Why making good work is no longer enough
The creative industry prides itself on innovation, but it’s still stuck in the same old systemic loops. What it needs is to centre care as a creative principle.
So much has changed since the onslaught of the pandemic. Life has been interrupted, lost and reconfigured. Like it or not, the world is not the same. We’re not the same. So many of us are exhausted, searching for change. We crave a new type of life, one that is more intentional and immersive, with a deeper connection to the people, places and things we love. At the same time, some of us are simply desperate for safety, support and stability. What unites us is that we can’t go back to what was, but the future path is still unclear.
The creative industry prides itself on innovation, connecting with people and good ideas but if we are honest with ourselves, how much of this is feeding the beast rather than building the kind of future we actually want? Time after time, we’ve seen brands cash in on marginalised communities and social justice movements, feigning support for self-interest, rarely ensuring that if they profit from a community, they also fuel it. The industry is still hung up on systems and storytelling with little to no accountability for people or the planet. There is endless talk of innovation, but is anyone doing it? We feel stuck in a holding pattern of the same hierarchies, methodologies, and most dangerously, the same values.
So, where does this leave us? How can we start to understand that we all play an active role in determining what comes next? If we want to build new systems, a healthier industry, and a better world – making good work is not enough. We need to be using the tools, talent and resources at our disposal to begin the kind of grassroots action that isn’t flashy, viral and PR-able. The type that isn’t about us at all – but about supporting our communities, environment, and mental health in meaningful ways that build a new world over time. We need to centre care as a creative principle.
“Our mission is to leave the world a little less shit than it was yesterday,” says Lydia Pang of Morning. The digital strategy and conscious storytelling studio co-founded with Sam Jackson is built around the principle that we all have “a responsibility to right the wrongs and push culture forward”. Morning People is a monthly fund that fuels creative projects that ordinarily sit on the fringes. “I want Morning to be a safe home for those ideas,” Lydia tells me. “So much work created these days is about likes or shares, reach or resale. I just like the idea of birthing meaningful and beautiful work for good. I want to support the folk who are brave enough to make work that pushes culture forward.” In the last five months, Morning People has funded a BIPOC creative coaching program, Instagram filter designers, photographers, and a Risograph studio.
“I think we’re living in a different world now. It’s uglier because we’re sat in more truth, and although it’s uncomfortable, it’s good. It’s pushing us to be better through daily incremental change.”Lydia Pang
“I think we’re living in a different world now,” Lydia shares. “It’s uglier because we’re sat in more truth, and although it’s uncomfortable, it’s good. It’s pushing us to be better through daily incremental change. I don’t think any business out there should exist without building ethics and impact into their daily operations and vision. For us, it felt natural to work with the best clients in the world, help them tell stories ethically, and then put some of that cash straight back into the creative community. We knew we wanted there to be circularity within our model. We want Morning to be a place for change and also a place for creativity beyond client work to thrive. Knowing we’re doing this makes me feel calm and excited like Morning stands for something bigger. That we show up for our mission daily, pushing incremental change through our actions, Robin Hooding that shit.”
As an industry, we often short circuit in our urgency for action and solutions. Slow, incremental change is the antithesis of our progress-driven mindset. We’ve built a system where value is intrinsically linked to spectacle and novelty, perception and performativity. While there is a place for that, this seemingly endless stream of virtue signaling is mimicking consciousness-raising rather than embodying it. While so many of the challenges we face on our planet often feel insurmountable, doing things that radically change people’s daily lives are crucial to chipping away at the bigger issues. “The only real place you can start is that which is within your control – our business and ourselves,” says David Johnston, founder of Accept & Proceed.
In 2020, the London-based design studio launched Kill Your Engine to open up a difficult yet urgent conversation about idling cars’ exhaust emissions outside school gates. These emissions produce up to twice as many fumes as a car in motion, leaving London kids at risk of massive exposure. The personal project was born from David’s conversation with a fellow parent who wanted to ask people to “kill their engine” but felt the request was too uncomfortable or provocative. “It was that exact discomfort that catalysed the campaign,” he explains. “Why should it feel uncomfortable to cut pollution – especially in school areas and for people who need our protection the most?”
“If you were to account environmental and sustainability factors into businesses properly, 78 per cent of those currently listed would be unviable.”David Johnston
What began as an awareness campaign at one school in Hackney was scaled via a digital platform so schools and parents worldwide can arm themselves with the facts and create customised posters to educate and create change around this often overlooked but urgent issue. “Caring about the local and global environment is the responsibility of every organisation and individual. Given what’s coming down the track, most organisations’ current value proposition is terminal,” David says. “This is based on the fact that if you were to account environmental and sustainability factors into businesses properly, 78 per cent of those currently listed would be unviable – a fact we learned from Indy Johar, founder of Dark Matter Labs, during one of the prototyping sessions.” Small, scalable and effective projects like Kill Your Engine illustrate how centring care allows us to collectively co-curate new possibilities.
While there is power in numbers, the agency of individuals is not to be underestimated. Fuck Gatekeeping, the knowledge-based site that provides accessible information about building a career in the photo industry, was born in the summer of 2020 by three US-based photographers: Jared Soares, Carmen Chan and Emiliano Granado. After Carmen opened up her schedule for one-hour mentoring sessions for photographers from underrepresented communities, Jared and Emiliano followed suit. They hit a nerve, receiving a huge response, and Fuck GateKeeping was born.
“What was immediately obvious to us was that many photographers had very similar questions, and there were very few resources answering them,” says Emiliano. “Gatekeeping is systemic. It’s a lack of access to education, financial resources, information, access to experience, etc. It’s very much a nuanced situation. My goal is to convert my knowledge and experiences into accessible information for others, which they may not be able to access otherwise.”
Like many creative industries, photography has long been plagued by a lack of transparency and nepotism, resulting in a rampant sense of individualism. Fuck Gatekeeping seeks to dismantle this by enabling emerging photographers to attain agency on mass. “When I first started working independently, the notion of the ‘lone wolf photographer’ was still popping, especially in photojournalism,” explains Jared. “This created an atmosphere that felt cold and encouraged the hoarding of information. At the time, I didn’t know that this was gatekeeping – I just thought that I was late to the party. My initial desire was to do my part in attempting to level the playing field. As it stands today, I’m more interested in listening to the questions that we’re receiving to see how Fuck Gatekeeping can expand as the audience and the industry change over time.”
“The notion of the ‘lone wolf photographer’ in photojournalism created an atmosphere that felt cold and encouraged the hoarding of information. I didn’t know that this was gatekeeping – I just thought that I was late to the party.”Jared Soares
While photographers cherish the site, it also illuminates how photo editors and commissioners can better support the photo community and confront their unconscious bias. “My main goal is to bring awareness to the power that everyone has, you and I included, to be a gatekeeper,” says Carmen. “I realise that gatekeepers can have a multitude of reasons for hiring the same people or type of person. I think the important part is to be aware of these patterns and their effect on the homogeneity of the published work. In addition to the way they reinforce existing inequities in our industry and society.”
What is so generative about these initiatives is how they direct us to reflect on the conventions that underpin the creative industry. They all use culture to change the culture.
They build value systems that speak for them, rejecting cynicism and hopelessness and contributing to a new era of care fuelled by community, action and hope. What I love most, is that they hack the system to get it to do something it wasn’t designed to do – care – while empowering communities and individuals in transformative and intimate ways.