Hey guys, Andy here. After approximately 18 months of in/ out COVID lockdowns in the UK, it feels that this iteration of restriction easing has longevity and is here to stay. While there is an amount of hesitation before we see life resuming as normal there are encouraging signs. However where does this leave Photoland UK and, after close to 18 months of unemployment, selfishly where does it leave me? I believe COVID has not altered the landscape of photography, or other industries, rather it has accelerated existing trends such as the decline of editorial and the swamp of FB and IG. So now what and do I see a route back into successful photography post COVID?
Editorial has continued it’s relentless death march during COVID encouraged by brand failure to support, lured by opaque social media practices. It is well documented that most social media platforms engage in tactics to lock brands and audiences alike into their orbit with results such as disinformation spreading six times faster than accurate news reports. Brands have pivoted their advertising budgets from print to online seeking increasing sales but recently resulting in financially supporting fake news and politically extreme websites. Brands, companies, film and music studios all need editorial to reach audiences yet have overlooked the fact that the advertising companies they pay into do not create content; and by not supporting editorial they will now have to shoulder these costs themselves if they want their products to be seen (some less scrupulous brands avoid these costs and deliberately follow a policy of content infringement). Arguably this had led to poor quality photography with brands preferring to spend the majority of their budgets online and allocating only a small amount to in-house content creation and production. This has seen the traditional route of editorial exposure landing commercial jobs has been turned on it’s head. With smaller budgets and less appetite for risk, remaining titles now prefer to commission already successful commercial photographers in the hope of landing that the commercial accounts follow their photographers. Quality no longer seems to be important with nepotism and the amount of online followers, to help push marketing plans, often taking priority. However, was it ever any different? This also is not a defence of the editorial model which many will claim never adapted to a new, online, model. Rather it’s a defence of the eco system it created where talent and content was commissioned and given exposure.
Exposure now means visibility on monopolistic online platforms. Platforms that require so much content they turns a blind eye to copyright infringement and actively engage in practices to frustrate enforcement of intellectual property rights. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have at their core the sole purpose to sell advertising and to seek increasing levels of engagement to further this aim at any expense. For those not aware, I suggest reading the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files investigation and also Australia’s recent findings and rulings on Google and the Google owned YouTube. The Atlantic went so far as to call Facebook a hostile foreign power, a description I can not find fault with. As a photographer and creator I find it hard to justify being on such platforms, even in the knowledge that to not engage means cutting off what few routes to market I have left.
Having communicated with brands to request support my Portraits of Pride project, and comprehensively received none, it is clear few have any budget to support or commission photography due to a COVID related drop in sales. Presumably this means, for the short term at least, we will continue to see photography completed at next to no production value, resulting in a poor final product, as brands try to recover. Will quality photography make a return? I hope so.
So where does that leave me and other photographers in a similar situation? Looking at recent trends it is clear success depends as much on the personality behind the camera as much as, if not more than, the quality of the product. However this is a trend I have eschewed and continue to be wary of, even if it is to my potential detriment. I have rarely tried to be the news, preferring to make my images and stories about the people in front of my camera.
Post COVID I am now in a position of being able to meet people and take portraits, something I have rarely been able to do since March 2020. Yet, for reasons laid out above, seeking commissions and exposure to gain further work is challenging. However languishing at home, and not engaging with people through photography, has little appeal. This leaves me with project work; as such I have evolved and expanded Portraits of Pride away from both solely rugby to include all sports and grass roots to include elite and professional athletes to try and raise awareness of the project; I have already taken the portrait of Olympian Tom Bosworth, the first openly gay UK track and field athlete. And secondly I am looking for causes to help pro bono; I have reached out to the Sulha Alliance who campaign to resettle and support Afghan interpreters in the UK, and also YES charity who fund raise to help youth sports clubs. Indeed my relationship with YES kicks off this evening with my photographing at the Islington Boxing Club. Would I prefer to be working and earning, of course. After a decade in the industry I feel like I am having to start all over, albeit with a portfolio rather than trying to build one. Exposure does not pay the bills and I have argued against working for free in the past. However the landscape has shifted and, right now, I am happy to help pro bono for causes I believe in (as opposed to for free for commercial entities). I also acknowledge that I am fortunate and my wife is shouldering the burden of the household. As such this approach is not applicable for everyone and, like many other photographers unable to work during COVID, I have started to sell prints. I hope paid work to return to a semblance of normality but until such time that the market allows or I figure out how, I’ll be working to support others.