Ten Years Composed

Ten years as a freelancer is a milestone worth marking. Employed members of staff might earn some small recognition from their 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, upset, rejection, failure, 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 is. Nonetheless, if I were to go back and tell 28 year-old me what this next decade would hold, it would seem unbelievable.

Early freelance life

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 to do 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 when a toddler takes their first uncertain steps. You may be over-dependent 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. Our 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 if there is too little division.

Personal development

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 (2016).

Becoming a photographer

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 incredibly excited about.

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, and see images published in all the major UK newspapers.

Staying a comms person

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 Britain-wide 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 such writing and communications work is always welcome. It also helps to engage and exercise a different part of the brain.

Photographing events and streets

A primary business area today is photographing events, conferences, 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 always life, energy and something interesting happening in a room full of people.

cardiffeventphoto

One of my personal favourites last year was a conference on children’s literacy. As an avid modern fiction reader, an English Literature graduate and as 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 on two districts of the city. 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.

(It is mindblowingly amazing and you should buy a copy immediately).

book-flyer

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.

Coping with quiet

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 an undergraduate. Soon after I secured communications consultancy work with a tech 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 of necessary investment in equipment.

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. 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 the best things to do and actually doing them are extremely 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.

Swings and roundabouts

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 along. But the truth is that work rarely feels secure 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 look at with envy from time to time.

Having done it for ten years, having battled through, survived and grown: 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, 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 but ultimately, we all do the best we can. Swings and roundabouts.

Here’s to the next ten.

MH
201904

Please get in touch if you think we can work together, or if you just want to catch-up.

Vero – a new social media truth?

Vero keeps popping up in my social media feeds at the moment, specifically Instagram. It seems a large volume of users have started using the new social media app and are encouraging others to give it a try.

Seductively slick and stylish in design, it appears that Vero has a key feature of allowing you to arrange your contacts by your genuine figurative proximity to users. That is, whether they are a close friend or family, or a loose acquaintance. Then you can broadcast or narrowcast updates accordingly.

Continue reading

Power Off – how a digital detox restores factory settings

“Let’s not turn our phones on tomorrow” I suggested to my wife at the weekend. She agreed and we spent Sunday without them.

As we travel further into this scary journey they call life, it feels like there’s a developing need for us to understand, control and tame our own brains. We might think we’re in control of it, that we power its processes and rhythms, and we decide how to communicate. But increasingly we’re not and we don’t. This is largely thanks to smartphones and all-pervasive technology.

Mental health is broadly gaining more recognition and understanding. From paranoid schizophrenia to regularly feeling sad about everything, it’s a vast spectrum and a deeply complex area. We all have a mental landscape of some sort, which influences how we communicate with the world personally and professionally. We all have personal moods and struggles. There are all sorts of ways we might address these: different types of therapy, hypnosis, reading self-help books. My view is that a key one concerns our relationship with technology and primarily our smartphone.

Continue reading

What That Follower Number Actually Means

We are defined and shaped by numbers. They are ascribed to us and created by us. Age, date of birth, height, weight, income, bank balance, spouses, children, date of death. Temporary or permanent, these digits are all ingredients of our identity. They affect how we are perceived by other people and how we perceive ourselves.

Today our obsession with numbers has taken on mind-bending dimensions thanks to the digital, data-driven age in which everything is measurable. If you have several digits next to the word Followers in a profile, you can be considered A Big Deal on the internet, a success.

For as long as social media has existed, an assumption has been made that bigger digits are ‘better’. The bigger your audience, the higher your recognition from friends and peers, the more popular you are, the greater your chances of success and being discovered, the better exposed your brand, the wider your network, the more likely you can monetise content through advertisers.

Continue reading

Still Doing Digital – Insights from Cardiff, March 2017

Over two days and two events last week I was given insight into future-thinking, digital integration in the arts and how new technologies will impact our lives.

On the first day I was commissioned to photograph a conference about Digital Innovation in the Arts. As a photographer you are concentrated on getting the best possible images of speakers and the environment, but you can collect nuggets of information here and there.  BBC-led afternoon sessions on VR were genuinely fascinating, and enjoyable to photograph.  While this tech might still be a considerable time away from mass market penetration, on a visceral level it remains really cool.

digital-cardiff-communications

Continue reading

Automation For The People

A Composed Communication blog on automation technology and the new Amazon Echo device.

Voice recognition is a key part of automation technologies which many knowledgeable tech-heads believe will drive human progress through the next part of this century. It’s said that automation is the big step to intelligently streamlining how we lead our lives.

automation-technology

The new Amazon Echo device.                                                                                © Composed Images

 

Continue reading

An Introduction To Edtech

Edtech – what’s this emerging technology space all about? An event in Cardiff city centre piqued my interest when it popped up in the Cardiff Start Facebook group, so I registered and went along.

What is Edtech?

Clearly the word Edtech appears to be a marriage of ed-ucation and tech-nology, but what really defines it?

Mark Hawkins / Composed Images.

© Composed Images.

Without doing any googling, it seems widely inclusive and rather vague, somewhat elastic. Couldn’t you argue that ALL technology is educational?

Is it about the organisational nuts and bolts of schools, colleges and universities? Is it about how the education itself is delivered?  Say you have an organisational solution which isn’t being applied in an educational environment currently, but could be. Hey presto, a little wiggling and that can suddenly become Edtech?

Continue reading

Buying Music In 2016

How buying the new Radiohead album briefly changed my music listening experience.

I hate list questions.  You know: ‘name your top five films, top ten books’ or whatever. But if you pointed a gun to my head and forced to name a favourite band, I’d have to say Radiohead.  (You might then decide to pull the trigger. Your call).

moon-shaped-pool-radiohead

Continue reading

Old Media: Time To Say Goodbye

There was a guilt-tinged sadness when I placed a bunch of books and CDs in plastic bags destined for charity shops a couple of weekends ago. 

It was like saying goodbye to old friends who’d brought me considerable pleasure during another time; a farewell to old media I was almost surgically attached to for a time.

Now though, the brutal unsentimental truth was that they held no use for me. Not even decorative, they sat neglected on a bottom shelf behind a row of DVDs, collecting dust.
Continue reading

2016 Turing Lecture – The Internet Of Me, You and Us

schukai-237As now seems to be an annual ritual, last week I headed over to the School of Engineering at Cardiff University for the annual BCS / IET Turing Lecture. This year was the turn of Robert Schukai MBE, Head of Applied Innovation at Thomson Reuters.

The 2016 Turing Lecture was entitled “The Internet of Me: It’s All About My Screens.” It promised a look at how smartphones have revolutionised life, and the information challenge of constantly processing so much data.

Continue reading