Creative Lives — “Self-promotion, especially in the beginning, is crucial”: Photographer Sam Gregg
Having supported himself through the first few years of his career with a plethora of casual work, Sam Gregg was spurred on to undertake a bout of travelling. He ended up working as a production assistant for three years in Bangkok, during which he took on photography as a serious art. A few passion projects later, he’d created a full body of work and now works as a professional photographer, splitting his time between commercial and personal work. Sam speaks to us about his love-hate relationship with London, the value of social media and how to balance money through the lens of a journey which has taken him across the world and back again.
Apple, Lavazza, M Magazine, Pitchfork, Polaroid
Film and TV Production Assistant (four years)
English Teacher (one year)
Bartender (six months)
Studio Assistant (six months)
BA Modern Languages, University College London (2008–2012)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m first and foremost a documentary photographer, however, I naturally shoot a lot of commercial work to make a living and in turn supplement my personal projects. At a time when mental health is deteriorating, in part due to the evident falsities of social media, I think my work can be alluringly honest for a lot of clients.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
If I’m not shooting, I’ll wake up around 8am, respond to any unanswered emails, network a bit, and edit for any upcoming deadlines. If I’m up to speed with everything then I’ll spend the remaining time on personal projects.
How collaborative is your role?
That depends. Commercial work is a collaborative process, but I’m very much a one-man band when it comes to personal work. Of course, portraiture is in itself a collaborative act between the photographer and sitter, however, everything leading up to it – the planning and so on – is usually done entirely by myself.
An image from Sam’s Blighty series
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Taking a great photo – or taking a crap photo that you thought was going to be great.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Shooting for M Magazine was a milestone for me. I’m always so impressed by the quality and selection of photographers that they use, so to be asked to shoot for them was a real honour.
What do you like about working in London?
To be brutally honest, not that much. I’m very fortunate to live in one of the main creative hubs of the world, but I rarely feel inspired by my surroundings. London can feel a little homogenous to me, which is antithetical to the character-driven nature of my work. If it wasn’t for the need to attend meetings then I would likely pack up shop and move to Naples. 99% of my networking or conversing is done online, it’s just the 1% of face-to-face or actual shoots that scupper things.
“I’m always working on personal projects. That’s my bread and butter.”
Are you currently working on any personal projects? If so, how do you manage your time alongside other work?
Yes, I’m always working on personal projects. That’s my bread and butter. It’s how everything started for me. My personal work continues to feed my commercial work and vice versa so I have to keep nurturing that side of things. Naturally, however, as the commercial work increases, the time for personal work decreases.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Cameras: Mamiya 7 and Contax G2. Film scanners: Epson V850 and Hasselblad Flextight (rental). Apple MacBook Pro. Photoshop. Lightroom.
Is there a resource that has particularly helped you?
In terms of photographic inspiration, Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies is enough to get anyone’s creative juices flowing. In terms of keeping myself entertained whilst editing, I like to listen to the Joe Rogan podcast. Editing can be a lengthy, mind-numbing experience so I try to at least educate myself whilst working.
Images from Sam’s Blighty series
How I Got Here
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
Hugely. Both my parents are creative. Something must have filtered through my thick skull.
Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I studied French and Italian at UCL, but you don’t need to study to be a photographer. A lot of the best photographers are autodidactic.
After graduating, what were your initial steps?
It was around that time that I got my first ever photography book: Steve McCurry’s South by Southeast. It inspired me so much that I started working as a waiter so that I could fund a trip to India.
After spending six months I was in India, I went to Bangkok where I worked as a production assistant for an international film company for almost three years. During the final year I started to take photography quite seriously, which led to my first real body of work, Neon Dreams.
Sam photographed Ghanaian investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas for M Le Magazine du Monde
I returned to the UK and knew immediately that I wanted to create another body of work, this time in Naples, so I packed up shop and lived there for a year. I’d teach English in the mornings and the evenings, and in between I’d photograph the city, which led to my second body of work, See Naples and Die.
After that I returned to the UK and finally decided to give photography a proper shot. I interned at the agency Art Partner and then worked as a studio assistant, all the while continuing to chip away at my own work.
About six months ago the commissions slowly started to trickle in and I can now finally say that photography is my full-time profession. The dream has been realised, but I’m fully aware this is only just the start of things.
See Naples and Die series by Sam
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I’d say that I’m still waiting for a lucky break. Although I feel like having a ‘lucky break’ isn’t so relevant these days. Perhaps it was back in the day when it was harder to get your work out there. In the past, work could be more easily overlooked, but nowadays with social media, if you’re good enough then people will find you relatively quickly.
How important would you say social media is?
Oh, incredibly. For me, more or less everything comes through Instagram. It’s just a question of what the next platform’s going to be. Before it was Flickr and Tumblr, but next? Who knows.
“I thought that if you made good work then people would somehow gravitate towards it.”
How important is self-promotion in your work?
For a while I didn’t understand self-promotion – right up until last year, actually. For some reason I thought that if you made good work then people would somehow gravitate towards it. I soon understood that self-promotion, especially in the beginning, is crucial.
If you send 100 emails you may get only a few replies, but you just have to keep going. Persistence is key. You’ll finally reach a point that your work will start to self-propagate and you’ll rarely have to contact anyone, which in itself is a massive time-saver.
What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
At the beginning it can be really tough to figure out how much you’re worth and how much money you can ask for. Luckily by the time the first few commissions came in I’d already made contact with a few agents, and they were more than happy to give me advice on how much to ask for. As long as you don’t pester them too much and spread the questions around then most will be happy to help.
Don’t be afraid to ask – underselling yourself destabilises the market for other photographers. But in terms of finances, unless you’re some wunderkind then be prepared for a tough first few years. For a while I juggled several jobs whilst pursuing my dream and I firmly believe that this initial struggle is an important, character-building part of the journey.
“At the beginning it can be really tough to figure out how much you’re worth and how much money you can ask for.”
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Staying motivated. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. As a documentary photographer it takes a long time to compose a meaningful portfolio. The market is oversaturated with fake, meaningless imagery because that’s what sells.
So to be able force your way into the commercial market with honest documentary work isn’t easy. It will likely take a few years to find a voice that permeates the norm. There’s pressure to succeed at a younger age , but don’t take any notice of this. Everyone evolves at different speeds. Think about how many talents have been lost by giving up too early.
What advice would you give to an emerging creative getting into the same line of work?
Just keep going. Don’t give up. As an artist it can take years to build up a strong portfolio. Be patient and be prepared to struggle or be poor for quite some time. Also only take advice from those that have realised their dreams. They know what it takes.