It wasn’t until I was stuck in an airport in Doha, Qatar in 2012 that I realized that any illusion I had about being an emerging creative person had been shattered. It was the time I noticed the bottom had fallen out of traditional freelancing work, and it was time to reflect on the new demographic of freelancing creatives I had unwittingly been cast amongst. Charles Webb’s piece on his horrifying 2013 reminded me of the daily reality of being an under-employed, over-qualified, over-educated, and broke freelancer. I learned the club was large and non-exclusive and membership was seemingly handed out along with any creative bachelorette.
In the Doha airport, I met a young photographer who had been working for a large UK newspaper covering the war in Iraq. He was heading home from the Mid-east for good. Traditionally, news outlets would send their own staff photographers to cover wars, set them up with press passes, a place to stay, something to eat, and some form of vague security protection in the form of a Peace Corps or UN escort. The days of wearing a helmet with the word “PRESS” in white paint on it are, according to this photographer, long gone. Instead we are seeing more and more freelance photographers entering war zones hoping to sell single images to news outlets. The photographer I spoke to flew from Istanbul to Baghdad and used Twitter to find “where the shots where,” this pun, I believe, was darkly intentional.
In a climate where television outlets post videos uploaded by witnesses (not journalists) on the scene, it’s obvious that newspapers have stopped sending staff and started picking up on YouTube clips in the vein of reporting we saw from the Arab Spring. This leaves people like the photographer incredibly vulnerable, and it wasn’t long before he picked up a gun while he was out shooting, before joining a unit of soldiers for protection. Apart from the obvious ethical issues surrounding journalists being armed and joining soldiers in the field, it also means that without media backing, these photographers aren’t getting paid until they email their photographs from an Internet cafe in a war-torn country to an editor in another continent and invoicing them. And if the editor doesn’t like or need the photo that day, these photographers don’t get paid. And they essentially risk their life for nothing. While this is an extreme example of the bottom falling out of freelancing jobs, it’s simply one of millions of jobs that have been desecrated beyond recognition in a market flooded with creative workers ready to work. This is just one story. It was just one guy in one airport.
This photographer along with nearly every creative freelancer I know is now part of an entire generation of over-educated post-graduates who are over-worked and under-paid. A demographic working 4, 5, or 6 jobs just to pay the bills. Vast masses of the modern Western population are finding themselves with an under-employed surplus of labor. If you’re under 35 and a “creative” professional, or a “creative” anything, you’re part of this demographic. You probably know one — they have a stunning portfolio, a sleek personal website, have a reputation as being good and fast, and have a two page CV to match. They’ve moved to bigger cities and have their own community of creatives, and they’re working 6 different small jobs to live with three other people. They’re 30, broke, and working like dogs.
Some artists I know have blamed the spread of information technologies for this phenomena, but blaming “the Internet” or “globalization” is far too simplistic. Young artists, designers, illustrators, curators, and creative beings are being forced to bend to free market expansions of the new art world buzz word “creative industries.” I don’t have an answer as to why we’ve ended up with a no man’s land for creative freelancers, I think the answer is disparate and complex, but here are some ideas: We have too many art school graduates flooding the market. This has lead to overall low-paying jobs for art school grads, with some of the highest rates of personal debt belonging to ex-art students. This makes the market incredibly competitive so jobs are hard to come by. Not to mention that media outlets don’t pay for content as much as they used to, if at all.
This employment drought has had some strange effects on creative workers.
It was the late Aaron Swartz who said the revolution will be A/B tested, and he was spot on. In such a high-stakes industry with cut-throat competitiveness for even the smallest jobs, it’s no surprise that every form of creativity can be analyzed or monitored, and the potentiality for improvement identified and rectified at lightning speeds. A by-product of this is emerging creatives constantly commodifying and marketing themselves, and their creations. While this isn’t a bad thing, it’s the urgency with which they are encouraged to embrace enterprise culture that I think is at the heart of the issue.
Creative industries and enterprise culture propagates the commodification of everything you make — which forces an idiosyncratic kind of creativity. Artists are forever retraining, re-applying, up-skilling, and cross-checking their own commodities and skills at their own expense (and most commonly, their own signiﬁcant debt). With this constant frenzy to up- skill and sell oneself comes the pressure to be constantly “thinking outside the box” as a creative person.
Every artist I know is frantically teaching themselves to become this “jack of all trades” that Charles mentioned. Everyone is a photographer now, everyone knows the Adobe suite, they are their own editor, their own curator. We’ve ended up with an entire generation of art school graduates who are in significant debt, who never stop training themselves. You know there’s that joke “art school is a great business investment, if you own the school.”
Artists being broke and unemployed certainly isn’t a new concept. But this urgency at which emerging creative freelancers are expected to be available at all times for a labor transaction is new. Day, night, or vacation — the new climate of creative freelancing calls for job-searching. There is a vice in being the guinea pig generation that constantly generates content for an unidentified audience for no money.
The pressure placed on emerging creatives continues to propel the urgency placed on the copying, printing, distributing, uploading, seeding, making, and sharing of images and information which has become a normality of creative life and production. This is perhaps the key to understanding the available-at-all-times labor transactions and the non-position of creative workers. It’s a trap that’s unique and speciﬁc to the cultural and economic epoch of our lifetime. It’s a bleak reality for creative freelancers in an ever-precarious atmosphere, and increasingly presents itself as an exhausting, tumultuous path to take.
I don’t have the answer to what is essentially a labor crisis for freelancers. Everything is pretty grim and more and more recent graduates are being exploited. Payment for creative work is coming in the form of symbolic capital such as letters of recommendation, products, and merchandise or tickets to events. I don’t know what will become of “the intern generation” but it will be interesting to not only watch it unfold, but live it out. There’s some definitive trends and things that have happened as a direct result of this such as the popularity of websites like Behance, Dribble, and (ahem) Redbubble giving independent workers a chance to market and promote themselves in a faster way. Less jobs at ad agencies and design firms and traditional creative roles means more and more artists starting their own small businesses and going solo in the hope of making their brand, their identity a feasible future for themselves. Perhaps we will all end up better, faster, and wiser for it.
I spoke to the photographer on the phone a few months ago. The line was bad. He was heading to Germany to do some short term contract work for a newspaper in Frankfurt and he tells me he thinks things will get better for him and the other journalists. I asked him why. Because the economy is “on the up” again, he said, because things have to change eventually. It’s a silent wish we hold onto down the phone line.