Newly graduated photographer Holly Houlton reflects on personal experience to pass on advice to those who might be struggling to get their careers off the ground right now.
The past six or seven months have been a struggle for many of us, in many different ways – tackling how to co-exist with a globally spread virus causing a worldwide pandemic is not something the majority of us had on our 2020 resolutions list! For those seeking paid work or jobs, which I for one can vouch for, it has been a terribly frustrating time. I finally graduated this summer from university (I say graduated, it was more of a virtual send-off due to the circumstances), leading me into the dark abyss that was the job market during the peak time of the outbreak in the UK.
Although things on the employment front are now looking up a little for me, as an emerging artist and writer I wanted to share some of what I have learned throughout my time at university where I was encouraged to network and gain industry experience and how I’ve tackled seeking jobs, work and exposure during these exceptional times.
Another topic I will be touching on in this piece is useful ways to network and how to get your work seen and reviewed. Being a creative during these ‘remote-working’ times has been challenging but there are benefits in that a lot of organisations are devising ways to provide more support than usual. As an emerging visual artist myself, I’ve developed multiple different ways to attempt successful networking, to enhance my online presence and to receive critical feedback on my work.
The creative industry in the UK is renowned for being difficult to make a successful and financially stable career from. However it is, of course, do-able and any way I can contribute to helping others find their way into the business, is, for me, a small victory on its own.
Let’s begin with job searching, perceived by most as a tiresome task that often feels endless. Having spent the past eight months applying for countless jobs – often only hearing back from a very small percentage – I especially struggled with feelings of rejection and a lack of confidence. One word of advice I would say on this topic (guilty as charged I didn’t do this often enough), is that if you are rejected from a job role you particularly wanted to get; contact the recruiter to see if you can receive any useful feedback on why, so you can improve your CV or gain experience where necessary ready for another position that may come up of similar interest.
With regards to the exhausting activity of trawling through numerous job applications, the most worthwhile thing I think I ever did was create a bookmarked folder dedicated to ‘Job Searching’ – tailoring each link to jobs specifically within my interests. I find this to be a great way to motivate myself to log on each day and begin searching. The Internet is a big place and it can often feel daunting, so having this as a first port of call is very beneficial.
In relation to the creative industry, I’ve listed below right some of the job search engine websites I use and have found helpful (also includes seeking internships):
When it comes to ensuring your CV is up-to-date and really selling all you’re worth as an individual, CV Library (as listed above), offers a free service that involves an industry professional reviewing your CV submitted to the website and receiving feedback. Although, this can be quite lengthy and sometimes needs to be taken with a pinch of salt and your own judgement due to the advisor not necessarily being from the arts realm, it’s nevertheless a useful and cost-free way to check that you’re on the right track. Alternatively, if you have a peer to hand who can give you some friendly and constructive criticism then take their advice on board!
This is another major component of any successful job application. I admittedly started out using one that was ultimately a bit wordy and didn’t draw upon my own experiences enough to justify why I would be suitable for the role. This is key! Ensure you’re tailoring each cover letter to each different job role, identifying a few crucial requirements they have specified in the job description and addressing them head on with your own experience and/or skills.
I’ve also learned over the past few months to keep it concise; having a template cover letter is helpful because this can be used time and time again, being adjusted depending on the job role. However, it’s important to keep this template succinct and representative of your most impressive achievements – e.g: attaining a degree, name-dropping institutions or industry professionals you have worked with or exhibitions you’ve been involved in. I like to believe that stating such successes at the beginning of the cover letter will entice the recruiter. For further help, I’ve provided below a useful online resource for writing cover letters within the arts industry – Balance the Careers.
Following on from job searching, this section of the article is perhaps more aimed toward those who are freelance visual artists, and networking is a vital aspect of building one’s profile both on the online and physical world. My experience is that networking can be just as important in gaining industry experience/a job, as a way to both connect with other professionals, which often leads to opportunities to either build my portfolio or paid work and allows me to feel part of a community.
Networking can take many forms, one of which the potential to gain further critical support from the likes of mentorships, portfolio reviews – even Facebook groups! One example being: ‘Small Business Networking’: here members offer advice, feedback and you are able to promote your business. Although this extraordinary time of moving online has been a pain in many respects, for our creative industry an abundance of callouts and opportunities have been made available and/or shifted online; making them more accessible.
The Photographers’ Gallery is one example of this. In more normal timers it conducted portfolio reviews in person but has now moved to Zoom calls online – ‘Folio Fridays’. Follow this link for more information: The Photographers Gallery
In terms of getting my own photography work featured in a variety of different formats such as websites, zines, virtual online exhibitions and Instagram, so far it’s involved a lot of perseverance. An eagle eye is definitely needed, paying close attention to any opportunities of call-outs via all social media platforms (and when I say all, I mean all of them) – ensure you have professional accounts on all the key sites to stand the best chance of seeing any possible opportunity you might want to submit your work to.
I personally find that Instagram is the best place to have a quick browse to identify whether your work would fit and be accepted as a submission. I would advise taking note of what sort of genre, style and concepts/ideas the platform you are looking at submitting your work to accepts – be sure to follow the ones you think would be a good fit for all of your social media accounts, so that you can be the first to see any call outs for submissions. The following sites are some of the best to regularly look at for artist residencies, call out opportunities and places to submit work to:
Although call outs are often tempting to submit to for ease, due to their specific brief and theme narrowing down your options regarding what to send over, I would also advise not waiting for them. If there is a platform you really like and you believe your work fits well with their aesthetic, then why wait? Cold call. Cold call them on their social media accounts or find an email to drop them a message. It’s often worth sending over examples of your work straight off the cuff too to entice them with your amazing talent!
A few other ways to ensure that you’re receiving the latest news on any opportunities that might get you some cash in the bank or increase your profile presence through exposure, is to sign up to newsletters. I find this to be very useful; weekly or fortnightly ones tend to be the best as they are the most current. Find those that relate to your areas of interest; often you’ll find that industry professionals will make their own, and these are usually free to subscribe to.
Another fantastic and informative method of networking is simply attending online talks or workshops. This is a prime example of an avenue in our industry that has really kicked off since lockdown and, within the photography world, there are so many different ones to attend that you should be able to find one within your field. Here’s a list of some of the organisations’ talks/workshops I have signed up to myself in the past, all of which were free, covering a variety of subjects from ethics/documentary photography to cyanotype printing!:
I find that it’s a great way to engage with other industry professionals and you’re often able to directly converse with them and others in the meeting, ask questions and stay connected after the call.
If you are looking to connect with your practice as well as others, Skillshare and LinkedIn Learning offer multiple different online courses within photography and the business side of things too – these are also great resources to utilise in your spare time to strengthen yourself as a practitioner.
Just to sum up, from my experience, whatever you might be seeking, rest assured that it is out there, somewhere. Don’t feel that a job role is not attainable or is out of your reach, if somebody is already doing it, why can’t you? Don’t get me wrong: I’m all too familiar with the feeling of self-doubt, and perhaps many of us can relate to this being artists. But don’t despair: we are all in this together so keep networking, keep following and keep going!
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