Why Nepotism in Photography Is a Consequence of Social Media

Why Nepotism in Photography Is a Consequence of Social Media

Any time there is a case of nepotism in photography — like with Burberry and the oldest spawn of the Beckhams earlier this year — there is a colossal backlash and insatiable rage. In a time prior to refreshing social media four times an hour, although I could see the motivation for nepotism in fashion photography, it was tantamount to indefensible in my books. Now, however, I have a harder time working out why companies wouldn't favor their elite friendship circles for recruiting photographers.

I'm going to start off with some qualifications to try and channel the debate in the right direction. Firstly, I'm being reasonably loose with my application of the word "nepotism." This is because most of the outcry on the subject labels any job given to a celebrity who doesn't have relevant experience in the area as nepotism. Secondly, I realize nepotism pre-dates social media by an unthinkably large amount of time but I believe the rise of social media has brought about a new wave of this brand of favoritism.

Brooklyn Beckham created quite the stir earlier this year, but it was Burberry who took the brunt of the criticism. Their hiring of the 16 year old to photograph an advertising campaign was described as "sheer nepotism." In fact, prior to this article specifically on the topic, never has the word "nepotism" been used with such irritating frequency as this non-event.


The concern of the masses (and by masses I of course mean very loud minorities) is that the only merit upon which Beckham landed this dream fashion photography gig is that of biological fortune. I can understand this grievance both as a full-time photographer and as a non-wealthy and non-famous human. Nevertheless, can we really scoff and recoil in disgust at nepotism in this way? After all it could be said that it is, by and large, a consequence of the social media era we find ourselves in. This is where I will return to something I briefly alluded to earlier.

Nepotism has been around as long as employment has, I'm not denying that. However, with social media becoming a staple in daily life, advertising and marketing has changed drastically. Never before in history has it been so easy to get in front of as many eyes as you can right now. Importantly, never before in history has it been so easy to get a glimpse in to the "real" lives of celebrities. I mean previously you had to stand on a wheely bin outside their house until you were given a restraining order. This has exacerbated one thing in particular: celebrity endorsements. Now, anyone from A-list movie stars to internet cult heroes are paid thousands and thousands of dollars just to post a picture of them holding a shoe, or wearing a watch, or gobbling a yogurt. Anyone with a large following on social media has become a monkey in a fez with cymbals, except the fez is Dior and the cymbals are gluten free. To be clear, I'm not criticizing this rise in the profitability of popularity, but rather pointing out how several areas are now entwined and inseparable.

The digital age and the rise of social media has brought about a lot of negatives for photographers, but I’d argue it has ushered in far more positives. The option for any photographer to be able to create galleries and portfolios and have them seen globally is simply astounding and it really does raise the standard. As a result, photographers who produce impressive images gather a following and this following has value in and of itself: marketing. It’s a sort of meta-marketing really, where the photographer a company hires to produce images of their product advertises the product while creating adverts for the product (where's Xzibit?). However, the values have started to skew and the old cliché can be revised with great success: your (social) network is your net worth.

So with social media "influencers" promoting products left and right like interactive advertising boards, it wasn't a particularly large leap to start having these people do work for you. I mean, publications have had guest and regular celebrity columnists who take page space from the qualified and/or experienced journalists since celebrities became of importance. Yet the bellows of "nepotism" rung out as soon as Beckham's shoot for Burberry launched on Instagram. I am quite sure these people know that Beckham's network was the chief motivator behind hiring him (sorry Beckham). They then might (rightly) point out that full-time photographers who have spent years mastering their trade have lost out on this job to a 16 year old even if they too had large followings that were built via photography. And that’s the true thorn in the paw here. It’s not that Beckham is profiting off of a large network, it’s that his 7.4 million followers were not built from his photographic prowess but rather his surname, hence "nepotism."


That point has weight, but there is an important factor still to assess: his images. His images are good. Now, with that praise does come a rather large disclaimer. It is true that he’s working with top models, a top brand, and one might presume that he has some art direction going on in the background too. Then, I would be shocked to learn that he retouched the images himself, but many top and established photographers don’t do that for their editorials either. So this young man got an opportunity born from nepotism, yes, but it was an opportunity that was business savvy of Burberry to present; it wasn't just a favor to the Beckhams. They got a photographer with enough ability and "eye" to produce a usable campaign, they had access to his gargantuan social network as marketing within marketing, they used an influencer, and to top it all off it caused a small media storm. I’m losing track, but I think that is a form of advertising from criticisms of using advertising while advertising. Either way, both Burberry and Beckham came out very much on top.

Another cliché fits this discussion too: "It’s not what you know, it’s who you know," and with the rise in stock of one’s social network, the path Burberry have taken with this campaign seems like a consequence of social media. For years celebrities have promoted clothes and brands over models better qualified and this is no different. Is it fair? Probably not. Is it nepotism? Probably, yes. But ask yourself: if you had a product that you wanted to sell, would you pass up the opportunity to have decent images taken of it and exposed to millions upon millions of potential consumers? In a job where exposure is the goal and social media is a staple of daily life, nepotism is just a justifiable consequence.

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Tom Lew's picture

Nice read. I'm seeing this even more so in the DJ / club scene. Being a hot girl automatically gives you a leg up in getting a DJ residency at a club.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Being a hot girl gives you a leg up in a lot of things.

Deleted Account's picture

up or over?

Jeff Rojas's picture

Not sure how this is any different than it was before social media. People hired who they knew. It's been that way for AGES... the difference is that it's more visible now than it ever was before.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Asides your first sentence, you're echoing what I said. That "visibility" is valuable as I pointed out. I'd be shocked if you didn't just skim read this article.

Jeff Rojas's picture

Totally skimmed it. Time management. Sorry! Cheers. :D ;)

Robert K Baggs's picture

Haha in that case all is forgiven!

Christian Santiago's picture

nepotism is "immoral?" Get over yourself. The very fabric of it is ingrained into our genes. It's always been human nature to give favor to those you love and trust over "unknown entities." You're going to tell it's "immoral" for a parent to ask a favor of a friend who happens to work in the same company his child just applied for an internship at?

Aaron Moore's picture

As author Dennis Wholey puts it, “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you’re a good person is like expecting a bull not to attack you because you’re a vegetarian.” All this talk about fairness and merit doesn't mean jack, if you don't get your name out there. We all know the old adage "It’s not what you know, it’s who you know." I'll take this a litter further. It's also about who knows you. Whose going to mention you name when a certain project or assignment comes up. That's why networking is an important skill to have.

Dan Ostergren's picture

You have no merit to claim that your view on anything is the right one and others are simply wrong as if it is fact. It's ironic to me that you would accuse others of having immoral views after making statements such as yours.

Phil Newton's picture

The Beckham Burberry link is marketing gold!! Absolute genius by Burberry. How many of their target market have heard of the household photographic names we all go nuts over?? Not one, I'll bet. This way, Burberry have created hype and anticipation without even taking a single shot.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

Another boring whining read... I couldn't even read it all.
You guys are talking to thousands of people. Think about bringing some value and stop complaining.

Robert K Baggs's picture

If you thought this was a whining article filled with complaining, I definitely believe you didn't read it all. In fact, I doubt your attention held much past the title.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

My attention held past the title but not far... That is part of my point.

Dennis Moser's picture

I appreciate your point of view, but this really isn't "nepotism." It's just the use of celebrity ... and yes, social media has certainly made THAT easier ...

Alejandro (Alex) Martinez's picture

Thanks for giving thoughtful context to an otherwise frustrating phenomena. Some commenters should stop short of calling it "immoral" as brands have always and will always act in their best interest. Thats just business. What photographers need to consider is what are they going to bring to the table to stay competitive in brand photography. My clients also shoot with influencers, both behind and in front of the camera, and from what I am told the difference in professionalism, workflow and of quality images is night & day. Like a boxer, amplify their weakness by doubling down on your strengths. Thanks for the well written article.

Catherine Lacey Dodd's picture

An enjoyable and well written read thank you Robert. I remember running through the rationale at the time, from thinking why? to quickly seeing the potential and the marketing genius behind the strategy. It's interesting your use of the word "usable" in relation to the imagery. Would a Burberry end client notice the difference between a Ritts, Demarchelier or Beckham? And actually does the photographic execution have much to do with the campaign beyond being a vehicle. Could he have conceivably shot it on an iPhone? Here the advertising campaign became a full blown and no doubt strategic marcomms campaign, catapulted by Beckham posting on his IG through the shoot.

I'm intrigued to look up the printed finished work now in the context of a magazine environment.

And maybe we should invite Mr Beckham Jnr to WPPI next year?