Features
The Struggle of Freelance: A Conversation with Photographer & Artist, Giles Clement
by Chris Daniels

Chris: Just so you know, I started recording already.

Giles: Oh, Christ! Okay.

Features
“The problem was that I was trying to take the photos that they would want”
- Giles C.
The Struggle of Freelance: A Conversation with Photographer & Artist, Giles Clement

I hadn’t been to see Giles in a couple of years. He had moved to a new live/work space in Nashville since then, and he was kind enough to have me out while I was visiting in early spring.

“Give me a call when you’re close. You’ll cross the railroad tracks and immediately turn down the gravel drive.”

Giles’s directions make it sound as if he was guiding me through the country by-ways of middle Tennessee. In reality, I think Giles just has a knack for finding oddity, character, and an avant-garde charm in the middle of what is otherwise the norm. The place he lives and works and was guiding me to is no different, and lies smack in the middle of the city of Nashville.

I hear the tires crackle on the gravel as I pull up the drive and arrive at a large, multi-story brick building. Before I see Giles, I see his beloved and famed Irish Terrier, Zeiss darting from around the building. I step out of the truck and say hello to Giles and also Zeiss who is barking and just excited to exist!

Once inside, I take in the space as Giles makes a french press coffee for us. It’s on the ground level, with concrete floors and a pleasant amount of natural light, despite there only being two windows. Along the entrance wall are cabinets and shelves full of camera gear and equipment, film tools. Further down, a workbench with what looks to be ongoing projects and a few dismantled lenses and parts of other things that I don't recognize. Rounding the corner and between the windows, is the backdrop that Giles uses all the time, which only increases in character with its age and use. The extra-large format wet plate cameras Giles uses sit nearby on their tripods. There’s a small dark-room setup, red lamp and all, and a bed that’s currently hoisted up to the ceiling. There are also other things hanging from the ceiling, including a giant silicone penis with a small gas-powered engine and propeller. Apparently, it doesn’t quite fly right. I honestly can’t help but find the place rather homey and welcoming.

The two of us sit down with our coffee at the large, gear-covered table in the center of the room. Before I know it, we’re in deep conversation, both of us clearly ready and eager to talk to another person freely about the real-life struggles of what it means to be a freelance photographer and artist. The struggles of finding jobs, undervaluing yourself, not knowing how to sell yourself, or being able to advocate for yourself. Not just the surface-level problems but the deeper issues that can become real and paralyzing psychological plagues!

While we’re talking, I think to myself, “this is the good stuff! This is the stuff that we all need to talk to one another about and support one another in!”

I hit the record button.

“Just so you know, I started recording already,” I say.

“Oh, Christ! Okay.”

And we continue.

INTERVIEW

[Chris] I mean, this is the real shit, right? We all do or have dealt with these hardships to some degree.

I love what you do, and I love the ingenuity that you’ve put into your work — just building that enormous camera. [pointing to the gigantic ambrosia camera that Giles fabricated] Not anyone just up and fucking does that! It’s pretty special! And on top of that, your work in general, and the way that you see things and people is also unique, and I see that.

[Giles] Thanks!

I do like talking about building things and artistry, and we’ll probably get into that more. What we’re talking about right now, (the struggles that every artist faces) are things that we deal with and toil over all the time, and we all pretend like we don’t and that we all have our shit together.

[both laugh]

Right!?

Yeah. Nobody talks about it. I also don’t really know where the start and the stop point for that is. Because to some extent, if you’re just too honest with people (via social media and whatnot), it can be a turn-off. I get that. I don’t want to read about someone that’s always having a bad day. I want to see people doing cool shit. So, I feel like you have to be positive or at least optimistic about what you’re doing. I think a lot of times when I’m doing that it’s more a facade and I’m putting it on because I want people to see and feel, “Oh, that’s Giles. He’s having a really good time, and blah blah blah.” But what the reality is or what I alternatively sometimes do is to say some version of, “Hey. I fucking broke. I’m dying, and nobody is hiring me.” I sometimes want to say that to people, but people don’t necessarily want to hear that. So do you ask for help or do you not ask for help? I guess there’s probably a time and place for either option.

I think you’re right. I believe that so much of it has to do with the approach. You hear the mantra, “fake it ‘til you make it,” and then there’s certainly the opposite side. We all have that person on social media, who we maybe even stop following because it seems like everything that they say is always some sad tale of how sorry they are feeling for themselves.

Yeah. I had to get off of Facebook for a long time because I was doing that to my friends. I was constantly like, “Nobody is hiring me. Nobody is hiring me.” and nobody wants to hear that. It’s also funny because there’s this weird yin-yang, and on my public-facing social media it shows that everything is great!

I heard a photographer say in response to someone asking him, “Now that you’ve 'made it' do you feel like you’re good and you’re set?” He said that people tell him that he’s made it, but the truth is that if he were to stop hustling, he’d be out of work in a week.

That realization is something I don’t like about the business. That’s the exhausting bit. I want to have this vision that it somehow gets easier and that you somehow find constant work. This morning I was at the dog park, sitting in the grass and smelling flowers, and I look across the way to see a parking lot full of cars next to an office building full of thousands of workers who have a constant source of income. I still would not want to do that! I wouldn’t last a day! So, I don’t know. [[siiighh]] And then, really, no matter how much money you make, it’s still fucking expensive to live, and you’re still kind of chasing your tail. Do you just move to a country where there’s a lower cost of living and grow things to eat and eat them? And don’t try to buy a Tesla or a dirt bike. Well, maybe a dirt bike, but a cheap one. So, I don’t know. Hahaha!

Yeah. I’m going through a whole existential crisis right now. I’m asking myself why I’m doing any of this. I want to work with brands just because I have ideas that need more money. Working with a brand offers the ability to potentially fund your project and also give you a bit of a platform to reach people with the art that you’re creating. Those are my two issues right now. I’m creating art, and nobody sees it, and I’m self-funding all the art, so I’m fucking broke. I have three or four projects that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I’m waiting to do them because of funding. Me, two years ago, would have just driven across the country and done them and shot the shot. I’ve done that, and it doesn’t work long term. I want to do things right!

I’m just at a point where I’m tired of doing things half-assed. That’s what I’ve done for a long time. Underfunded and half-assed. I look at some of the budgets that I wrote a couple of years ago; for huge fucking projects, and I’m like this is insane! How am I even doing this? I’ve had several clients now that when I’ve sent them the bill they just tack on a couple of grand because I charged them so little. Why am I doing that to myself? I went through therapy with this stuff. It’s a whole self-worth thing where you don’t think your shit is any good and so you constantly undersell yourself.

I think that goes back to the whole peanut butter thing. [refering to the Jeremy Cowart Photoism interview] Where instead of trying to sell, and I’m rambling here — but I think that some people have the innate ability to be happy with what they do and think that it is good and of value. They have no problem telling somebody that. The other side is the people who can’t seem to do that, and it’s also usually the artists that I like the most. It’s like they have the full artist’s brain where they're just making art, but they’re not able to sell it. Then you have other people who are just taking shit photos and copying everything that everybody else does and they’re making fucking bank! Or not even necessarily making bank but they’re like the photographers that succeed. They’re making $2k in a weekend instead of the guy that’s making $500, but that guy is probably the friend of the bride and is doing it for cheap, and his photos might be fucking cool. I can’t do that anyway. I hate shooting weddings. Ugh. It’s just the worst!

[both laugh]

I’m really glad that there are people out there that love shooting weddings! That way, people never ask me or you to do them! Haha!

Yeah. I did a few, especially for friends but I stopped doing it all together. I was bad at it. The problem was that I was trying to take the photos that they would want and they weren’t getting that. Haha. They didn’t want me. They didn’t want what I do. They wanted pretty stuff. So now, I don’t do that. Even when my brother got married, I was like, “I’m not doing that. I’ll be there with a camera, though.”

Let’s touch on something that you said, speaking about “taking the photos that they wanted you to take.” It’s clear that you gravitate towards the “interesting” rather than the standard idea of beauty. Can you speak more to that?

Yeah. I like weird people. I see people that only want to take pictures of “beautiful people,” and it’s like wanting to take a picture of a statue of some architecture. You’re not really making the art you’re more just copying it. I will unfollow people if they start only taking pictures of nothing but pretty young women because it’s not hard. None of that is hard. You have a gorgeous person in front of you, and you’re taking a picture them, and you’re the 100-millionth person to take a picture of them and they all kind of look the same. What’s the point?

I like working with models once in a while, but I much prefer working with people who aren’t because you get to discover something with them. You can show them that they’re pretty when they haven’t been told that since they were two. Anyway, that was a tangent. What were we talking about?

The artist’s plight.

Hahaha! Yeah.

What you’re saying is something that resonates with me and is something that I’ve felt to varying degrees. Sometimes even debilitating degrees. The crazy thing is that even if that’s where you’re at right now, it’s probably not the first time you’ve been there, and you’ll come out of it at some point. You’ll be stoked and excited, and you’ll start doing personal work again and being weird and crazy, and then it’ll all probably happen again later.

Right. Yeah, that’s certainly true.

I don’t believe that artists have to be “sad” to create work, as some do. You can be creative and not sad, I think. I think what must always be present is "the searching." Whatever mood you’re in, be it sad or happy or whatever, that searching for something new, interesting, or something unseen. Even just looking at something familiar but in a different light could reveal something new. That’s something that I love about portraiture. Tiny nuances make big changes!

Do you ever feel that you’ve pigeon-holed yourself or created too much of a niche with all of your work doing wet plates and ambrosias?

TOTALLY! Totally! Yeah! That’s really — I mean in some ways I haven’t. There’s just so much photography going on all the time, and it’s become so insanely common-place that nobody looks at it anymore. I guess I did find something that’s allowed me to stand out from the crowd a little bit. I still like working with [wet plates and ambrosia], but it is frustrating that I can’t easily get hired for digital work. I like working with digital too. I like banging out some photos. I love being able to just climb on a plane, go do a job and fly home with nothing but a bag that weighs 15lbs. With the wet plates I drive somewhere with a van the weighs 4000lbs. So, yeah. I’ve totally worked myself into a weird corner.

I go through these cycles. I was out in L.A. three months ago or so. Someone set up a meeting for me with a creative director, and the first thing she said when looking through my portfolio was, “Where is your color?” I’ve gone through that before where people have encouraged me to add color to my portfolio, and I go through and change my entire website.

What I said to her was, “Oh shit. Well, here’s some of the color stuff I’ve done but it’s very, very minimal.” I don’t like shooting color. It has its place, but it’s maybe 15% of the time for me. I like black and white. If I can’t take a good photo in black and white, then I definitely can’t take a good photo in color.

So, I’ve gone through this thing where I’m trying to change myself to fit somebody else's idea of what they want. If you look at my website, it’s mostly black and white. It’s mostly portraiture. That’s what I do, and it’s obvious that is what I’m good at. If you wanted a color photographer, then you’d hire hundreds of other photographers that are better than me and aren’t partially color-blind, so they have a better ability to edit color photos. Haha! When I edit color I usually just desaturate the shit out of it and hope that I don’t turn somebody’s face green because I wouldn’t know. Haha!

So, with the wet stuff, if I’m not getting work with that, I start beating myself up and tell myself that maybe I should shoot more digital. I went out an bought a big, medium format digital rig, and I said to myself, maybe that’s something I should move more into and give people what they want.

Then there’s the backswing of that. I’ve worked for over seven years with the wet mediums, and I’ve invested thousands of dollars, and tons and tons and tons of fucking time. I got good at it to the point where, technically, I’m one of the better people in the country at doing what I do. So, I guess I want my cake, and I want some ice cream too. I still love doing the wet plate stuff, and I still want to get work with that, but I also want to work with people that can see my photography beyond the medium.

I feel like if they can’t see that, then they don’t have much of a vision. I find that a lot, especially working with some companies. I don’t want to shit-talk anybody, but most of the people that hire photographers and set up the shoot, in many cases, their primary focus is to see a product. They don’t have the time, and they’re not getting paid to appreciate the artwork or the nuance behind the vision of the work. Their job is to take your picture of a screwdriver and sell it to somebody that needs a screwdriver. With the wet plate stuff, which is so unique in comparison to a digital photo, people see that and say, “We’ve got this wet plate photographer. Let’s do wild west shit!” I’ll be like, “That sounds great, but why don’t we also do a project with rappers or something completely opposite of a wild west cowboy?”

I’ve had calls with people about the wet plates, and they say “well, it’s cool, but it’s not a good fit.” So I say well, let’s shoot film. “No. We like you for the wet plate stuff.”

I want the ability to shoot a film or digital camera on the same project and produce an equally good result.

Something you said about the narrative reminded me of a question I have. If you were to say there was one underlying narrative to your work, what do you think it would be?

Um, well I’ve got three sorts of narratives behind my work. The first one is portraiture. I’ve struggled with it a lot. I started photography as a photojournalist, which there they teach you, “Don’t change anything. Don’t mess with anything. Just capture what’s in front of you.” So, when I started moving out of journalism and working with people, and with subjects, it’s very different. You’re meant to create the story and create the image. You know, it’s not editorial. You’re meant to create the story. So I struggled for a long time with portraits. I’d feel lazy if I wasn’t directing my subjects. I’d feel like this is the image I want to capture of this person, and if I’m not telling them to twist up like a pretzel or telling them to do something weird, then I’m not directing them. I’m being lazy, and I’m not doing my job. I don’t really think that’s the case. I think I’m enabling people to sort of write their own story with my portraits. And that sounds really fucking pretentious, but I don’t really direct my portrait subjects. I always say, “Hey, I’ll tell you if you look bad.” I let them do the thing they want to do for me. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a narrative or a theme with my images, but I think that it’s consistent with my portraiture.

The second thing is something that I haven’t explored to the extent I want to yet. Everybody kind of shits on Annie Leibovitz and doesn’t like her and all this stuff, you know? And she’s easy to dislike because she’s famous and we’re all jealous. I do greatly admire her work, and I like her cinematic, big "TADA!" over an image. [Using] a huge set, staff, and all this stuff. That’s something that I’d like to do more of, and I’ve done a little bit of it with some of my images. It’s a kind of theater in creating an image. That’s something that I like and want to explore more.

And then the third [narrative] I thread into some of my images is a quality that is a little bit… not bizarre, but goofy. My girlfriend calls it whimsical. Taking photos that are unexpected or out of the ordinary. A sort of a humorous theme to everything. They usually involve nudity. I don’t know why.

I get that.

Right. So a few years ago, I was drunk, and I was Googling, “fish spanking.” I don’t know why. But there wasn’t a good image, so I was like, “Let’s do it!” It took four years for me to find somebody that wanted to get whacked with a fish. We made a photo, and it was super fun. So now if you Google, “fish spanking” that’s my photo. So there’s that one. And then we did a naked nativity scene a few years ago where the bulldog was baby Jesus, and there was a stormtrooper. Kind of weird stuff, ya know? That sort of thing. There’s this guy Joel Peter Witkin. He’s old. I don’t know if he’s alive still, but he was always doing midgets and dwarves and penises and weird fucking shit. People have kind of compared me to him, but his stuff seemed very dark and kind of gross to me. I like celebrating the absurdity of humanity in that sort of segment of my photos. That’s a long answer for a short question.

It’s a good answer. I like it.

Cool.

I think the weird stuff can be great! I’ve gotten jobs from doing weird personal projects, just because it shows people your brain. That’s what people are interested in for the most part. If they get interested in your art, they’re really interested in the way that your brain works, because it doesn’t work like theirs and you’re showing them that.

Right!

I want to do a series on firefighters in California. The forest fighting guys. So that’s another one. I don’t know. I’m slowly pulling that one together. I like the idea of photographing these men and women out there doing this often-times boring, but insanely dangerous and important work. I like the idea of getting them when they’re coming back from the day or the week they spend out in the woods, and they’re all covered in shit. I think that would be a cool series. I’d like to do that.

I feel like the internet is bad for your brain, and I feel like I spend way too much time on my phone. I was thinking about doing a trip to London or New York City or a little town in the middle of fucking nowhere, and only bring a flip phone and one camera and my toothbrush. That’s it. And kind of throw out there that I’d like to photograph people in this location and for $10, I’ll do a photo. But I don’t want to do a photo of the person that contacts me because I’ve tried doing that before and I ended up with a bunch of fucking boring people. I want [it to be] a more collaborative thing where I reach out on Instagram and say, “Hey, I’m going to be in Syracuse for 24 hours, and I’m bringing six rolls of film. I want to fill those with interesting people in Syracuse, so if you know of somebody with a really interesting face or someone shoeing horses or someone that’s doing something that people find interesting, [send them my way.]” Basically, a series with a very limited camera and limited supply of film. I think it would be good for me to unplug from everything for a minute and just appreciate the 24 hours I’m going to spend in a place. To immerse myself more fully than I would if I had a cell phone and a bunch of gear. That kind of thing. That’s something I’ve just started thinking about.

So what you’re saying is that you’ve already given yourself a construct, your constants, and variables. Then it just becomes about doing it and talking about it. I think talking about it often becomes one of the hardest things. Maybe not so much as selling myself, but explaining my intent. Like what I’m exploring. Something that I like about Michael Pollan, one of my favorite authors, is that when he writes, he’s not telling you what to think. He’s inviting you on this journey that he’s going on.

Yeah, I like that. And I think for me it’s more like I want to find ways of taking photos for myself, not other people. Not for the people on the internet because ultimately if I’m taking good photos, people will find that. I think there’s too much emphasis on making people look at your work rather than making work that people can’t not look at. I want to try and find that. I’m trying to find reasons to take photographs of things at this point in my life. I have various bouts of depression and all this stuff, and I have a difficult time finding meaning in what I’m doing. If I don’t have meaning in what I’m doing or photographing then nobody else is going to get it either. So I’m currently just trying to figure out photos for me, projects for me, things that inspire me and that I’m interested in.

Art is for the artist, and other people relate to it, and that’s why it’s impactful. I have an ongoing series that I do, and I’ve never turned it into a big deal. I do it when I remember to do it and when I feel like doing it. And it’s all because I just like the way the images make me feel when I look at them. I call it Body Spaces and my only rules for the series are that it’s an image of a space that you may take a photo of, with or without a person in it, and then I put a person in it, but I never show their whole body and I never show their entire face. Those are the three rules. So when you look at the images, you’re not sure if the person is supposed to be dead, or if they’re supposed to be asleep. There’s an open narrative to it. I like that feeling of uncertainty that it creates.

Totally. And if it means something to you, that’s all that matters, essentially. I feel like that’s what I was saying with making my work look like everybody else’s so that I get more work. I think it is easier to do that than to do your own, to carve your own creative path or whatever. It’s easier to do work for other people to pay attention to rather than to make work solely for your own consumption. At least for me, it is. Because you can avoid what you should be creating by creating stuff that is for other people. Then you can use the excuse, “Oh, I’m making it so all these other people can enjoy it.” But then the reality is, at least for me right now, I’m hiding behind that because I don’t know what else to do. I have ideas, but I don’t have anything that I’m feeling super passionate about right now.

Yeah, I think there are some things that we can write off as artists. For example, I can say, “This is a job today. Today I’m going to work, and I’m going to create lifestyle photos for these shoes.” Accepting that can make it enjoyable. I understand, just like if I am bartending, I can say, “I’m going to go to the bar, and I’m going to make drinks, and I’m going to go the fuck home.” So when I shoot shoes, I go out on the golf course and I shoot some pretty photos that will work well for their lifestyle. I edit them, make them look great, deliver them as fast as I can, get done, get paid, and I’m not putting those in my portfolio. The cool thing is that even on those jobs, I look for an opportunity to create something weird or interesting, and I’ll put that in my portfolio. It almost becomes like a hunt.

Haha. Art in the mundane.

Yeah! So what I’ve been able to do sometimes is start delivering on exactly what they asked for and then be like, “Hey, we’ve got the shots, so if you guys are cool with it I’m going to set up a light over here, and we’re going to take some weird portraits.” Even if they don’t use them, I got some portraits that I like.

Totally.

That’s been a cool way to do that. I mean, I’m still figuring this shit out too.

I mean, everybody is! Fuck. I’ve got a few older friends that have been shooting since the seventies or sixties even. You see people like that who own their studio, and they have all this gear and get these gigs where they only have to shoot like one day a month or something like that I think, “Oh, they made it.” That’s the obvious conclusion to reach. But then you sit down and talk to them, and they’re dealing with the same bullshit, too. It’s just at a different level.

It all comes back to, “you’ve gotta keep hustling.” You’ve got to make money no matter what level you’re at. You can be Annie Leibovitz, and you’ve still got to hustle your ass off. Just to a different extent.

I’m fine with the hustle until I’m budgeting for food. At that point, I’m like, “fuck this.”

I know! I’m in that same boat right now because I mean, we’re just blowing our credit cards up. And I’ve stopped touring, I’m not going to tour anymore, and that was our money. I don’t know. I’m always a pessimist, but stuff usually comes together at some point. I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky in that way. I’ll be down to my last can of dog food, and six-pack and somebody calls me and gives me a cool gig. I get that. I just haven’t had that in a while. Or I have actually. I’ve had something come up in the last couple of weeks so.

I try to remind myself of that too. It’s always worked out. I don’t know how, but it’s always worked out.

Really if you think about it objectively, you think, “Yeah, I’m doing okay. I’ve got a good setup here.” I have younger photographers that will come over and be like, “Oh my god, you have so much fucking equipment, you make your own schedule, and do whatever the fuck you want.” I had somebody say that the other day. I was like, “You’re right, but it sucks!”

It’s just the flipside of the coin.

Yeah! It’s just different. When I was getting started, I wanted gear, and I couldn’t afford it, and now I have every fucking piece of gear that I want really. It’s all perspective.

I like to ask this of most people. What is one odd fact about you that most people don’t know?

I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of stuff people don’t know about me. If you're talking about public perception, people that follow my work, most of those people probably don’t know anything about me. There’s always the thing of, how much do you share? And how much of it is just a brand? I don’t know.

Most people don’t know about my religious upbringing at all. That’s one thing. I think the stuff that people don’t know about me is naturally the stuff that people don’t want to talk about. It’s religion, depression, anxiety. Um, various insecurities. Various states of mental disrepair. When you’re having these moments that everybody has you feeling like you’re sucking at life. It’s something I’ve just started working on in the last couple of years with help from my lady friend. I’m dealing with my childhood. I’m dealing with depression. I’m dealing with anxiety. You know, what’s going on inside this body and brain instead of going head-on on autopilot which is what I’m good at doing. So yeah, I think the mental health thing is something that people probably don’t know about me. But, everybody has mental health shit.

Just as we said ealier, other's perception of you, (the universal you) is going to be inaccurate. Knowing that you’re not alone is often times such a fucking relief.

Yeah, it is, but I was hoping it would be more of a relief. Haha! I was hoping it would like, fix everything, and it hasn’t.

Sure.

It’s like, “Okay, those people are depressed and weird, and you think they’re crazy.” So you’re not alone, but it still sucks.

Yeah.

I’m looking for a quick fix, and I haven’t found it yet. I’ll sell it when I do.

You can find Giles online here:

gilesclement.com

instagram.com/gilesclement

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