As a photographer from a middle-class family in India, treating any work with respect is dignity. I cannot emphasise this enough.
I did several photography projects in India between 2013 and 2017 – weddings, commercials, documentaries, and corporate projects. As a result, I met and interacted with various classes of people. It was a revelation how people treated me differently because of my work. Photography in India, as a work, is not regarded highly unless it is done with big international clients. For instance, I once did a photoshoot with a colleague for a big gym in India. They wanted pictures for their promotional and advertising work. We finished the work on time and delivered the pictures, but they refused to pay us. They even used our pictures in all their promotional material. When we insisted, they verbally abused us and told us that our pictures were not good enough. As freelance photographers, we did not have much power. Such instances were a usual occurrence. Sometimes clients paid us as late as two months after the delivery of work. Many wealthy clients heavily bargained and took advantage of our freelance status. We did not have much bargaining power. In another instance, a client felt that my time did not matter at a wedding. They expected me to stay much beyond the stipulated time. Sometimes it meant staying as late as 5 am and clicking all the 800-1000 guests at the wedding. Even after this, they felt no need to apologise or offer to pay extra for overtime. If they hired us, they owned us.
I realised what dignity meant when I had another context for comparison. I came to the UK in 2017 to continue doing freelance work. In the beginning, potential clients would not trust or welcome me because of my colour or accent. Some photographers also expected me to work for free because I did not have a work portfolio in the UK. This was despite the fact that I had worked in India for over four years. Even today, some clients do not offer food at weddings that last for over ten hours. This was not the case in India. However, one stark contrast between India and the UK was that clients in the UK did not bargain or expect me to stay beyond the stipulated time.
Freelance photography has many challenges. It is not all glamourous. It requires immense physical, emotional, and creative labour. Moreover, it does not have any social security, pension, or other regular work benefits. While I have met some fantastic people on the way, the comparative experience of working in India and the UK makes me think of context-specific factors that structure any work in a hierarchy of structural relations. These context-specific factors also provide a relative insight into what is good work, who is a respectable worker, whose time matters, and what is the work’s worth – all of which are relative in determining one’s dignity at work.
Hardik Gaurav is a freelance photographer. You can find more about his work here.