Record profits and stagnant wages. Declining profits and decreased pay. These are statement we have seen repetitively, and the photography industry isn’t immune. Covid is currently the scapegoat of the hour, although it didn’t start there. Creatives felt the crunch well before as companies exploited talent in their quest for the almighty dollar. As we have returned to normalcy, companies blame Covid for decreasing pay as their profits resume. Is this our new normal?
Rob Haggart, better known as A Photo Editor on the Gram, has been shining light on the recent events in our industry. I first started following A Photo Editor when I needed to put together a bid for a potential overseas commercial buyer. I stayed around for the content. He posed the simple question: Photographers, how much do you make? The responses have a familiar tune.
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Companies Were Shopping Local
As governments invested back into their economies, companies naturally had more money to invest. It gave a glimmer of hope that photography might return to its glory days. But it was too good to be true.– from A Photo Editor
Each photographer who responded to Rob saw their income increase during the pandemic. Quarantine and uncertainty meant companies were seeking out local talent instead of outsourcing to expensive places like New York City. The focus shifted away from influencers and back to actual skills. As governments invested back into their economies, companies naturally had more money to invest. It gave a glimmer of hope that photography might return to its glory days. But it was too good to be true.
Same Old Song And Dance…
As assembly lines reopened and profits resumed, companies were eager to return to their comfort zone — paying as little as possible. Every photographer that has answered Rob’s question has indicated that their income has since decreased. Furthermore, some are now doing more work like retouching, which was once outsourced to make ends meet. Factor in inflation, and it becomes a volatile situation. It’s unsustainable.
It’s also a double-edged sword. In order to gain access to the major clients, most photographers have opted for agent representation. Prior to Covid, many agents wouldn’t give a photographer the time of day unless they had landed a client on their own, had a large following, or were the child of someone famous. Now, many commercial photographers can’t afford to have an agent and are choosing to represent themselves. The increased workload makes it ever more difficult.
It is inexcusable when e-commerce has become such a giant in the realm of things. Drug companies and energy companies are looking to lifestyle photography to seem more relatable despite public opinion. It always comes down to the same old song and dance.
Free Image Licensing And Influencers Didn’t Help
Companies like Unsplash ultimately hurt photographers. Brands became perpetrators during the pandemic as they used the free images in multi-million dollar campaigns. They didn’t even have to credit the photographer. Sure, they have added some gimmicks that sound great, like showcasing your work. You can even pay them to have them show companies you’re available for hire. It’s still as toxic and exploitative as it ever was.
Free image licensing wasn’t the only culprit, but it was a major nail in the coffin. Prior to that, influencers became a commodity. Social media status overruled any actual talent, and brands were all too happy to jump on that trend wagon. Not only did it drive profit margins down, but it also lowered the overall quality of imagery. Commercial photography became about the influencer’s clout, not about the actual quality or impact of the image. It devalued photography.
It’s Even On The Local Level
Sadly, the record profits and stagnant wages pattern trickles into wedding, family, and senior portrait photography. Covid forever changed our relationship with our phones and social media. We are constantly overloaded with constant, and the immediacy is desensitizing. Some clients are unwilling to invest in good photography the way they used to. Others can’t afford as much as they would like. It’s up to us to pivot.
Our New Normal
Our new normal does not have to be accepting lower wages to subsidize record profits.
Our new normal does not have to be accepting lower wages to subsidize record profits. My favorite response to A Photo Editor is from a Lifestyle and Beauty photographer in Boston. In her response, she shares that a producer asked her to reduce her rate as they exceeded the budget. Had she waited, she would have held her ground. But being put on the spot, she conceded.
A photographer shouldn’t have to accept a pay cut for the agreed payment. It’s not their fault that a producer didn’t factor in accidental costs. And it’s not like they can’t afford it. I am also curious if the question would have even been asked had the photographer been a man. Maybe the first time, most likely not the second.
Regardless, photographers need to practice open and honest communication with creative directors, producers, and clients. Photography agents are also going to have to make a decision and pivot if they want the same income stream. Continuously doing more for less fosters an unrealistic expectation and leads to burnout. Local portrait photographers should have a clear understanding of their cost of doing business. It will make it easier to offer smaller, custom packages that are still worthwhile.
Most brands aren’t hurting right now, however, some have relinquished to smaller budgets. Concisely communicate what is and is not possible within that budget. Sure, it’s scary as there isn’t a lot of certainty right now. But clients also need to see a very clear line in the sand.
Lastly, she suggests that photographers need to be more open and honest while having each other’s backs. There is no need to be cutthroat. After all, it’s an industry that we all love. One photographer’s success doesn’t take anything away from us. It’s a win for the entire community, and we should get behind that mantra.