Coastalwatch Editor: Ben Ey

Growing up in Adelaide, surfing and the outdoors have always been a part of my life.  My first taste of the media came through contributing to a friend’s local surfing magazine, the Southern Surfer. However my first real break came in 2006 when I moved to the Gold Coast to take a job as web editor at Australia’s Surfing Life. After a year, the photo ed’s job opened up, allowing me to swap chairs and pursue my long-held interest in photography.

After three years of sitting at a desk, I returned to uni last year to try and pursue photojournalism. That didn’t quite work out as planned and in October last year I moved to Sydney to take a job at Coastalwatch.com.
I now live and work on the Northern Beaches where I surf and dive when I can.

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Describe yourself in 3 words: Old, tired and jaded? No, let’s say I’m still an optimist and romantic at heart, but in the day-to-day world I’ve become a realist.

What is your life motto? I wouldn’t describe myself as the kind of person who has a life motto, at least not in my professional life. The world we live and work in is a dynamic place and I think you have to be flexible enough to adapt your outlook, approach and, in your working life, values to meet the whims of the market. That can be bitter pill to swallow at times – the realisation that ideas, institutions and practices you believe are valuable, have no niche in the Darwinian world of business. It is a fact I’ve learned the hard way. You’ve got to be flexible and adaptable.

Having said all that, there certainly are truisms in life that I still think you forget at your personal, if perhaps not professional, peril. If I had to get a T-shirt printed and wear it around for the rest of my life, I’d borrow the closing journal entry from the movie, Into The Wild – ‘Happiness is only real when shared’. A decade ago, I probably should have worn one that said ‘You only live once’ a bit more often, but that motto takes on a melancholy timbre as you become a bit threadbare yourself. 

When did you start pursuing your career and how long did it take to become successful?  I’ve actually never really considered I had a career. I’ve always simply tried to follow my interests. However, the point in my life where I first realised what I really wanted to do – to get out and document people’s worlds – came though the opportunity to go to Europe with my Dad in my late teens. It was quite an epiphany for a kid from suburban Adelaide who delivered pizzas, surfed and rode mountain bikes. When I got home I started taking a serious interest in photography. I was moved by the images that appeared in National Geographic, Time, and those kinds of magazines. Their photographers created such compelling vignettes of people’s lives – their endeavours, problems and triumphs.

That was 15 years ago now, and “success” by virtually any definition is still very much a work-in-progress. However, there have been a few moments over that period when I’ve caught myself in an unlikely spot with camera in hand – up to my neck in a leech-filled swamp, hove-to and deathly seasick in a tropical storm off the Sumatran coast, or swimming with whirling masses of tuna miles offshore in the Southern Ocean – and had a profound realisation that I’m not there as tourist; that my photography has brought me here. They’ve been rare though.

 

How many hours did you dedicate to pursuing your dream? Hours isn’t even in the ballpark, though it has reminded me of the many ‘lunch hours’ I spent in my high school library immersed in magazines from around the world, and nights spent reading photography textbooks when I probably should have been focussing on more academic pursuits. That seems like an eon ago now – a dark age before the internet made the world a considerably smaller and more homogenous place. Photographers not familiar with the pre-digital world may also underestimate the time, effort and expense associated with shooting, developing and printing photos on film and photographic paper. I spent a lot of time in darkrooms, and later learning digital imaging workflows.

That said, all that time was really just dedicated to my interests. I don’t recall much of it a chore. Conversely I’ve wasted months of my life reading text-books on computer programming languages, search engine optimisation and the like in attempts to be successful at jobs I had no interest in. And while it’s been fun chasing my ‘dreams’, in the months that sometimes stretch between photography jobs, it’s hard not to reflect on the last decade of my life without a degree of sadness at the enormous chunks of time, energy and money I’ve thrown into trying to get this work, the paucity of opportunities that have come of it, and the toll it’s exacted on my personal life. There is blurry line between ‘dreams’ and fantasy.

I would say, to anyone reading this – take all this stuff about pursuing dreams with a grain of salt. Be aware that, like most things in life, pursuing a career is a gamble, no different to going into a casino. If you can’t afford to cover keep covering losing hands until you are able to walk away when you’re up, you are at the mercy of the dealers. Ambition is not necessarily a virtue, and ‘success’ is an index of life far broader than just your job.

Describe how difficult the business really is? Right now? The media is a very difficult business to be in. There has been enormous change over the past decade. The last five years have been hectic.

Photography has changed from a fairly exclusive, expensive and highly technical pursuit to something everyone can do, often to a near professional standard. It is a paradigm shift perhaps matched only by Kodak’s introduction of the box brownie last century. And just as digital capture and reproduction has democratised the craft, the internet has undercut it by significantly lowering the bar on quality. It’s probably easier than ever to be a wedding or real-estate photographer, but as far as getting someone to pay for photojournalism or fine art, or other considered work under the spectre of declining print circulation and our celebrity-driven culture, it’s probably more difficult than it’s ever been.

Writing and most other aspects of online and print media are not in a much better state. Everyone’s a blogger; the ease which you can measure online readership should be a good thing, but for the most part it just serves to validate the least-inspired aspects of the media practice.

All that said, if you’ve got commercially valuable talent, you can probably still find work. 

What is the mistake that taught you an extremely valuable lesson? Failing to realise that your labour is a market commodity. 

What is the best piece of advice you have been given to date? More than a decade ago, I was doing work experience as a photographer with the Adelaide Advertiser (daily metro newspaper) and tagged along with one of the staff cameramen to shoot one of the clergy at St. Peter’s Cathederal. Walking back from job, we stopped on the grassy banks of the Torrens River, sitting down to roll a cigarette. It was a warm, sunny day. I was talking about politics – enthused by all the stories that were coming through the newsroom. Eventually that sorta dried up and the photographer just said, “None of that  $h!t matters” and sorta segued into telling me about his newborn kid, and his wife and his house – his life. I didn’t get it at the time, but looking back it’s something I remember clearly.

On a more practical note, my old site foreman’s motto “never show your cards…” is advice I have come to accept as a solid guiding principle.

 

In your mind, is formal training essential? “Doing” is essential. Depending on the industry you’re hoping to enter, an ability to work within established protocols and framework will obviously have differing sway on your employability – if you want to be a lawyer, then formal training is essential, but other industries like the media are more results-based. When you are initially trying to break into an industry, the qualification (rather than the training itself) may help you get through the first cuts, but ultimately most employers will ultimately assess you on your ability to do the work.

Formal training can allow you to gain those skills much more quickly than trying to work independently, and also often opens up doors to the industry and introduces you to valuable contacts and peers.

Do you think having a mentor is important? How would you go about getting one for this industry? I believe working with a mentor is the most important step you can possibly take. While I don’t deny that people working in the education industry have done great work and made significant contributions to their field, the pace of change in most industries today means that they are increasingly far from the coalface.

I’m not sure how best to go about finding one. I’ve found it very difficult myself. Just get your work out there I guess. Approach anyone who you’d like to learn from. Try to offer them a reason they should help you out.

What are some steps emerging talent can take to start/further their career? Take stock of what’s going on now – what your peers/mentors/heroes are doing; what you’re being taught – and get good at that. But realise that to be able to flourish (be it through your own business, or employment in an industry sector where skills shortage drives wages up) you need to position yourself to take advantage of a niche in the market as it opens up. To do that you need to look at what’s happening in the future and prepare for that.

Consider rationally what opportunities might be available to you, and which you have the means and talent to pursue. Then work out if potential rewards are worth the investment of your time and capital.

At the same time, try and get whatever job you can within or around the industry you want to break into. In the media especially it’s all about contacts, to try and make as many as you can, and pick up skills wherever you can.

Also, try to stay in a position where you can keep working at your craft even if it’s only as a sideline.

 

What kept you going when you felt like giving up? Lack of any other opportunities? I don’t know. I wouldn’t say it’s so much a matter of “giving up” as making choices. If someone said to me today, or ten years ago, “You can continue trying to get work in this field or you can take this other option and have a happy family and money to travel to all the places you want to go and actually contribute financially to some of the causes you care about”, that’s a no-brainer. But life’s not that clear-cut.

Do you believe that ‘making it’ is about luck and being in the right place at the right time? For some people, it certainly is – making a good impression to the right person at the right party has certainly kick-started quite a few careers. But in a broader sense timing and relevance is key too. You’ve got to pick your battles.

Some people certainly seem to be “lucky” with their career, but on closer inspection there’s generally logic behind it. For the majority of us, in the majority of circumstances, I’d have to say “no, you create your own luck”. Position yourself as well you’re able within your means and hope for the best.

For more on Ben, check out Coastalwatch

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