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The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted those working in the theatre exceptionally and not only the dancers, actors and singers who grace our stages. Almost forgotten are the specialist dance and theatre photographers, most of whom make their living from selling photos – either as a production photographer or else representing a publication. Without any live performances, there are obviously no previews or reviews being published and so there are many photographers have been left unemployed. Many, too, are freelancers. Johan Persson and Elliott Franks share their thoughts.
Johan Persson, the former Royal Ballet dancer who is now one of London’s leading dance and theatre photographers says: “I am in touch with many of my colleagues and there is a general sense that we have been overlooked when the plight of the performing arts industry as a whole is spoken about, probably due to the transient nature of our work and the fact that we are all freelance with many various clients. But, because of the size of the industry in the UK, almost all of us are specialised exclusively within it and for that reason our profession and livelihoods are extremely vulnerable at the moment. Many have also struggled to qualify for grants because of the various cracks in the system, and even if some support is given the temporary nature of this versus how long the sector might be shut fuels anxiety.
“My personal situation is that I have two children who suddenly weren't going to school, aged 14 and 12, and their mother, who works in the charity sector, had more work than ever helping very vulnerable people in this quickly changing Covid-19 environment. So my studio became a classroom of sorts and, like a lot of parents, I have been spending most of my time making sure they are on top of their schoolwork, getting exercise and eating well. And I have to say that, when I'm not feeling anxiety about not working, this time with my kids has been and continues to be wonderful.
“In the free time I have had I have managed to make a couple of family films, one of which is for my father’s 80th birthday this week and it involved approximately 1000 images and film clips. An epic undertaking, which it is fair to say I became slightly obsessed with. I have also worked on organising my photographic archive, which is a never-ending project. Whilst doing that I came across a shoot I did for NDT a few years back and realised I hadn't had time back then to look through properly what I had done. It was like finding a hidden treasure and attached is an example. The idea of these shoots was for an ongoing project, which has now culminated in a book, called Movement, all about my fascination with depicting motion within a still image. Had I come across the attached image sooner it would have been in the book.
“What happens next for me and my work is unknown, as it is for the entire performing arts industry. No doubt I will have to adapt and diversify, which on good days fills me with excitement. On bad days, of which admittedly there are a few, I have to remind myself that I have done this in the past, transitioning from ballet dancer to photographer after a career-ending knee injury. The lesson from that time was to trust in the skills I had learnt as a dancer, perseverance, discipline, hard work etc. and they will guide me through.”
"I find politics fascinating and often feel that history is being made around me."
Elliott Franks, an experienced London-based photojournalist covering news, politics and arts since 1999, has attended rehearsals and photocalls at all the national and international dance companies and has a real passion for ballet. He writes: “When lockdown started, I thought that I'd have time on my hands to catch up on a backlog of editing and uploading years of work onto my website, but progress has been very slow, mostly due to a lack of motivation. With all good intentions, my lockdown experience has mostly been to try and find some daily routine and normality, such as reading the newspapers each morning, cooking, exercise, playing the cornet, watching the daily press briefing and so on. I have tried to take a camera out on my daily walks, I live close to a river so it’s always very relaxing to photograph the flora and fauna along the river bank; I have a need to channel creative energy in a positive way and this really helps.
"At this point I should say that a number of years ago I diversified to cover news press photography as well as the arts: this decision was mainly a response to arts companies handing out free production imagery to
newspapers, which has effectively started the demise of the performing arts press industry that had been flourishing since the late fifties. Over the last ten years or so I have had many news pictures published, including many newspaper front pages - I find politics fascinating and often feel that history is being made around me. Many of my news colleagues didn’t stop working during the lockdown and there was an option for me to continue as well: the newspapers were still covering political events and running plenty of coronavirus-related stories, the weekly NHS clapping for carers, empty streets, commuters packed onto tube trains, people in parks and on beaches during the warm weather with little regard to social distancing, but unfortunately as I have suffered from various respiratory problems throughout my life I had to step down from being a photojournalist in order to shield and self-isolate, which mostly I have done. Having built up over 400,000 images on my website I do get some direct sales, which is very helpful during these uncertain times. I hope that soon we’ll be able to restart attending dress rehearsals, photocalls and production shoots and helping our colleagues get this incredible industry back on its feet.”