You won’t be shocked to read that when I tell people I’m a freelance photographer, a single parent of two (one of whom has special needs) and that I live over the other side of the world to my family, the general response is that people think I’m either bat shit crazy, or very brave. I think I’m probably a bit of both.
Being a photographer is a little different to other more desk-based, creative freelance careers. My work takes me all over the country and sometimes out of it. My clients dictate my shooting hours (the sun also does some of that too) so if it’s a 9am start in Wiltshire, then I do whatever I have to do to make that possible. Once I’ve been booked I would literally have to be in a hospital bed or dead to not turn up to work. With often a large amount of money riding on the day — locations, stylists, prop hire, print deadlines — there is no calling in sick once a commitment has been made. Some weeks I might need to shoot a lot, other weeks not at all. Not exactly the most amazing conditions to be working under with two small children and no other parent in the house.
My clients dictate my shooting hours so if it’s a 9am start in Wiltshire, then I do whatever I have to do to make that possible.
My first year as a mother was pretty blissful. Unlike my new mum friends, I had no decisions to make regarding work other than asking myself if I was working as little or as much as I’d like. Most of my friends faced an all-or-nothing scenario, with many of them dreading the idea of going back part-time (for fear of still having to complete similar levels of work, in less time and for much less money). Childcare was tricky of course. Shooting two days one week and nothing the next does not make for a stable income. We muddled though the first two years with a combination of ad hoc babysitters, his dad and myself all pitching in. Messy, but workable.
6 years, another child, an autism diagnosis and a separation later, things continue on in a messy, imperfect way. Looking back, I’m actually very glad I didn’t know the difficulties I would face as a parent. Who the hell would do it otherwise? The nannies who have quit due to illness and difficulty dealing with my son’s high needs. The sheer amount of time I have spent crunching numbers and on the phone to the Tax Credit office (a system designed purely for PAYE employees it seems), and the nights spent crossing my fingers that the cash flow situation doesn’t completely seize up. Not to mention of course, maintaining good communication with my children’s dad, who has his own freelance career to juggle.
I’ve had good years and bad years with my work. Lucrative but slightly dull years, cash poor but creatively inspiring years. On my own I’m learning to budget better, to cut back to the necessary, to simplify. A lot of what I’m learning is that once we rid ourselves of any ideas about how things should be done, or how my children’s lives should look, then we can focus on all the wonderful things we do have.
I’m learning that once we rid ourselves of any ideas about how things should be done, or how my children’s lives should look, then we can focus on all the wonderful things we do have.
We have time together. We have a home. We have great neighbours and local friends. I have work that I get excited about going to and that changes daily. I am constantly in contact with other inspiring creative entrepreneurs, whether I’m shooting their houses or sitting next to them in my co-working space. I can walk, cycle or train to my office, or I can skip my office all together and work at my kitchen table. I see the countryside and get invited into people’s homes. They tell me stories about their lives and their objects. I get paid to look at light and beauty and create something two dimensional out of a living, breathing space. I am extremely privileged to do what I do.
So is it worth the begging of favours, the near constant stress of making ends meet, the desperate call around to find last minute childcare when someone is sick and I have a shoot to be at? Yes.
It’s worth it because we have a life we don’t need a holiday from. We have a life where, although I can’t be there every single day after school, I can be there a hell of a lot. I don’t need permission from anyone when I know I need to slow down. When I’ve had one too many bad nights in a row with my non-sleeper and just need to nap before I finish a deadline. When I’ve had a busy few weeks and I just say enough and take a few days off. I have the kind of life where I’m not just looking forward to the weekends, or the next trip (although those are nice too). It might not be a life for the feint hearted but I can’t imagine living any other way.
Photograph by Penny Wincer.