Winning At Things

If you're reading this, I'd put the kettle on.  Make yourself comfortable. It's not going to be a swift experience.  (There's a reason why we are encouraged to write blogs in smaller, regular doses.  If you don't , you end up facing a whole month or more of events and it makes it so much harder to pick and choose what you now have time to write about.)

September has been and gone.  At the beginning of the month, Facebook threw up a memory of a meme poking fun at all the people declaring that they couldn't believe it was September 'already'.  And there it is... gone.  Looking back, it's no surprise as it really was a busy month for me.  Early on we celebrated my middle child's 18th birthday, and towards the end, her big brother's 20th.  (I know.  September birthdays.  I've always loved Christmas ;-)) It's an exciting time for them both as one embarks on his third year at university and the other is starting out on a musical theatre course.  With them both firmly ensconced in their student accommodations, there are only three of us living in the flat now so it feels a whole lot less like something that might have featured in Fred Engels' 'Condition of the Working Class...'  Not that anyone was working.  (Other than the now 18 year old who was very organised in finding herself a waitressing job as soon as she landed in Glasgow.)  The rest of us leapt from middle class to underclass in just a few less-than-easy steps.


I've said it before, but it's harder than you'd think to graduate.  I don't mean the effort involved in achieving graduation but the shock of no longer being a student is actually quite profound.  For four years that was my 'identity'.  I used to joke about it.  "I'm an art student!" I'd say, as if it were ridiculous at my age to be such a thing.  But the truth is I was rather proud of that.  It was something I'd have liked to have been able to announce at 17 or 18, and the fact that I belatedly achieved it was a source of pleasure for me even as I found it quite difficult at times. Then you graduate.  Suddenly you're not a student any more.  People call themselves 'recent graduates', clinging onto their studenthood for just a little bit longer.  At what point is your graduation no longer recent though?

It was a question that arose during a one day seminar held at Stills  in Edinburgh.  Half a dozen or so photographers who had once been recent graduates gave us the benefit of their experiences and their pathways to working in their chosen field.  In a lot of ways it made for depressing hearing.  Few, if any of them had been able to support themselves soley from photography, certainly not in the first 5-7 years post graduation.  All of them, even a photographer whose work I admired and inspected in great depth during my studies, had 'other' jobs to pay the bills.  Sarah Amy Fishlock...waitress.  It was not what I wanted to hear.  Although at the same time, it was.  I needed to hear that my failure to secure a decent income from photography was not just down to my failings, but an effect of the way that photography is seen and used and procured in this digital age when everyone's frankly, a photographer.  At least I would not be struggling alone.  At least I could take that pressure off myself.

So I walked away from Stills feeling in almost equal parts depressed and determined.  There was little chance of making a living from doing the kind of photography that actually inspires me.  But there could be a chance of finding work that would allow me to make the kind of photography that inspires me.  As the sole potential earner in the family however, I couldn't rely on just a waitressing job.  Even my 18 year old is only using that to supplement a student loan and bursary.  I have a mortgage to pay and Adobe Photoshop is not free.  In fact it's even less free than it was when I was a student!

So September saw a continuation of the process of applying for things that I had started in late July and August.  I applied for competitions, for mentoring programmes, for jobs, for internships, for residencies, for funding.  There was a lot of rejection, and that was hard.  It's hardest of all not to take it personally.  When you're a student, you're used to putting your work up for critique, but you know your audience and they know your work.  Once you leave that art school bubble, your work is being compared to that of thousands of other hopefuls and those looking at it don't get much time to make decisions.  I decided that honestly the best way to think about it was as a lottery.  You put it out there often enough and maybe you'll win something.  

My first 'win' was to be asked along to Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow for an audience with John Duncan, editor of Source Photographic Review.  I took along over three hundred images made during the process of creating Album Familia.  It was fascinating to see the work from a new perspective, and not only because the seating arrangements meant that I was looking at it upside down.  Here was someone who had not been there from the start, listening to my woes, watching me go up and down the emotional scales as I photographed my family, came to terms with loss and carried on studying through it all.  These eyes only saw the images.  Fresh.  Without prejudice.  His eventual edit, to be taken into an editorial meeting at a later date was quite different from any I'd put together for my own purposes.  He chose images that didn't make it into the book and put combinations together that I might never otherwise have thought about.  He had a magazine spread to fill which accounted for some of his decision-making process but there was also less focus on the family and more on the unsettled political climate and economic uncertainty that umbrella'd this project from the outset.  It was gratifying to see work that I'd worried had been too personal, take on this extra element that others could relate to.


John asked me where I saw the work, what I thought I might do with it, and I had to admit, beyond entering it into The Jill Todd Photographic Award, I hadn't really known what to do with it.  Which is when he admitted that he was on the judging panel convening the next day!  I didn't have to wait too long to find out about my next 'win' - the work that I made for Album Familia had been selected as one of the three prizewinning submissions.  To say I'm pleased has to be the very least effective way of conveying how I feel about this.  I know that work done by at least three other photographers that I admire very much has made it to this stage and to be included among them is a privilege.  

There was a third September win.  I interviewed for, was offered and accepted a job working as a Centre Administrator for the new Helensburgh Learning Centre of Argyll College.  We're part of the University of the Highlands and Islands providing Further and Higher Education opportunities to students in some of the more remote areas of Argyll.  Helensburgh doesn't feel that remote to me, being only 40-odd minutes on the train from Glasgow but there isn't that much locally for those who might not want to, or can't afford to travel or move away to learn.  On some levels, being a part of this is quite exciting - the Helensburgh Learning Centre has only just opened, about a week before I started to work there, so I'm in on the ground, watching and helping it develop into something that hopefully will give others a chance to gain qualifications in areas that will help them progress on to bigger and better things.  

There are downsides.  The job has no photography element whatsoever.  It is only a part time job share and the pay is insufficient on its own to keep us out of trouble.  There are days when I feel crushed with disappointment not to be doing something more creative, more stimulating, and more exciting.  Administration on its own is not something that stirs up the passions, but I'm new, in a new job and it will take time to settle in.  Besides, I see opportunities for growth  here and if Sarah Amy Fishlock can be a Waitress and Photographer then I can be a Centre Administrator and Photographer.


Consequently I have been taking the camera to work.  Afterall, I'm a documentary photographer and I have a foot in the door at the beginning of an exciting adventure - for me, and for Argyll College.  There may well come a time when the college will want to have documented its roots in Helensburgh and who is better placed to do that than me?    


When I write of a 'new' learning centre, I'm aware that this is a little misleading.  It conjures up images of a brand-spanking new-build replete with fresh plasterboard and a vague smell of Ikea when the reality is somewhat far from that.  My new place of work used to be the Community Centre in Kirkmichael, an area that before the Right To Buy policy kicked in was exclusively social housing and which still represents the less well-off end of town.  The Centre was home to various groups and we've found evidence in cupboards and drawers of Rainbows, Bible Classes, and other youth-oriented activities, as well as signs that the older population made use of the space. 


There is definitely a liminal, transitional sense to the building as the first students take up their places on courses and we begin to depopulate the space of its old inhabitant's relics and make it something entirely different.  Something in my psyche relishes this unsettled period of adjustment, discovering traces of what went before and adding new layers to the ongoing history of the place.  There are rooms where students learn by Video Conference, surrounded by Charles Rennie Mockintosh murals and playgroup proportioned tables, there are rooms which have not yet found their purpose, cupboards we haven't found keys for and office spaces with no-one in office.  Of course, you can't help but wonder where all these groups have gone instead.  If there was a need for them once, did that need simply evaporate?  I doubt it somehow.


Even though I've not been there long, I've already had my first work-related trip away from the office.  I was sent to attend a First Aid training course which involved a lovely drive to and an enjoyable day spent in Dunoon, refreshing my memory on CPR, bandaging techniques and signs and symptoms to look out for.


We had a very engaging trainer and although not perhaps the most important element of the day, a fine selection of cakes, soup and sandwiches to sustain us as we learned.  


The light on the drive to Dunoon was perfect for some landscape photography, but unfortunately I had a deadline to meet and no time to stop and take photographs.  As is often the case, the light on the way home, when I had no deadline, was dull, dreary and pretty much useless.  I stopped to take a few shots anyway.  The route was full of sights familiar to me from childhood as my parents had a house in Innellen.  It was an absolute nostalgia-fest for me as I drove, each corner bringing back a smack of recognition, and nowhere more so than at Coylet.  I vividly remember going here for Chicken In A Basket.  At that point in the 70s it would have been culinary sophistication incarnate and had the added bonus of being eaten outside at tables overlooking Loch Eck.  Unfortunately, when I rocked up, the Coylet Inn was all boarded up and empty.  This saddened me more than I would have thought possible, perhaps because it's a spot that makes me think of my dad and a small part of me had hoped to be able to nurse a glass of something in his name while sitting at tables in a spot where I have such good memories of him.  I felt robbed and saddened and almost wished I had not come.


Even though the light was hardly any use for photographic purposes, I still felt compelled to take a picture.  I was glad in a way that Dad wasn't around any more to see this because I think he'd have been sad about it too and I'd rather think of him as his more usual happy, enthusiastic self.  For that reason, I turned my back on the Inn and took a shot of the water instead.  I can hear his voice urging us as we drove through the west coast of Scotland on our family holidays to 'Just look!  Just look at that!'  Like most kids probably, I couldn't see the attraction then, viewing the road as nothing more than a means to getting to somewhere.  Nowadays, the journey there is almost the best bit, especially when surrounded by hills and water like this.


Back home and I still found plenty of opportunities to get the camera out.  I managed to pin Peter down to a morning in the shop where he surprised me with several good suggestions for shots.  


I got the impression he had some kind of understanding of the process I was going through, so it ended up not being all that much of a surprise to find out that this wasn't the first time he'd featured in a photographer's body of work.  When researching his shop online, I found he'd been photographed by Nick Dawe for his project, Nation of Shopkeepers.  I am always keen to see what others have done - for inspiration and to make sure that I'm not covering old ground.  


Although Peter appears in Dawe's body of work, he's not sole subject and the whole project seems to focus on an idea of a collective typology of eccentric shopkeepers which is somewhat different to what I am hoping to achieve.  


That said, I liked the idea of including some of the other business owners on the street where I live and so when an announcement was made that the toy shop was about to close, I asked the owner if I could go along and make some pictures of it to include.  She agreed and I nipped along to photograph her and the interior of the shop so that there would be a record of it before it eventually changed hands.  I'm delighted to say that the shop won't be closing now afterall as a member of her existing staff has decided to take it on - I am hoping to speak to the new owner about a new set of photographs once that has happened.


On the subject of things closing, it was announced that the 'shows' which have been situated on Helensburgh's pier for as long as I can remember, will not be granted a license to stay now that the carpark renovations have been given the go-ahead.  This seemed to prompt mixed feelings among Helensburgh residents, with some being delighted that the 'eyesore' would finally be banished, and others coming over all nostalgic for the last time they had a whizz on the Waltzers.  I find myself in two minds.  In an ideal world the owners would have been granted license to stay for a period of time that made investment and repair worth their while and then perhaps we could have had an attraction to be proud of.   In any case I always enjoyed photographing them and I'm not sure the new improvements will be nearly so photographically interesting.  We'll see.


Unsurprisingly, Peter had an opinion and spent some time sharing it with me.  But while I was talking to him, he also mentioned that there were mayflies to be found up at the skating pond.  It occurred to me that it probably hasn't been used for skating in a long time, what with global warming and all.  I think it must be more than 20 years since it froze over last.  I stopped on my way home from Glasgow last week to check it out.  Wrong time of day and weather probably for mayflies - far too blowy for a start.  But the autumn colours are starting to make an appearance and as I needed a cover shot for my work-related facebook page, I took some shots.  Comparing this rather pastoral scene to the shots of the Kirkmichael Community Centre makes me realise just what a town of contrasts Helensburgh really is.