
This seminal career moment came in April 2009. I was 28 and had no idea what the future would hold. The next ten years were impossible to foresee, both professionally and personally, as I suppose the next ten years always are. Nonetheless, if I were to go back and tell 28 year-old me what this next decade would hold, it would seem unbelievable.
Boiled down, my 2009 options were: try to get another similar communications job with a similar telecoms firm in London, or try to go freelance. For a time I tried doing both, job-seeking and interviewing for positions I wasn’t sure I wanted.
There was encouragement down the freelance line, which probably isn’t unusual when people first go freelance. You are dangled hope by a contact who promises work, like a parent holding the reins of a toddler taking their first uncertain steps. You may be overdependent on a small number of clients for a while. As I was. Mine came from external contacts developed in my communications role at the telecoms firm.
But after a few years, as in full time employment, if there is no real sense of progress or development, you can grow frustrated. Modern enslavement to devices and reacting instantly to every single email, whatever the hour of the day, can leave you feeling anything but ‘free’. Home-life can easily be confused and infected with work-life.
On the personal front, after a year more in London I would return to Cardiff in mid 2010 and eventually meet someone (2012) who would become my wife (2015) and the mother to our child (2018). By getting a mortgage, I was finally able to accomplish a lifetime dream of getting a dog (both 2016).
From around 2012, I would slowly self-train as a photographer, integrating those services alongside communications services. I would make plenty of mistakes and take thousands of weak photographs. But I would learn.
From 2014, I would regularly shoot professional football: Premier League and International football matches in Wales – something 12-year old me would be incredibly excited about. Something 28 year-old me would be incredibly excited about. And something 33 year-old me actually was quite excited about, but tried to be professional and cool and not show it.
In 2017 I would shoot the UEFA Champions League Final in Cardiff between Real Madrid and Juventus, and one of the last Premier League matches to be played at my beloved White Hart Lane in Tottenham, London. I would shoot various sports including rugby, cricket, athletics, darts, speedway, extreme sailing, boxing and cycling.
But my heart would stay with football, despite its many rotten issues as a sport and industry. I would shoot for several photography agencies and for myself, seeing (or being aware of) images published in all the major UK newspapers.
From 2014 to 2016 there were periods of communications contract work for different Cardiff-based recruiters, as well as consultancy with another PR agency. This involved generating content and blogs, briefing and training staff, organising events, monitoring social media noise around a political issue, all while generating funds for photography equipment.
Careers these days have various pivots and deviations. The internet allows people to have side projects and rebrand, building new identities and diverse ‘portfolio careers’. It’s unwise to rule anything out, at any stage, particularly given the broader uncertainty of our times. That is, unless you are on the verge of retirement, and / or extremely wealthy.
You never know when old contacts from your network will surface, as they have on a few occasions. This has led to substantial writing projects for a couple of big universities extended over several months. The unpredictably stop-start, piecemeal nature of photography work means that writing and communications work is always welcome. It also helps to engage and exercise a different part of the brain.
A primary business area today is photographing events and conferences. That is, essentially, people talking. While it’s not obviously too dynamic as a photographic subject, there is something about it that appeals to my voyeuristic, outsidery and wordy nature.
Whatever the subject matter, you get a personal sense of individuals: their character, their way of talking, their vocabulary and language choices, their confidence and humour. Sometimes the subject flies way over my head, if it is deeply technical or specialist. Sometimes it can be insightful and educational. There is often life, energy and something interesting happening in a room full of people.
One of my personal favourites last year (2018) was a conference on children’s literature. As an avid modern fiction reader, an English Literature graduate, and a then expectant father, photographing these imaginative and witty people was brilliant fun. Also, the people involved were remarkably warm and friendly. You can often feel like a blank automaton, standing in rooms taking picture after picture. On that occasion I didn’t.
Cardiff streets were where I slowly learned photography, and it’s a branch that would remain attractive to me. In 2018 a publisher would ask me to produce a book of street photography about two districts of the city, Canton and Pontcanna. It sort of fell into my lap and I have no idea how it is selling further than my mum and a handful of contacts, but it sounds good.
(Sorry. Selling myself has never been a great strength). The book is mindblowingly amazing and you should buy a copy immediately).
I would continue to shoot conferences and events, editorial portraits, corporate headshots, a light sprinkling of weddings, student city guides in Cardiff and Swansea and other special commissions, as well as sport and local news.
Freelance life can be bumpy and I take nothing for granted. A particularly low point came in late 2013 after almost draining a savings account. I forced myself into a few weeks of Christmas-time work at a research call centre where I previously worked as a university student. Soon after, I secured communications consultancy work with a technology recruiter and was able to financially breathe again.
As a freelancer, you must carefully manage finances, squirrelling away funds when business is going well, in anticipation of quiet periods, and in anticipation of necessary investment in equipment and general business costs.
You are sort of obliged to say you are busy at all times for fear of looking unbusy, which is never a good look and often seems the most shameful thing in the world. But of course it is not good. Being unbusy and underemployed shares much with being unemployed. Esteem is forever fragile. Everyone has a mental health landscape.
You must try to hold your nerve, trust in your network, experiment, try out proactive business ideas, pitch for work, accept rejection, accept periods of bad luck, be open to new opportunities. Do not become gloomy and bitter about your peers online who appear to be doing so much better. Be careful with the amount of time you spend on social media, thinking it sacred, or ‘The Solution’. Do not invest too much meaning in the giddying metrics of likes and followers. Do not beat yourself up too badly.
But knowing what is best to do and actually doing it: two very different things. Freelance life can be charted in fluctuating levels of self-belief and optimism. There is a key requirement for mental toughness, reserves of resilience and perseverance.
Never knowing what lies ahead, or even just around the corner, is always a worry.
This can be a good thing and a bad thing. You can always feed yourself blind hope that something brilliant might suddenly happen. But the truth is that a lot of freelance life feels insecure, and you have to live with it. As a freelancer, you may have reduced capacity to financially forecast, budget and plan. That is, compared with someone who knows the precise sum of money that will land in their account each month: people I still regard with envy from time to time.
Having done it for ten years, having battled through, survived and developed: that offers me some blurry sort of blind faith and self-belief.
When begrudgingly speaking about my work, feeling self-conscious about not being more grown up, having a ‘proper job’ or grander ambition, I find myself rambling about ‘swings and roundabouts’. I have absolute independence, I am my own boss and my own harshest critic. My life offers fantastic freedom but comes with serious insecurities.
Such insecurities feel weightier as a new father. You have a sudden enormous incentive to provide as much as possible for this strange small being you love more than life itself.
What you receive from freelance life in one way, you sacrifice in another. I have a constant necessary obligation towards my inboxes, towards reading twitter in search of opportunities, towards knowing what is happening on my doorstep. The concept of weekends, annual leave or time off is hazy and difficult and laden with guilt.
Work-life balance is about compromise and what you choose to value, consciously or not. This can evolve or adapt throughout the course of a career and lifetime. But ultimately, we all just do the best we can. Swings and roundabouts.
Here’s to the next ten.
Please get in touch if you think we can work together, or if you just want to catch-up.
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