Photography in the Time of the Apocalypse

Photography in the Time of the Apocalypse

A bit of brainstorming in an uncertain time for photographers.

The world has gone off its axis. To some, the outcome may have been inevitable. Many others may loudly proclaim, “it’s about time!” But there’s no question that the global pandemic has shaken up the world economy and quite acutely, the creative community in ways that will last well beyond the time when our health professionals are finally able to get a handle on the problem.

And they will get a handle on it. I know it’s hard to see into the distance when we are limited to staying so close to home, but this too shall pass. It’s not a question of if, but of when. What’s less clear to me is what the industry and creative world that I love so much will look like once it does finally resurface.

The other day, my sister asked me if it was possible to do a photoshoot where everyone maintained a distance of six feet from one another. I suppose, yes, it’s technically possible. But is it really? I am a commercial advertising photographer, meaning that my sets are usually heavily populated with creative teams, client teams, talent, and a multitude of other participants. I'll set aside for a moment the liability issues raised by initiating such a shoot should any health issues arise. I’ll also set aside for a moment whether or not all of those people could fit into the studio at the same time while standing six feet apart. I’m sure there’s a mathematical equation that could answer that question, but math was never my strong suit. But as every good photographer knows, creating art is about more than just numbers. Sure, the exposure triangle might be the coordinates on the gear shift. But it’s the interaction between the artists that drives the car.

Yes, I have a zoom lens. So, yes, I could technically frame a model however I might like from a distance of six feet. But getting the most from a model isn’t about lens choice. It’s about human connection. How do you truly connect with another human being through an invisible barrier? How do I lean in close to whisper words of direction or encouragement? How do I make those casual off-hand jokes meant for his or her ears only when I have to shout across the room? Those jokes carefully calculated to recruit the talent to my side and form that instant bond that will read in the final image. How do I send non-verbal signals to my subject from behind a facemask? Think I’m overly dramatic? Have you been to the grocery store during the pandemic and made the heart-stopping mistake of coming out of an aisle too quickly only to find yourself within an unrecommended distance from a stranger? Or maybe you’ve noticed the impracticality of maintaining a distance of six feet from the person in front of you when the line to the register literally stretches all the way to the neighboring storefront. Ask yourself how connected you feel to your fellow man when you are constantly forced to consider the geometry of your social distance.

Obviously, the show must go on. And like so many other problems we are asked to solve on set, finding new ways to keep ourselves and our crew safe while still doing our job is something that simply must be done. And it will be done. We may find ourselves shooting wearing disposal hazard suits and gloves. We may have to shoot from safe rooms in much the same way early sound motion pictures had to be shot from enclosed rooms to dampen the sound. I don’t have all the answers. No one does. But we will figure them out together.

And I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t follow health guidelines. It is our responsibility to do our best to protect our crews and our families. Instead, I’m just acknowledging that what makes our jobs so special is that we are able to really connect to one another on a deeper level. It may be temporary. A shoot may last six days, or it may last six hours. But during that time frame, we come together as a makeshift family, complete with instant best friends, unrequited crushes, frenemies, father figures, and colleagues. We may not literally touch one another, but we are all, in some way, touched by one another.

If we are lucky, those relationships will extend long after the shoot ends. After working in the creative community for over two decades, I think it’s safe to say that most of the strongest relationships I have off set were originally formed on it. These bonds have allowed me to experience things personally and accomplish things professionally that were once beyond my wildest dreams. We’ve gone on journeys together. We’ve supported each other through thick and thin. I guess today would be the thin part.

Overnight, the global pandemic has put almost everyone in my inner circle out of business. My extended network of freelance artists, from those just breaking in to those at the very top, suddenly have found themselves with empty calendars for the foreseeable future. It’s not as if they did anything wrong. They didn’t cease to work hard. They haven’t let up on their marketing efforts. Their skills have not regressed. Instead, it was the market for those skills that evaporated.

Of course, lest we think this to be a screed against big business, in this case, the client side is dealing with its own set of issues. Many of my clients whose goods are manufactured overseas have had difficulty getting their hands on products to photograph in the first place. Those that do have the product have been forced to shutter their retail stores out of concern for public health. Shuttering those stores means willingly foregoing much-needed revenue. That loss in revenue means a decrease in profits or even a potential loss. Companies whose profit projections are on the decline are not likely to be in the mood to spend big on an advertising campaign. They simply don’t have the pool of money from which to draw. So, their marketing efforts will necessarily recede. Since it is my job to provide the gas to fuel their marketing engine, a smaller gas tank means I sell less gas. To push the analogy further, selling less gas also means I get to hire fewer gas station attendants. In our case, these would be the makeup artists, stylists, producers, and others that create my creative family.

Of course, there have been recessions before. And even during the good times, creating a successful career as an artist is never easy. The dirty little secret about the “glamorous” life of a professional photographer is that 95% of my life is spent looking a lot more like Willy Loman than Richard Avedon. Sales and marketing is my actual job. The shoots themselves are just the holiday bonus. So, in times like these, the logical thing to do is to double or triple down on marketing efforts. But how does one do that when the very clients you are marketing to are also out of the office, working from home, or, in some cases, furloughed altogether? Trying to get your email to reach the top of your client’s inbox before being deleted has always been tough. But when that client is working from home with limited internet on their home computer and a screaming child at their side, that challenge only increases.

There are a lot of challenges that will increase in the coming months. And, as traumatic as the current shock is, maybe, a number of the seismic shifts in our industry have been a long time coming. Budgets have been decreasing for years. The growing importance of social media and the waning influence of traditional media have meant that marketers must now spread their marketing dollars across more channels. This has meant they have less money for large-scale campaigns, which are the lifeblood of our community.

The pre-corona increase in the importance of social media has also led to the invention of an entirely new profession: the influencer. The influencer economy is based on likes and engagement. Likes and engagement are often driven by the creation of an unceasing amount of content. And while several influencers are talented artists in their own right, the business model itself dictates a quantity over quality approach. It’s like when you go to the gym to do dumbbell curls. You can either focus on the quality of reps or the number of reps. Some people spend their time at the gym carelessly tossing up the dumbbell with poor form, using their whole body instead of their biceps, feeding their ego, but accomplishing very little in terms of muscle growth. Some others might instead only do a handful of reps. But each rep is highly considered, perfected in technique, and optimally designed to do the most benefit. You can either do quality or quantity. But after a certain point, you can’t do both. In the end, the second weightlifter will produce the best results, just as the artist who focuses on quality will create the best photograph, film, or design. But in an influencer economy where most people are incentivized to care about reps, what is the ultimate balance between quality and quantity? And, our egos as artists aside, does the market itself care about the difference? 

Again, I am in no way implying that one’s status as an influencer is in any way an indication of their artistic skill level. I don’t mean to disparage influencers, but simply to acknowledge that they too are driven by market demands. After all, if your primary goal is to increase followers, and doing so requires the constant output of content, then what else are you going to do? Especially when one considers that the output in question won’t likely be seen in an art gallery or printed on a billboard, but ultimately consumed for less than a split second as your audience flips past it as quickly as they can move their thumbs across a screen. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be an influencer, this is an important dynamic to think about since even those with a traditional business model should expect to be asked to provide more and more social media content and may need to re-evaluate their own deliverables as a result.

I bring up influencers as I suspect their importance will only grow during the period where the world at large is unable to leave their homes. Those influencers with a large social media presence, especially those whose following is based on a cult of personality, will now have captive audiences. After all, what better time to sit through a half-hour electronics commercial masquerading as a YouTube vlog than when you are stuck at home with nothing to do? Art departments who are facing downward pressure from higher-ups to build their social media efforts and are robbed of the physical ability to create large-scale key art will have no choice but to shift some of their dollars in the influencer direction. But, once the pandemic is in our rearview mirror, will those marketing dollars come back? Or will the shift away from quality to quantity be permanent? Or might the forced reprieve from creating larger key art campaigns work in the inverse to actually remind clients of the importance of quality art? Could this stoppage actually work in favor of the professional artist? Absence, as they say, can make the heart grow fonder. Art directors are creative people too, and after months of being cooped up and only able to produce shoots via FaceTime, they are bound to want to get the band back together and do something big as much as we are.

If nothing else, as the economy has hit pause on all of our lives, it should help to remind us of the interconnectedness of the global economy. Yes, we are artists. Yes, we are driven by the passion for creating art with our need for immense profits coming in a distant second. Well, for most of us, that is. But, however we choose to perceive our own contributions, we have to keep an eye on where we fit into the puzzle.

Capitalism and the desire to make more money dictates the grand world order in ways that we don’t often like to contemplate. I am a professional photographer and director because I have spent decades of my life honing my craft, cultivating my relationships, and constantly refining my artistic voice. But, I am also able to feed myself through art because global brands exist to make a profit. Because these global brands want to make more revenue than other global brands, they need to reach their customers. Because I can create art that engages an audience, they need me. But they can only afford to pay me if they reach their profit goals and sell more shoes, or swimsuits, or leggings. My success depends on their success, and likewise, my value to them is based solely on my ability to help them reach their economic objective.

When the dust settles on the apocalypse, we will all be facing a new playing field where the goalposts have decidedly shifted. The result won’t be of our own doing. And the shape of things to come will be beyond our control. But one thing that will never change is an essential truth. As commercial artists, our role in the food chain is to create value for our clients. What constitutes value may shift over time. Our methods for delivering value may change. But ultimately, we are all here to help one another. We are here to connect with our fellow human beings and form deeper connections. That won’t change even if the techniques we use to do so do.  In a world off its axis, it is our responsibility to hold onto one another and maintain our course.

Know your value. Know our value. And forge ahead.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Um, well that wasn’t what I was expecting, especially with the accompanying photographs. Very specific type of photography discussed here, relevant to a pretty small segment of the photography community. Better title might have helped steer me away from reading it, whatever.

Maybe a good thing to come out of this is that we will decide that except for the crew, about 50% of the people on a commercial shoot don't really need to be there. But it's a cool thing going on out of the office and there will probably be a good lunch, so many folks will tell the receptionist "I'll be at the shoot all day..."

Apo-what? The Earth's axis is still at 23.5 degrees. If not, well, THAT is something we can call apocalypse.

Six feet is not a room. It's interesting that the TV industry is adapting fairly quickly, but everyone else is whining. So you learn a new lens? Big deal. You don't whisper in someone's ear? You probably shouldn't have been in the first place.

What do you mean adapting quickly? From what I have heard all the TV and movie production is on hold or a bare bones staff if working.

I watch late night shows, and both the Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel have been running, although it's been rough at first. Also The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. The Voice has been running. There even was a "Zoom" courtroom case on All Rise. Yes, the staff has been bare bones, what do you expect? But they adapted. It can't possibly be the same at this point in time.