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.