Photography isn't for me a career or a job, it's a life, and it was inevitable. When I was 8 years old, my parents gave me a Kodak Box Brownie for Christmas.
Within a few days I had taken this photograph which unaccountably turned out well. I have been chasing the same elation ever since. However the path from there to here turned out to meander around quite a lot.
I am self-educated, apart from a year of evening classes in Photojournalism at the London College of Printing. Since 1980 I have worked as a full-time freelance professional photographer. Before that, as a power press operator, computer operator/shift leader, colour lab technician, semi-skilled builder, van driver, partner in a removal company, playleader and youth worker. Plus a few jobs that defy description. I have the CV from hell, but getting it was illuminating.
Until digital came along I had a high level of darkroom skills - I started when I was 11 - especially with monochrome printing. I have been working with digital since c.1998, at first scanning film, later shooting digital as well. Probably because my first job after leaving school was working with mainframe computers for ICL I found the transition easy, and digital is a very much more powerful toolset especially for colour. Personally I couldn't wait to escape the limitations of transparency film, in particular.
From 1992-1999 I operated the best filmscanner review site on the internet, with 180,000 visitors through the doors. Unfortunately I forgot to make any money from this and it became unsustainable because of the amount of work involved. It did however lead me to devise a novel micropayment subscription model in partnership with an extremely brilliant programmer who shall be nameless because he lost interest once he'd run out of interesting technical puzzles.
I very rarely shoot film any more. It simply offers me very little that cannot be surpassed by digital techniques. The materials I really loved - those sensual B&W papers filled with environmentally noxious Cadmium, especially 1970's Agfa Record Rapid - are simply not available now.
Digital is however, if anything, more complex and less intuitive beneath the surface of auto-everything that comprises most laymens' experience. It seems to be a constant struggle to persuade some clients of this, that the electronic darkroom is as much part of the process as the chemical one was.
The downside of digital is the long hours sat at a screen and endless upgrading of software, hardware, cameras and knowledge. Working half the night in the dark with trays of chemicals is not something I miss. But any sort of serious engagement with digital imaging inevitably turns you into a geek as there are so many technologies to misbehave. Usually they do so on when I am on deadline. I don't have an IT department, I am the IT department. There goes another weekend...
I also admit to enthusiasm where the internet is concerned. I consider the web to be the single greatest evolutionary change in our lifetimes - as important a social transformation as the railways, roads and telephone. I was a relatively early adopter, using email, newsgroups and CIX conferencing since 1988, and building my first website in 1996. I have been involved with a number of web innovations that have crashed and burned whilst still on the runway. I am still involved with some projects that may yet fly. This site is built on Drupal, with Menalto Gallery 2 integrated for the private client library section. As you can see, it's a learning curve that has some way to go!
I also write: features for magazines, rants, opinion pieces, and these days, a great deal of web content. Sometimes I even get paid for this. Subject matter has usually been motorcycling or photography and the web, occasionally interviews,
I am one of the team of moderators of Editorial Photographers UK the mailing list and website for pro's to discuss business issues, and the web developer and administrator for EPUK spin-off sites CopyrightAction and PhotoRights. I am an NUJ member too.
The bottom line is that I am interested in almost everything, will read almost anything. Acquiring new skills and knowledge is a large part of what life is about. This either makes me a hopeless dilettante or Renaissance man, depending on how you feel. Photography is one of few areas where integration - of art & science, of intellect and intuition, of perception and practice - is a strength that appeals to me more than the narrowing specialisation of many pursuits. I sometimes wish I had engaged with it more seriously earlier in my life, but then I would not have had so much eclectic junk to bring to it.
So that's the background. My professional life has largely avoided specialisation. Everybody will tell you the way to market a career is to focus on a niche, become known for that and spend the rest of your days shooting the same 20 pictures. This definitely works commercially, but is at odds with what I love about photography. The challenge is to see every situation for its unique opportunities, not apply a formula with eyes closed. For me photography is a tool for exploring and communicating in ways that words cannot.
I am at heart a reportage photographer, but seldom a news photographer. I have rarely worked with newspapers, I lack the sharp elbows necessary and I prefer depth to drama. Magazines have been more suited to my strengths and interests. In parallel I have always worked for charities and housing associations, covering events, photographing people and the ways they live, for annual reports, brochures and PR distribution, and I also work for various corporate and PR clients.
What do I bring to an assignment? Sensitivity and respect for subjects, a sense of humour, and commitment to get the best creatively out of often unpredictable situations and unpromising conditions. I tend to work quickly and with minimum disruption. Thanks to my reportage roots and preference for available light I adapt my photography to the subject and situation rather than turning the location into a studio. I am not interested in exploiting people, and often work in areas where confidentiality and trust is a sine qua non. I expect to be self-directed and to be able to produce what clients want even if they don't exactly know.
One of the nicest things anyone said about me was Perry Neville, Design Director at Dennis Publishing, who intervened in an over-elaborated briefing an art editor was giving me. 'You don't art direct Tony Sleep!'. And he wasn't saying I was an awkward cuss who just wouldn't listen, simply that the art editor could trust me to deliver.