Above: A Deliveroo rider in Bristol. Credit: Sam Saunders.
Is the photographer a precarious worker? The question gets posed, and evidence is often adduced in favour of the affirmative: many tales of personal struggle and sacrifices rendered in order to keep body-and-soul together while trying to make a living as a pro, especially in the early years. To all those who have their stories of hardship to contribute: we feel your pain. However, in my view, placing the photographer into the demographic of precarious worker is unhelpful.
The essence of precarity is being a worker who does not offer a service or skill but rather offers themself as a pure unit of labour, to do, in many cases, work which requires no skills beyond ordinary life-skills (e.g., delivering hot-food by bicycle, cleaning, warehouse picking and humping, casual farm work, etc.). Central to precarity is the worker as eminently replaceable (if not actually disposable). One of the crucial aspects of the precariat, for Guy Standing, is psychological, "those in the precariat lack self-esteem and social worth in their work; they must look elsewhere for that esteem." And, as Standing argues, many precarious workers are ashamed of the work they do.
By contrast the self-employed photographer takes a certain pride in what he or she does, and has a unique skilled service to offer (even if the takeup is low). The issue is that if the photographer is be deemed precarious, then so too is the actor, the artist, the writer ... a slippery-slope with many newcomers (that could include any one with a wildly unpredictable income) joining the demographic as they see fit.
If photographers are in, then all self-employed persons could enter the category and no really new demographic would have been established. This slippery-slope tendency does a disservice to the harrowing plight of the precarious worker. If all manner of self-employed skilled workers (like photographers) begin to muddy the waters then they are less patently identifiable for what they are: the West's intentionally produced underclass.
Those in the precarity (participants in the non-skilled flexible labour market) gain their income via casual, agency, and/or gig-economy work. Precarious work is work undertaken and carried out because of a lack of any alternative. The precarious worker has no marketable specialist skills, and is foreclosed any chance to gain skills while still earning, and so is trapped doing low-paid insecure temporary work indefinitely.
(9 January 2019)