Most people, understandably, have no idea of what writers and photographers actually do day-to-day, so I thought I'd explain some of the process involved in my writing and photography. What follows is very long and very dull. If, like me, you have a low attention span then scroll speedily to the bottom and you’ll understand why I’ve taken the time to explain in such detail.
A Little History
I have a guilty secret that I’m embarrassed to share because of the apparent disconnect with my current focus on sex work activism and documentary photography. When I first wrote and photographed for publication I wrote about rock climbing, the outdoors and the environment. Although on the face of it, that has no connection what-so-ever with the topics I now work on, I learned a great deal from writing for New Zealand’s Wilderness Magazine. I will always be immensely grateful to Alistair Hall, the editor of Wilderness, for the opportunity he gave me to grow as a writer and photographer. Most of what follows I learnt from developing a relationship with Alistair and the various other editors I wrote and photographed for in New Zealand.
One reason I'm interested in working on projects focusing on the politics of sex work is that it’s an area that encompasses an incredibly broad and complex range of topics, including discrimination, stigma, economics, class, politics, feminism, identity, sexuality and gender, HIV/AIDS, diversity, migrant work, the justice system, prisons, criminalisation and human rights.
It’s difficult to keep up with all that’s happening and very difficult to understand some of the nuances around sex work and human rights unless you spend a great deal of time researching. I’m very sensitive about being an outsider to a community that has not been well served by the media, therefore for me, research is an obsession.
I spend on average three to four hours a day researching, writing or photographing for my projects. Although a lot of that time is spent reading about issues within sex work and trawling Twitter, it also involves finding outlets to pitch stories to, looking at other photographer's work and photo stories that have relevance to the topics I’m working on, emailing people, more emailing, meeting people and talking.
I use Twitter as a diary of sorts and for some of my research, hence you will see retweets of articles I’ve read plus lots of dull posts about sitting scribbling on the State Library of Victoria as I’m currently based in Melbourne.
I am not a newspaper journalist. I have no affiliation to a newspaper group or any wish to. I’ve no interest on working on stories where you skim read about a topic, interview someone for ten minutes and write the story the same day. One reason why sex work is so poorly served by the media is that journalists today are under immense pressure to tell a story and do so quickly. That’s why they resort to stereotypes; stereotypes communicate information - usually the wrong information - quickly.
The way I work is different from a journalist and I think of it more in terms of documentary photography as it’s generally more collaborative and long-term. So for instance, I share first drafts with some of the people I work with. A journalist won't do that because they don’t have time. I share first drafts if I think the people I’m working with have something to lose. By that I mean if you are someone who is making themselves vulnerable by sharing your story you deserve the opportunity to see the context in which it will be told. I try to make decisions around this based on power. If you have no access to the media and no way of telling your story I think you are due more involvement in the process than an organisation with a PR department and long standing relationships with journalists and editors.
I also spend more time trying to understand the perspectives of the people I talk to and do my best to develop relationships with them that lead to longer term projects. I’m also very protective of them.
I use formal confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements to protect the people that I work with. These are agreements that guarantee anonymity and also allow people to choose to opt out of a project we’ve worked on.
My responsibility for protecting people’s confidentiality goes beyond signing a paper form. It’s worth reading Scarlett Alliance’s advice on media ethics to understand how identifying sex workers by location, place of work, etc. can threaten their right to privacy and can expose them to very real dangers from stigma and discrimination.
When I record an interview with someone I always transcribe it. When I began my project I did all the transcription myself. I found it meant it was impossible to complete a story and pitch the result in a timely manner because transcription took up too much time. I now use either http://www.transcription.net.au/ (who have a non-disclosure agreement) or someone I trust who is supportive of sex work activism who has signed a non-disclosure agreement. I’m also careful to cut anything that may be off the record before it gets transcribed where necessary. All materials are deleted by any third party once transcription has been completed .
Technology and digital security also have a role in protecting confidentiality. I record digital audio, occasionally video interviews and make digital transcripts, so I have responsibility to ensure their confidentiality is not compromised. Recordings and transcripts are held securely on external hard drives and never in the Cloud (e.g. Dropbox or Evernote). The hard drives or laptops I work on that may contain any confidential material will never be recycled or sold on. I use Evernote religiously to save news articles, PDF’s of legislation, and for some of my writing but not for transcripts or sensitive material. And, you’ll also notice a formal disclaimer at the bottom of any of my emails.
I review all my model releases and confidentiality agreements and digital security regularly.
With project based photography I usually work with analogue film not digital. One reason why, is that negatives cannot be copied and once destroyed they are gone for good. I process all black and white film myself and use Hillvale in Melbourne who have signed a non-disclosure agreement for processing colour film.
Because the projects I’m working on are long running it is entirely possible that when I start working with someone their life circumstances change. They may be open about who they are when we start working, but they may have a partner or family in the future and at that time may wish to be more private. To cover this I have a clause in my model release form that says I will destroy any negatives at any point on request. If any scans have been made from the negatives they will also be deleted. Unlike many model releases mine does not wave someone’s right to how their image may be used in perptuity. The model release also explains exactly what the photos will be used for and in what context they may be displayed.
If I’m working on portfolio photography in exchange for interviews I will shoot in digital and there’s a separate photographer’s standard model release to cover that. I still take care to ensure the photos are never shared or used without permission.
I don't post long term projects on Instagram or Twitter although you will see occasional work-in-progress updates. For instance, one of my current projects has been running for almost three years and still isn't ready for exhibition or sharing on social media.
In developing this approach I’ve used the following sites:
- Scarlet Alliance
- Sex Workers Project media tool kit
- Witness - have a range of resources for activists including guides to confidentiality with regard to interviewing and interviewing survivors of sexual based and gender violence.
- Reporters Sans Frontieres - Digital Security
- Research Project Germany - Matthias Lehmann’s project on sex work regulation in Germany
I thought explaining a more of what happens when you write for publication might also help people understand what happens after I interview them.
The hardest part of freelance writing is not the writing, but the pitching. To get an article published you don’t submit the article complete, instead you submit a query - or pitch - to see if an editor might be interested in publishing your article before writing it. A pitch summarises the story, says why it might be of interest to the readers of that publication, verifies that you have access to sources and that your sources agree to you using any interviews. With editors I’ve not worked with before, I also include things like who I have previously written for and why I’m interested in the topic I am writing about.
Pitching, as I suggested, means showing the editor you have read their publication. Magazines have different sections for features, opinion pieces and general news. You have to be familiar with the different sections of the publication by name, so that you can say where you think your piece should be included.
Timing is also significant. If something is topical it’s more likely to get published. Most media organisations have editorial calendars that they use to plan the year ahead. Editorial calendars schedule articles months or years in advance. As an example, the Prostitution Reform Act in New Zealand was introduced in 2003, so expect to see features coming up in 2023 as the twenty year anniversary approaches. Seasons are also a factor. Christmas is a notoriously slow period as Parliament is not sitting and the content of magazines and newspapers changes as a result.
Pitches are particularly frustrating to write because each one is tailored to a particular newspaper or magazine, and they have to be prioritised in a way that you don’t pitch the same article to multiple outlets. Editors want unique stories, not cut-and-paste repetitions of the same content, so you can’t send the same pitch to multiple outlets. The time between an interview and a pitch for me currently is usually a minimum of a few weeks because I have to balance work with my day job. Editorial calendars and the depth required by some projects can extend that to months or years. That’s frustrating not only for me, but for the people I work with and one mistake I have made in the past is not clearly stating this up front.
Once a pitch has been made to an editor there is always a delay in hearing back. If I don’t hear back from an editor and I think that the pitch should have been accepted because it fits with the magazine I’ll always - always - follow up and either email or phone the editor. The first time I got something published in a magazine was because I did just that. The editor had seen my pitch, but because he was busy forgot to mail me. When I phoned him he remembered and said ‘yeah, sure’.
Rejections happen for many reasons. A similar story may have run in the magazine recently or run in a rival publication (but you should know this from reading the publication and not pitch it in the first place). It may not fit with the publication, the editor may not think that the piece would be of interest to readers or they may disagree with the intent of the piece. They may just not like your writing.
Until you’ve worked with an editor regularly there’s a much greater chance of rejection. If they don’t know who you are, they are taking a risk on something unknown. Once you have worked with someone, they develop trust in you and are much more likely to work with you. That’s why pitching - and particularly pitching to a new editor - is really hard.
Rejection, however, is one of the things that builds up resilience and that’s a big part of working in a creative field.
Writing, ironically, is only a small part of all of this. Someone told me recently that writing is like editing a video and it’s uncannily true. A one hour interview can be around two to three thousand transcribed words. Most of the pieces I work on are between 750 - 1500 words. So cutting words up, reordering them and trying to find a way to make them flow in a coherent way is exactly like editing a video. You are continuously moving things around and trying to listen to them afresh.
Most magazines or newspapers have contributors guidelines - the Guardian, for instance, has a dedicated Style Guide and Freelancer’s Charter - explaining grammar and style and what format they expect images in etc. With writing you are aiming for a first draft that you can submit. I find I work on the laptop for most of that, but I always print, read and edit on paper.
Accuracy and attribution are probably the most time consuming aspect of writing, and particularly when writing about sex work. Because it’s a controversial topic there are many people who use statistics to argue against the decriminalisation of sex work. I’ll give you an often quoted example. There is a statistic that is frequently quoted that says the average age of entry into sex work is 13. That dramatic sounding statistic is wrong. It’s based on actual academic research that was conducted on a survey of children. Children; not adults. The importance of accuracy when writing about sex work is one thing I have learned from the activists I’ve followed; that’s why when a sex work activist says ‘evidence based’ you can be pretty sure they’ve done their research. Yes, I did stuff up the age of consent in NZ in my first article but there’s a story behind that . . .
Editors work with you to refine a first draft restructuring it, verifying accuracy and checking spelling and grammar. Not all editors understand the nuances of working on topics like sex work. I am very careful that any revisions use the correct language and that they do not do harm to the community I am working with. At no point do I share original transcriptions, details of sources, or anything that would breach confidentiality with editors.
Drafts and Revisions
Having submitted an article as a first draft an editor will usually come back with an edited second or final draft prior to publishing.
Editors and sub-editors always change your content. The #1 thing they will change is the title, but they will also format text, check for grammar and good editors are interested in attribution. They want to know that what you say is backed up by research or that it can be verified. If you look at good writing it will contain references to original sources. A good editor should already be familiar enough with some of the topics you are writing about to ask for you to back up what you are saying and that’s done through the revision process.
If I get something published I’ll always tell the people I’ve worked with that it’s been published and send them a link so they can share on social media.
Currently, I don’t. My day job funds my work on this project, but I am beginning to struggle to balance the time for one with the other. I pay for flights, photographic film, cameras, analogue recorders and video gear. I sacrifice time I could spend with friends on holiday to interview and shoot.
No one, even the most committed activist, does anything for nothing. I know that within the community that I am trying to document people have some very strong opinions about people making money out of selling sex work stories. I try to give back where possible. I contributed money to SCOT-PEP in return for an interview. I crowd funded Merritt Kopas so that I had the opportunity to talk with Melissa Gira Grant. Under certain circumstance I think it is appropriate to reward people for time and I have a great deal of sympathy for people within the sex work community who are wary of the media and people piggybacking.
Writing does generate some income - although Open Democracy don’t pay - as can selling photographic prints, but in the longer-term I need to fund a sustainable life working in this area through grants and working with NGO's.
But you interviewed me! Where’s my story!
I’ve interviewed a number of people in New Zealand and because I have so much content I’m in the process of drip-feeding articles with a New Zealand perspective over the next year or so. Some interviews may not appear for many months and some may not appear at all. There are multiple reasons for that as I’ve suggested, as pitching means being strategic. That can mean that something happens in the future that makes a story more relevant than it would previously have been.
Every single conversation I have is valuable. It may be that we talk about something that will inform other work even if it may not lead to a magazine article.
Very Long and Very Dull . . . so what the hell do we get out of it?
I was talking with someone recently and they said that they didn’t really think 'awareness raising’ through writing does much. I agree. I don’t think a photograph or a piece of writing changes people's lives very much at all. I think outreach does. I think change in legislation does.
Writing and photography don't change people's lives in a practical way. And I don't believe in that hockum about my voice giving voice to the voiceless.
Juno Mac's eloquent and impassioned Ted Talk (which I finally got round to watching last night) is just one example of the articulate activism that's part of the sex work community. In her talk she had this quote:
Some of the worst writing and photography comes from those who smugly believe they are giving 'voice to the voiceless' whilst directly contributing to silencing the community they document. One motivation for me, is to attempt not to fall into the same trap.
Communities don't exist in isolation. They do need people to share their stories, to collaborate and - in an increasingly digitally rich world - augment stories. Not everyone can write, not everyone knows what makes a good photo, not everyone can edit video: I, to a lesser or greater degree, can do these things. And the other aspect of this, is that if you are sitting there thinking you could do a better job - and you probably can - then I’ve just given you a template for exactly how you can begin to.
I'd like to give a shout out to some people who have helped and supported my work over the last couple of years. Without their help my project would probably not exist.