Merger talks – the “contact sheet”

Until now all of the ‘contact sheets’ that I have blogged have been from portrait assignments. Whilst looking back through some old pictures that haven’t seen the light of day in many years I came across this set of images. I was commissioned to do a sort of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ coverage of a Board meeting of the combined Westminster and Kingsway College governors.

©Neil Turner/TSL. July 2000, London.

The idea was that two medium sized central London colleges were to merge and become a single large institution on multiple sites and a series of meetings like this one were taking place to make important decisions about almost every aspect of the way that the new Westminster Kingsway College would function. This particular meeting was about the logo. My task was to get a whole series of black and white images (even if they were shot on a digital camera in colour) that could be used through a multiple page article about the merger once it was complete.

Moving around the room as quietly as possible, using no flash and getting a set of pictures that represented the meeting was my goal and it was actually a fairly tense meeting, which made my job all the more difficult. In the end I left the meeting before I was asked to. It was only a matter of time before I got the “tap on the shoulder” anyway and I thought that I wasn’t going to get anything very different and a voluntary departure would be a good move.

The magazine actually ran nine pictures across three pages in the end and I was very keen to repeat the exercise. Sadly, it didn’t really happen in the same way again for many years.

Techie stuff: Kodak/Canon DCS520 cameras with Canon 17-35 f2.8, 28-70 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8L lenses at 640 ISO and colour converted to black and white using the Kodak DCS Acquire software.

An open letter to the college accounts department

This is a first for me – writing an open letter to a bunch of people that I don’t really know and who, personally, have done me no harm. The accounts people in question all work for educational establishments in the UK and the rules that they are inventing/enforcing/misusing are costing me a small amount of money but far more importantly they are preventing students from hearing from a lot of wonderful professionals who have stopped doing one or two days here and there as visiting lecturers.

To whom it may concern

Thank you for the paperwork that you recently sent to me that I would have to complete before coming to your establishment to work with student photographers for one day. I have looked at the forms and decided that it would take me at least an hour to fill them in. I have also realised that a full-time permanent employee of the college would have exactly the same forms to fill in. This seems a little ridiculous, given that my time with your students will be restricted to five hours this week and no more than fifteen in any one year.

I was also disappointed to read that you wish to have all of my National Insurance and tax references and that you would be deducting tax and National Insurance at source from me even though I am a self-employed professional who is registered for VAT. I know that you will quote ‘advice from the HMRC’ as the reason and I would love to read this advice. Unfortunately a long telephone call to the tax authorities and a diligent search of their website have failed to turn up this ‘advice’.

Presumably, having taken tax from me at source, you would be obliged to issue me with a P60 tax certificate at the end of the financial year. This was a piece of information that HMRC’s advice line was able to give me. I am sure that all of this form-filling and certificate issuing covers your back quite nicely. I am equally sure that if you have to repeat the same process for every visiting lecturer it has the added benefit of creating or at least securing the job or jobs of members of staff within your department.

My problem is this: I used to do visits to a lot of colleges and I have refused to get involved in this PAYE farce because for every different college that has to send me a P60 I have to fill in another page on my tax return because each is treated as a separate employment. In one year I have been known to visit eight different colleges – eight extra pages on my tax return, and I have to get that each of them checked by my accountant. Time is money – especially at Chartered Accountant rates. This is on top of the extra hours I have to spend filling in your own forms (which arrive as badly laid out Microsoft Word documents with a good deal of redundant information asked for by the way) and, more often than not, having to chase for payments because you award yourselves 60 days credit as well.

How hard would it be to accept that I want to simply send the college an invoice for my time and my expenses instead of going through this dense bureaucracy? How hard would it be to realise that I am a legitimately self-employed professional who has no intention of ripping the system off and avoiding my obligations to the treasury? I am sure that HMRC never intended whatever rule you are citing to actually get in the way of the students getting contact with professionals. I know that it isn’t just me. I know a lot of other self-employed people who are at the top of their game who want nothing to do with very occasional visits to educational establishments for the very same reason.

So, no thank you. I will leave it to you to explain to the head of the course who wanted me to come and share my 25+ years experience with their students for a fee that was already a lot lower than I would charge for taking pictures why I won’t be coming this year. I’ll let them know that you will be the one explaining and I will apologise for the fact that your establishment has been added to the lengthening list of places that I won’t be supporting until you change your college’s rules.

What they don’t teach you in college

This post was originally written in 2003. Things, sadly, haven’t really changed and so I thought that it deserved yet another airing.

For better or for worse, the vast majority of people entering the photographic profession are coming from college courses. I have no problem with that, I came from one myself and so did a lot of my favourite photographers. But…

I’ve been a working photographer since 1986 and based on a few things I have picked up since then I have come up with a list of things that they should have taught us that were not on the syllabus. A whole range of vital skills that go a long way to marking out the complete professional from the aspiring “not there yet”.

Obviously when it comes to choosing which lens to use, or selecting backgrounds and props – only experience and familiarity with your kit and brief will do, and colleges are good at telling their students that. There are, however, some skills that are never even mentioned that are vital.

  • People skills: The ability to handle anyone that you are either photographing, who have influence over those being photographed or who are just getting in the way.
  • More people skills: You need to be able to charm the ‘jobsworth’ security man and persuade the reluctant PR and to do it all without breaking into a fit of temper until such times as all else has failed and you have no other option
  • Even more people skills: As a news photographer you need to be able to communicate with anyone from a starving refugee to a pampered celebrity in a meaningful and constructive way – often on the same day! You have to get them to trust you, to do what you want them to do and achieve all of this with dignity and respect.
  • Advanced people skills: As a portraitist you have to have the ability to talk to absolutely anyone and to keep the conversation going at a light but interesting level whilst setting up equipment, making vital technical decisions and shooting the job.
  • Extended people skills: You need to have a sense of your own place in the scheme of things. It’s no use throwing a prima donna tantrum if you are not getting what you want and are never going to get it. It gets even worse when the person you are arguing with is a close personal friend of the editor. Know when to give in, to make another plan and get your shot anyway.

You are probably getting my drift by now. Once you have acquired all of the technical skills and bought all of the kit that you need all that’s required is to learn how to conduct yourself. I often refer to the photographer as the “Social Chameleon”, changing colours and attitude to suit their surroundings. This should be both physical – dressing appropriately so as not antagonize the people that you are dealing with, and mental – adopting the right attitude – be it meek or aggressive, as friendly or confrontational as the situation requires.

Maybe photographers should all adopt some of the techniques used by the best sales people and mix them with skills more common in the diplomatic service. I have watched charity workers running soup kitchens and marvelled at their ability to be both understanding and firm, and I have watched police officers and been stunned by the way that they get the information that they want whilst conducting an otherwise friendly conversation.

My biggest tip on this subject is to find some common ground with whoever you are talking to and work it. It might be sport, it might be the weather or the journey that you both had to get where you have met. If I’m in someone’s home I will often talk about a piece of art or furniture on display or their pet cat or dog. It doesn’t matter what you chat about, you are chatting and barriers are coming down. Avoid contentious subjects unless you are really sure of yourself.

So there you are, what they don’t teach you in college is how to handle people. It’s not just a skill needed by photographers – it’s a life skill. I think that’s why a lot of the greatest photographers have come from other careers where they have learned about people and use those skills in their new profession.