Dirt under your fingernails

A tweet caught my eye today, by @maylavelle



It made me stop and think. I replied “Yes it does”.

I don’t know about anyone else, but my work experience is what you might call ‘varied’.  I recounted it recently to a group of under-graduates in Falmouth University where I was External Examiner on their (truly excellent) Marine & Natural History Photography Degree Course.

I asked the small group I spoke with the same question I had asked previous groups of students “You all want to be natural history photographers don’t you? (they nodded “yes”) …..and would I be right to think that if you don’t find employment in that field you’ll be really dismayed?” 

In one voice they responded “yes, very disappointed”.

So I tell them about my work background, that I was a welder in the shipyards for a year, then completed a proper 4 year carpentry apprenticeship with a local joiner/undertaker followed by several years in the building trade, then into 23 years in Social Work Disability Services involving running a small crafts workshop, developing an outdoors skills course for adults with physical and intellectual impairments, teaching canoeing & skiing, and with the added excitement of occasional stints cooking on canal barges, designing and making stained glass windows and a host of other stuff. They always look puzzled, because I don’t mention photography.

I say “Now…any questions…?” and someone always queries “…er…um…you didn’t mention photography…?”

So I explain how I’ve worked professionally as a photographer for 40 years managing to obtain job-shares or part-time work in most of the other ‘proper’ jobs I’ve had to allow this. But that this other source of income has left me free to undertake the photographic work I want to do, rather than need to do. This has often been working for clients in the environmental and social care sectors, because I value the work they do, and in truth many of these organisations don’t have huge budgets anyway and my contributions are hugely valuable to them.

But, and its a lovely ‘but’ to lob in next, but what has delighted me is that the skills which I’ve gained in my other fields of employment have been hugely valuable to me as a photographer, and often surprisingly so.

Dirt under your fingernails © John MacPherson

Dirt under your fingernails © John MacPherson

One example I offer was trying to get a rather reluctant fellow to cooperate for some images featuring the boat he was building. He was not up for it. Not at all. So we talked, and I mentioned how accurate some of the design features were on his boat (a huge scale model) and I mentioned  davits and cofferdams and double-bottoms and his eyes lit up – “How do you know all that boatbuilding stuff?” so I explained about my shipyard experience and he was fascinated. Then I asked about his family and in the conversation he mentioned that he made some of the models he was working on for his son who has autism. With my long Social Work experience of working with and for people with autism I was able to discuss his son’s condition and situation in some depth. It was a lovely warm conversation and the result was an open and generous offer to photograph, and with a subject who was engaged and communicative with me because he knew I understood where he was coming from.


Tools of the trade © John MacPherson

Tools of the trade © John MacPherson


It has happened to me more times than I can remember  – another memorable moment recently was talking with the builders renovating an old derelict building as part of a community revitalisation project which involves me tutoring a group of local people in documentary photography skills, and them recording the renovation process. In truth I got the job as tutor because I have a photography AND building trades background, combined with very specific people skills gained through my Social Work employment. The Building Renovation Project Manager gave me the normal talk-through of their work, but I asked questions, technical ones, and he looked puzzled “How do you know all this stuff?” So I told him, and he smiled broadly “Great! So you’ve got dirt under your fingernails too then, excellent!” and immediately we were on the same wavelength.

These moments of real understanding and communication are often vital to gaining access and breaking barriers. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the value such a diverse range of work skills can provide when you speak with subjects and try to win their trust and cooperation.

So, to May, and anyone else forging a path through the creative industries, don’t fret over whether that stint as a husky dog poo shoveler in Alaska is relevant or not, put it in your job application, demonstrate that you are adaptable, multi-faceted and willing to get ‘dirt under your fingernails’.

If I was a potential employer, I’d like to see that.


Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (2 Comments)

  1. Ray Ketcham says:

    I have traveled much the same. Managed to travel through many different career paths to finance the art work and photography John although i never stuck with one job as long as you managed to. The same advice you are mentioning I also push 10 fold with my students. to be able to connect you need to have something in common and that comes from experience not observation. I believe Ben Shahn also recommended that sort of hands on experience in his Shape of Content book. Good advice for everyone no matter what age or stage of any career.

  2. John MacPherson says:

    Thanks Ray. Yes, breadth of experience can’t be taught, you need to live it and know. Smart employers recognise this (or should!) and truth is you’ll be a better person for straying off into the less well-traveled corners and gaining the understanding that comes from doing so. As you know!

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