Time is one of the most important resources that we have in this life. In the photography industry, especially the New York fashion photography industry, the tides have turned in direct correlation with the advent of accessible photography gear. As a result, prices have been driven down if one is lucky to get paid at all. Everyone wants everything for as close to nothing as possible and they want it yesterday.
When attempting to become established as a working fashion photographer, one of the necessary evils is hitching your trailer to someone else’s wagon if you aren’t fortunate enough to be born with a famous surname already known in the industry. Whether it be interning, assisting, producing, or anything in the related field, it seems to be a requirement in order to gain that New York experience on a resume. Anything on a resume that happened outside of New York might as well have not happened at all, no matter how good it is. It may seem unjust, yet the cold truth of the matter is that there is always someone willing to do more for less. It is the equivalent of speed dating without the benefit of having dessert.
Tech Specs: ISO 1000, f/1.8, 1/160th of a second.
There is a lot of power within the higher ups and they know that news spreads as fast as wildfire on a hot August afternoon during the middle of a drought. The truth is, the fashion industry is basically a small town, growing smaller by the minute. and they can launch or end a career for anyone with one phone call. I once stood my ground on set and my former mentor went as far as to attempt to blacklist me with any modeling agency that would listen. Keep in mind, it was the first time I had been compensated in three and a half years after easily putting in a year’s salary worth of work for free. I quickly learned that sometimes in this business, ‘morals be damned’. There is an unwritten agreement to do the work happily while bearing a smile no matter what, for anything else is viewed as discontent. It is a real life version of “The Devil Wears Prada.”
We do the work and put up with as much as we can because the connections will be worth it. This is the repeated mantra, anyhow. Or maybe it is the exposure. I’m not sure really, because neither one has been able to pay my rent, although I will say that the connections made along the way truly are more important than exposure ever will be. Connections are priceless. Regardless, we keep doing more for less for as long as we possibly can until both parties come to a cross roads and feel it is best to have a conscious uncoupling. Then the next eager soul jumps in and falls in line and repeats the process.
Tech Specs: ISO 500, f/2.8, 1/125th of a second
When attaching yourself to a different brand or company, make sure it is one that you believe in or can really see the ability to grow in. This is important because the confines can be stifling. If possible, request as much in writing as possible, otherwise it is too easy to go back on one’s word and there is no legal leg to stand on when it comes to collecting payment.
As mentioned before, this is a dying economy and if ‘they’ can get away without paying you they will. Jed Root is a perfect example of this and they were one of the industry’s elite talent agencies who closed their doors in April while owing millions to their talent. I recently learned this the hard way and as a result am out a significant amount of my time that I had personally invested and will not see any sort of financial reward for the efforts.
Tech Specs: ISO 400, f/4, 1/200th of a second.
Being a trustworthy person, it is easy to think that someone will do the right thing, but this industry will teach you it isn’t always the case. I had agreed upon request to extend a recent trip by a week to help with the production of an editorial for an upcoming magazine. Upon arrival, it was learned that someone had been hired to do the production and payment wouldn’t be rendered on my behalf, however, food and drinks were covered and that should more than make up for the free work I was still expected to provide that weekend. On top of that, the articles I had previously written and had already been published would not be paid in full. They were only willing to pay for half of the initial agreement. The directions were to send an invoice and it would be paid immediately. The invoice has yet to be paid. The kicker was receiving an email two days before the flight that services were no longer needed for an upcoming job. It was too late to cancel the plane ticket and I will no longer be reimbursed.
This is not unusual in the fashion industry. In fact, it is a very regular occurrence and part of the reason that NYC has had to implement the 30-day freelance rule into law. Poke your head into a smaller modeling agency and you will wonder how in the hell they stay afloat with invoices not being paid until the very last minute. Even then, they are always being pinched to provide better talent for less. This happens because it can. Everyone needs the money, and people are willing to compromise to make ends meet.
Tech Specs: ISO 1000, f/1.8, 1/160th of a second.
Going forward, I will request to be compensated beforehand as opposed to the reimbursement method whenever possible. The lesson learned is to not do any writing, assisting or producing without guaranteed payment and get as much in writing as possible. If something smells even remotely ‘of’f, leave. It is business after all.
Everyone that is sadistic enough to still want to pursue this industry has their breaking point, and eventually, the realization sets in of how many people are not in your corner. It is especially disheartening when it is someone who has previously held your respect but shown their true colors. I’ve experienced so many great ideas and promises that have zero intention of followthrough, and am not alone. This sensation feels like a swift sucker punch to the gut, but the benefits of this lesson are what lay the fundamental foundation of realizing one’s own capabilities and being able to stand tall on your own two feet.
Tech Specs: ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/1250th of a second.
The main takeaway is to believe in yourself, set boundaries and honor those boundaries. Realize that if there wasn’t a lot to be offered, people wouldn’t want to take advantage of it. Invest in those that are willing to invest in you. Anything else is a shady business deal, and most of all, be true to yourself and be kind to those around you. Build upon the rare and truly genuine contacts that are built and polish them like a newly-found diamond.
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It is liberating to get to the point to apply the lessons learned and believe in yourself enough to no longer have to rely on those who only care about their own end game – that’s when the magic begins. Rest assured that there are truly compassionate fashion photographers, agencies, and studios out there who treat their staff as family. In the meantime, we can at least start enjoying our chocolate cake and investing our time wisely. We can also work together to cultivate the next generation of the industry that we would be proud to be a part of.