A freelancer’s nightmare

It all started with a twinge in the small of my back. The twinge became an ache and the ache became pain. A visit to the Doctor led to some prescription pain killers and a referral to a back-pain clinic two months into the future. Still working at full speed, I lost the feeling in the soles of my feet and had a few cramps. Every day it got a little worse and then, one Sunday morning, I couldn’t get out of bed without crying with the pain. We made our way to the accident & emergency department of the local hospital where an MRI scan confirmed that I was in trouble. They admitted me to hospital and just over a week later I had two operations on my spine.

The operations were three weeks ago today and, although I’m back home, I’m looking at several months before I can even start to think about working as a photographer. I’m on crutches, my rehabilitation is underway and it’s a struggle.

It has to be one of the worst fears of the freelancer – suffering some sort of injury or illness that keeps you from doing your work which in turn means a loss of income and knowing that your clients will have to look elsewhere for someone to provide the services that you have been providing.

All of this devastating news made me want to compose this rather different blog post and my advice comes in two parts:

  • What to do to avoid and prepare for a sudden, unplanned period of time off
  • What to do if it happens to you

The message has to be that it can happen to you. One minute you are buzzing around going from job to job and regularly burning the midnight oil to get those edits done, your cashflow is looking good and your clients keep coming back and the next you are laid up with an injury.

Getting yourself into a position that minimises the chances of it having a massive impact on you and your life isn’t necessarily easy but there are some major steps you can take.

  1. Understand that you are getting older.
  2. Get some savings behind you – enough to cover your bills for four to six months.
  3. Take out some loss of earnings insurance to cover your domestic bills if you are laid up for a long period.
  4. Avoid having too many credit and leasing commitments at any one time. It’s all too easy (and tax efficient) to have your car, your cameras and computers all on a leased or on contract hire.
  5. Keep fit and eat healthily.
  6. Don’t ignore niggling injuries and minor ailments.
  7. If you get an injury get it sorted properly and don’t rely on temporary relief or pain killers.
  8. Develop a network of colleagues that you trust to cover your clients if possible should you need them to.

If it does happen then you need to prioritise your full recovery – no matter how long that takes. It pays to make sure that the medical professionals that you are working with know that you are self-employed.

  1. Don’t panic.
  2. Be honest with your clients. Tell them what’s wrong (leaving out the gory details and avoiding making it an awkward ‘sob-story’) and let them know when they can expect to have you available again.
  3. Use the time to update your portfolio, your social media and your corporate image.
  4. Be prepared to shed some gear if you need to pay your bills.
  5. Don’t dive straight back in. Make sure that you are fit enough before you launch yourself back onto the market and then ease back into work.
  6. Make sure that you talk to friends, family, colleagues and even professional counsellors about what is going on.
  7. Don’t expect to win every single client back straight away. Be prepared to play the long-game and win them back over time.
  8. Look for alternative ways to make money. Could you maximise the revenues from your back catalogue? Can you use your expertise in ways that don’t require you to be at your physical, emotional or professional peak?

Having to make those phone calls letting clients that had already booked work know that you aren’t going to be able to fulfil their needs is hard. Most are sympathetic and wish you well, many ask for recommendations for other photographers to cover the work but a few can be angry with you – “how dare you damage your back and leave us without a photographer” is the sub-text of a few conversations.

Having to politely decline other offers of work whilst lying in a hospital bed isn’t an experience that I’d wish on anyone either. Again, most take it well but a few are less than sympathetic.

Having to let good clients know that you are out for a long stretch is possibly the hardest call to make. I found that being in hospital had a drastic effect on my emotions and I struggled to keep it together on the phone to one or two people.

In my case there is some good news:

  1. Prior to suffering the injury, I had been working hard and had invoiced clients for enough money to keep me solvent for at least two or three months if I’m careful.
  2. In a few weeks I’ll be able to take on work as a remote editor with one or two clients for whom I do editing work already which should bring in a bit more income.
  3. Whilst I’ve been laid up lots of colleagues have been generous with their wishes for a speedy recovery and more than a few clients have been kind too.

I cannot wait to be in a position to get back on the phone and let people know that Neil Turner, editorial and corporate photographer is back in business but in the mean-time I’m going to follow my own advice as closely as I can. I’m not going to overdo it. I’m going to listen to the Doctors, Physiotherapists and my family and friends who are doing such a great job of looking out for me.

One more thing, I’m going to kept this blog going…


  1. Well fingers crossed it all is smooth and easy from now.

    I set myself up with loss of earnings insurance many years ago and it stood me in good stead when i had my hip replacement in 2007.

    We never know when we are going to be hit by these things so we do have to prepare for the worst.

    As they say, Make hay whilst the sun is shining, ‘cos you never know how long the winter is really going to

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent advice Neil, well said and should be published in the Freelance Handbook. Speedy recovery and I hope you get back to plenty of work Asap.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice to see you are up and running Neil, and not just bumming around….as if you would or even could. You are on the road to recovery which won’t be quick in your case but all the signs are positive. Don’t dwell in the past, you know how clever we all could be with hindsight. Jo will be a tower of strength and a shoulder to cry on should you find the need. You have many friends and colleagues who are willing to assist in so many ways so don’t be afraid to ask. Above all, stay positive and keep taking the tablets, as they say! Very best wishes, Bevan and Lesley.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Neil, sounds like a position any one of us could be in, thanks for sharing the advice, stay positive and use the time to re-assess where you want your career and workload to go once you are back on your feet.Good luck and get well. Tony Bart

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I really feel for you Neil and I hope you get well soon. You inspired me to post my experience on Illuminati and PTO pro togs. Here it is:
    Dont forget to drink more water!
    Well, I’ve been out of action for exactly a month having had my left kidney, pipework and associated bits removed. I knew it was going to have to be done for a long time. In 2013 I was diagnosed with Carcinoma insitu of my bladder, to put this simply its a not too dangerous cancer of the pipe linings and in most people its cureable and indeed I was cured. Unfortunately a small amount appeared in my left ureter and theres no treatment for that there so it had to go, I’ve got another one and it seems to be working fine, for now. I knew it was going to be bad but I didn’t know how bad and I will spare you the details. I’d done a lot of prep, walking 5 miles a day and ramping up our work to a crescendo days before the event.
    So why did I get this condition? My Urologist suggests it was something I did 30 or 40 years ago, so what was I doing then? Lots of black and white printing and selenium toning and I chewed my blackened finger nails… never drank enough water…I fixed up 3 studios and 2 houses and painted with lots of solvent paint. You know when you paint with gloss paint or you are filling up your car and you breathe it in…where do you think that goes? Yep it goes right through your lungs into your bloodstream and then your kidneys and then it just sits there in your bladder and then its just a matter of time.
    I’ve got good pathology and I need no further treatment so none has escaped into my body and I have more tests in November and of course they will be keeping a close eye on me especially my right side.
    So I’m doing well now, I’m not good enough to go out shooting but I can sit at my desk and walk up the hill but I get very tired…
    I am very fortunate that I dont have to rely on clients and its August when we would only shoot for 2 days anyway. My royalties are keeping the whole thing afloat and I count my blessings for that. It was almost like I saw this coming when I first started shooting stock imagery in 2008. I don’t feel like someone with cancer and I dont feel like a victim, I’m still achieving things and there’s plenty more to do and improve on just as soon as I can!
    Interestingly I am insured for illness but guess what? Carcinoma insitu is not covered!
    So this is my story and my journey and I accept it willingly, I have done and seen amazing thing and enjoyed it all. I have an amazing loving wife and children I am proud of. I am in my small way very successful and I am thankful for that but I’m not done yet!
    If you have any questions or you’d like a chat feel free: monty@rakusen.co.uk
    I was inspired to write this by Neil Turner’s blog: https://neilturnerphotographer.co.uk/2017/08/22/a-freelancers-nightmare/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Given the number of fellow professionals who have told me their stories it’s obvious that I’m neither the first or last freelance to go through the nightmare. We’ve all coped differently but we are all determined buggers and that’s what appears to matter. Thanks for all of the responses.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Neil I wish you a speedy and healthy recovery. A common problem with our profession that’s easily overlooked when young, however age catches up with all of us eventually. Thank you for sharing your images, stories and words of wisdom over the past 17 years.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m wishing you a speedy recovery and may your future success be even more amazing! I agree on your tips but if you can save a year or more income, that would be better.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Get well soon. Makes me realise how lucky I’ve been during my long career. I have known freelancers who did face difficulties over illness and accident and it is not pleasant. In one case a friend had a serious accident and thought he was lucky to have loss of earnings insurance but he needed to be off work for six weeks before he could claim and was back one day less. Keeping money in hand and debts low has been my way of dealing with the worries of a freelance life.


  9. Neil,
    Get well soon , every thing you say is so true , most do this upon for years without a problem, but as we get older
    Contact & Retainers end that we been so used too ,

    If anything the lesson I’ve learned is take time out with family & friends nobody ever gets to Heaven and looks back to say I wished I’d worked harder

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wishing you a speedy recovery Neil. You know what the cause of the problem was ?. Heavy backpack full of expensive gear ? If that was the case do you have the solution to avoiding the same problem happening in the future I wonder ?. We all do it as part of the profession we carry out daily.


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