So what are you going to do with that PhD?

Are you going to change careers?

What does a photographer need a PhD for?

The question may be structured differently and have various guises each time it is posed but if I had a dollar for every time that somebody has recently asked me whether I am going to change careers now that I have been awarded a PhD then I wouldn’t need to change careers, I could retire on those dollars instead.

Joking and hyperbole aside, this is THE BIG QUESTION that I am not only being asked by others but I am honestly asking myself.  However, this is not a question that I have just started asking myself now that I have finished the doctorate but this began over a year ago as I became more and more aware of that finishing line drawing ever closer.

To frame this question with some context then it’s worth saying that I started lecturing at universities in the UK shortly after completing my Masters degree at the University of Oxford. I continued this career path when I returned home to Hong Kong with a position at the University of Hong Kong. This comfortable career progression took a turn and had to ride some turbulence when I decided to take the rather risky step of leaving my secure lecturing position in 2013 to give it a shot as a photographer.

At the time of leaving my university position, the PhD was already in the mix and had begun back in 2011 with the intention of making my career secure. However, the seemingly illogical plunge into photography meant that the PhD had lost it’s career currency and resulted in being one of the hardest feats of endurance I have ever encountered as I dug deep to complete it.  Walking onto that stage on December 11th 2018  at the University of Manchester to shake the Chancellor’s hand and then be awarded my doctorate in Criminology from the School of Law was an emotional experience after many years of hard grafting, sacrifice and the daily self-questioning that went along the lines of: why on earth do you need to keep on doing this when it may end up being no use?

So, now that I have completed the doctorate, would I return to academia for financial reasons? Well, photographers rarely talk about how much money they make but I suspect that I have done relatively well on a financial level when considering the kind of work I have done and have progressively steered away from just shooting events over the past two years. Events are difficult for photographers to scrape enough money from to pay the bills if that is all they rely on for income. I realised quite quickly that it was not sustainable to rely on shooting races & events to pay the bills. Instead I have taken on more commercial assignments (which is where the real money is for photographers) with clients like Patagonia, National Geographic, Lululemon, The North Face and Scott commissioning me to shoot assignments for them.  This deliberate move away from mainly shooting events was not only a financial consideration but a creative one as well as there are only so many races and events you can shoot before you start to get stale and tempted to take the easy route and work to a formula.  I enjoy collaborating with clients and bouncing ideas around, working from mood boards and briefs to then go and test my skills in capturing the images that will fulfil commercial objectives.

Collaboration – Working with The North Face on an ad campaign in 2017

In this setting, the pressure can be intense to deliver top notch images and fulfil a brief for a brand that sets the bar high. But I enjoy testing myself like this and these challenges have resulted in a step into commissioned commercial photography and away from solely relying on shooting events. In addition, I have also found a way to blend my enjoyment of teaching with photography by setting up photography workshops. To date, I have delivered around a dozen of these and recently held one in Hong Kong during December 2018.

learn photography hong kong

Suffice to say that leaving academia for photography back in 2013 was not a financial move. I definitely would have made much more money as an academic than running around mountains shooting images.  It was a move simply inspired by wanting to do something my heart was into rather than just making money.  I didn’t want to live in regret and one day wonder “what if?”  However, I won’t shy away from being uncomfortably candid and say that there have been times when I have been saddened by the dishonesty and the squeezing of photographers that I have experienced within racing events.  On the whole, I have mainly had great experiences and made good friends among the clients and athletes I have worked with, but in all honesty, there are some race organisers who do not harbour fluffy intentions of bettering the trail or ultra running community despite catchy social media postings and buying in of big name athletes for their races.  They are simply in the business to make money at all costs.  And if that means shafting a few folk along the way, including photographers like me and others to make sure those margins are healthy, then so be it.

I know this level of candidness is not popular in a fairly positive community and it’s not my style to name and identify these kind of set ups in a public way, but as somebody who has worked closely with events around the world and aware of how the business works with the majority of brilliant race organisers with great intentions then all I will say is that for the few cases when I have worked out that folk are dishonest and okay with shafting people, then I walk.  You will not see the names of any of those who work this way on my client page as I do not want to be associated with that style of business. One important lesson that I have learnt is:

who you work with is more important than the work that you do‘.

This principle has guided me and eventually brought dividends to my work and I have made good friendships with a whole load of people and on the whole I have avoided the seduction of easy money with questionable company.

Good times on Mt Kinabalu
Going for a run with Mira during a break in filming

I dearly enjoy capturing images.  It unlocks something deep within me. However, I have a dilemma as family responsibilities pull hard. Very hard. This is beyond a career consideration as family responsibility supersedes anything else. I know I don’t look old enough 😉 but my daughter Anya is preparing to go to university. She is bright and capable of securing a place at a top university.  As a dad, I want nothing more than to make sure that my daughter has the opportunity to fulfil her potential. Although gifted in photography, Anya wants to take another route and study psychology.

Anya

Until October 2018, I was never able to work completely full-time since I left my lecturing position. This has been due to PhD responsibilities and has resulted in limited income over these years. However, it’s fair to say that even with a full time photographer’s income then it is still likely to fall short of meeting what a UK university charges for tuition fees nowadays.

To add further food for thought, I have recently done a whirlwind two week tour of UK universities to present my doctoral research and to screen Nepalese Drug Users in Hong Kong at Kings College London, University of York, University of West London and both universities in Manchester which was then followed by an invitation to present this research at the International Forum on Visual Anthropology that was held at Yunnan University in China. This final one was the most nerve wracking of the lot as I had to present and hold a Q & A session entirely in Mandarin with a university hall full of Chinese academics. I was bricking it.  Although I speak Mandarin, I am not used to using ‘academic mandarin’ where I need to draw on research theory and methodology terms in Chinese. It certainly gave me a reality check and taste of what it would be like to return to academia.

Setting up ready to present my research at Yunnan University (Dec 2018)

So, what have I decided to do? Am I going to walk away from the unpredictable work of freelance filming & photography to secure a stable, well paid job in academia? Well, I have not 100% decided either way. I am exploring possibilities with both options but I have not committed myself beyond filming the upcoming HK100 race in January 2019 followed by filming the 4 Trails Ultra Challenge in February 2019 and then wrapping up ‘Rungkopi‘, the film I have been making about the people who call Kinabalu home.  After these commitments, I genuinely cannot say for sure right now whether I will still be working on a mountain or be found in a university lecturing hall. But whatever is finally decided, I will continue to use cameras as my exploration tool whether the world I am exploring is for academic research purposes or to capture narratives for a client on a mountainside. Wherever I end up, you can also be sure that it will be shaped by the overriding recognition that family responsibility supersedes all else and that I intend to enjoy the journey with good company.

Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas. Watch this space…