Thursday, 17 October 2013

Say Thank You: Ciara Leeming 's Dos and Don'ts

Kindness yesterday, politeness today. Who imagined photographers were such a lovely bunch. Well,that's the general idea of this series of posts; Be lovely and leave the shittiness to the shitty people.

Here is Luca Sage's original dos and don'ts and a great perspective from Anonymous that is a little different. Be lovely, be yourself!

Next up being lovely in the dos and don'ts series is Ciara Leeming. The pictures are from her Roma Project.

As a still relatively new photographer, my experience so far is largely in personal documentary projects. I work in editorial with another hat on – as a freelance newspaper and magazine journalist – and consequently my dealings so far have tended to be with commissioning editors rather than photo editors, of whom I still know very few.

Do look in your own metaphorical backyard for stories. I started on local newspapers but always hoped to work internationally. Sudden redundancy after just two years left me freelance and having to fund all my own work. It costs money to report well from abroad and for many of us in the lower echelons of the industry it would be struggle to pay fixers and other such costs for personal projects. 

This, combined with the frustration of parachuting into situations I understood little on the few foreign jobs I have done, led me to make a conscious choice to find projects on my own beat – on which I can work more slowly. This doesn’t mean you have to be parochial. My work with Roma migrants began a few streets away from my home in Manchester and yet it’s a big international issue. 

Do follow your nose. I believe a journalist’s job is to focus on what they think matters, irrespective of whether or not the masses – or indeed the mainstream media – are interested. I happen to cover issues which are quite niche anyway and my approach is often uncommercial, but I’m happy to do it anyway. 

I’ve covered urban regeneration in the north since 2006 and travelled all over the region to gather audio interviews from more than 30 residents fighting to keep their homes, work which I largely disseminated myself online. I just think it’s important and that is my job – whether anyone else cares or not.

Do find subjects which fascinate you. If you want to work on longer-term projects you need to look for stories you can fall in love with – this passion will shine through to all who see the work.

Don’t worry about making it pay. Of course we all have to make a living, but some work can become a loss leader. My Roma work began as a self-funded MA project produced on a shoestring with the main investment being lots of my time, but it has led directly to other funding and work. 

I successfully applied for an Arts Council grant and a Side Gallery commission off the back of it and The Big Issue in the North’s sister charity sponsored a print run the Blurb book I produced. This in turn brought me a visiting lecturer’s position at a local uni, and led to workshops and talks at various other colleges and universities. I was also employed to lead a participatory project and am working with a new NGO client after they saw this work. This is what I mean about passion for a subject shining through.

Don’t be afraid to get close. Over the past few years I have begun working quite collaboratively with participants in my Roma project, and initially I spent a lot of time worrying about journalistic integrity and whether I was crossing some invisible boundaries by becoming so emotionally invested in their lives. Now, however, I have come to see this as a strength. Yes I’m subjective but I’m also fair, balanced and open about my methods, and the resulting work is far stronger for it.     

Don’t give up when you feel down about your work. All documentary projects have their ups and downs – a friend and I have dubbed this the ‘project rollercoaster’. Everyone experiences doubts and frustrations and lows along the way – I think what sets some people apart is the ability to keep the faith, pick themselves up, find new ways forward and move on. 

Do live and work in the regions. Yes the media industry is based in London, and yes I know being there and knowing people can help freelancers find work and commissions. But there is also life outside the capital, and many stories which desperately need covering. I have lived in Manchester for 14 years and while my journalism career undoubtedly had a slower start than some of my London colleagues, being based here also has many advantages. My costs are much lower and I’m increasingly finding that newspapers and NGOs want locals for certain jobs.     

Don’t wait for the phone to ring. This may be different for editorial photographers but I have found that it’s rare for an editor to contact me with a commission brief. Perhaps it’s just the way I’ve constructed my own career but I have tended to work up my own stories – traveling to places, conducting interviews etc – and then sell the ideas in to newspapers and magazines. In journalism you are only as good as your current ideas, so get out and develop those ideas into something of your own. 

Don’t take it personally when you’re ignored. Editors still ignore me probably at least 85 per cent of the time. I found this very hard to take when I first went freelance as I am quite over-sensitive. Now I’ve learned that they do it to everyone – including often their own staff colleagues on the same publications. Don’t bombard people with repeat emails but do keep contacting them. In print journalism, I find that emails are generally preferred to phone calls. Be persistent but not too pushy.  

Do be polite. I go through phases where I receive a lot of emails from student journalists and photographers and because I know what it’s like to be ignored (see above) I always take the time to respond – and to respond thoughtfully. What infuriates me though is that perhaps nine out of ten of these people don’t even reply to say thank you, even when I’ve spent an hour or more answering their queries. This is not cool – manners and karma will get you far in this industry. 

Don’t worry about awards. I’m not convinced by this foible of the photography industry as I think it simply fosters ego and insecurity – I personally think people should focus on stories.

All pictures above are from  

and check out Ciara's collaborative book:

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