During the 2008 economy crisis I worked at daily newspaper Napi Gazdaság (Business Daily in Hungarian). One of the photojournalist colleagues came into the photographers’ office and said: “Journalists at the stocks section don’t ask for any photos – they are busy saving their money from the market.” This memory visits me quite often in crisis times, but I never felt it more current to write about it. Now it rings in my ear louder than ever as I see some of the photographers left without events to photograph try to sell their gear and other unnecessary stuff.
Corona virus pandemic spreads weeks or more likely month ago and it more and more takes over the media landscape and our lives too. The state of emergency announced because of the pandemic and all the healthcare, society and economy level actions hit photographers as hard as other segments of the service industry. However government’s economy help avoids our profession and we are left with the uncertainty.
The pandemic arrived to Hungary
Photography relations of the pandemic in Hungary maybe started with some news about the capacity drops of camera manufacturers and the delay of product announcements. Later some electronics shows were postponed or cancelled. Then the pandemic exploded in our everyday lives too. Despite we aren’t affected by the infection itself (hopefully) we started to feel stronger effects on our lives. In Hungary currently we only have a milder lockdown on going out, but it is not a clear restriction. Some even say we have more freedom to move around now than people held themselves before the lockdown. Officials say they don’t even plan to order a strict curfew.
Sports, cultural and other mass events were forbidden. Clubs and similar event venues were closed, just like theatres and schools. For a while there were some discussions if holding weddings was legally an exception or not, but most of the couples were afraid to proceed and most of them started cancelling weddings well before the lockdown. It is surely safer this way even if they aren’t banned.
Everyone capable works from home and goes out only when mandatory. Shops also may be open only for a shorter period. Inbound travel of foreigners is restricted from a growing number of countries, what is jet another slap for the dyeing tourism industry. Just like all the other connected and many totally unrelated services. Many shops, but even airline destinations are closed by the owners rather than to risk the health of their workers and customers (of course this is the least of their motivations) or to loose more money on staying open than it could make them in income. Private and business tourists alike disappeared, conferences are postponed or cancelled, movie shootings stopped. New government restrictions are being announced every day making it ever stricter what can or rather cannot be done.
How it affects photographers?
Delay of goods can cause smaller or larger problems, but we can survive without new cameras – especially if we cannot take photos. However things seemingly unrelated to photography can have much more dramatic effects on photo industry too.
Photography is a symbiotic field: it rarely exists in itself, without other things. One can write, paint, sculpt things out of nothing sitting alone in a dark room. Even this may be hard, but it is not impossible. Photography however doesn’t work without light and a subject reflecting it. We always photograph something. This something usually is connected to events, happenings, but at least to people. When events don’t happen, people don’t meet, nobody goes out from home, then one cannot photograph them either. Of course anyone can photograph at home or from the window of your flat, but this greatly narrows down the possibilities, not to mention the interest for such photos. This also decreases photographers’ income too. If event organisers (let it be companies or private people) don’t have, then they can’t and won’t hire a photographer. If the merchants or manufacturers can’t sell enough products, then they won’t advertise or have their products photographed. If the schools are closed then courses may also be obstructed (especially photography field exercises and exams), but if students don’t go to school, then no class photos, no headshots are taken (what a luck the prom season is far away). When no weddings, concerts, festivals, sporting events, theatre plays and conferences are held then no photographers get paid for taking pictures of them. Because the general slogan is social distancing and stay home, people don’t really go to private photo shoots either – especially if there makeup needs to be applied what can be an added risk factor. When the pandemic started some portrait photographers still advertised “once we all have so much time now, let’s book some shootings”. By now these mostly disappeared and more photographers started selling unused clothes, but even photo gear too.
For a while there have been some press conferences and photo possibilities for media photographers, but today these are mostly cancelled too. It is understandable considering risks of infection, but it hurts the livelyhood of photojournalists an cameramen (not to mention it is even harder for journalists to get important answers and unanswered emails are even less visible than unanswered questions at a press conference).
How photographers make a living?
It has been a big question of all photography as a profession. Even many of those working in it don’t really know the answer to this. It is also a big problem of the industry
Most of the photographers are usually freelancers, solo proprietors, or employee of a smaller or larger company that usually makes a living out of the demand for photos (ie. photo agencies, news agencies, photo studios). Payment usually depends on performance, but at least is assignment based. If one doesn’t have any orders, then there is no income either. Once there is no income then there is no salary and the photographer has no food. This can be quite challenging in the ordinary weekdays as well, but with a decent amount of entrepreneurship skills and knowledge of the market this risk stays manageable. Until the very moment when a crisis comes along and the entire system turns upside down, like now it does.
For example usually there aren’t too much weddings during winter. This means not much work for wedding photographers. For them spring brings the first incomes of the year or maybe even since the second half of the last year. They have to collect money in the season to survive the lack of income in the off season and all the investments too. They usually schedule their gear updates for the start of the season to start making money with them. But the season that should have just started is knocked off by the pandemic at least in part, but most probably for the entire year. Many photographers don’t have a serious financial reserve to survive a prolonged downtime. Their overhead is low, their work needs lots of investment and don’t forget the loans, taxes and of course livelihoods.
Those who have reached the level of having employees need to make money to cover not only their own salary and gear updates in addition of taxes and other expenses of the company, but also has to make money to pay salary for their employees too. Meanwhile most probably the company has no income at all. (Maybe the government economy help packages can help a bit for solo proprietors or even other companies, but it doesn’t help everyone and offers solution for not all of the problems. Especially because in Hungary photography is still not included among professions the government offers help.
Those who might have a full employment for a fixed monthly salary, especially if they work for a company that does not depend on demand for photos, may get their money if they cannot work for a while now. But many companies can’t support this luxury for a long term and will either reduce the salary (for example sending their workers for mandatory leave) or they fire those who aren’t absolutely necessary for operation until they cannot offer work for them to cut their expenses.
Newspapers in theory could be in a lucky position. News never drain and there is always something to cover. There is no off season in news (especially not during a pandemic). We don’t have a ban to go out (only lockdown) so journalists can work not only from home, what is mostly impossible for photographers. We can even go to places where news happen in the field – if they allow us to approach.
Income of newspapers in a pandemic is a much more complex story however. aif people don’t go to work/school/streets then it is more likely they won’t buy their usual newspapers. Maybe they are okay just to read news online only even if they would normally stick to the print versions. Long time falling circulations may get another hit – and nobody knows if there will be a return after the pandemic. Online media obviously gets stronger. But it is still a hard question how much money newspapers can make out of the free for everyone online content. In the current crisis a lot of companies have their business going sideways. This can greatly effect advertising and incomes of all media making a living out of ads. Not even the newspapers can feel safe in this situation. Except of course those newspapers which ones aren’t faced to face market realities because governments ads support their undisturbed operation.
“Never keel all of your eggs in the same basket!” – saying
Have multiple income streams!
It is an ages old, tip to have multiple income streams for security. however it makes a big difference where you root those income streams. Especially in the current difficult situation. Those photographers have a much better stance who have divided income streams. Especially if not all of their different tiers are all rooted in various fields of photography, but do other things in different fields. Possibly let it be greatly different and not at all connected to the industries now made impossible by the pandemic. Maybe those selling dog food or stocks have more security than those whose side business alongside photography is in tourism event organising, taxi driving or other service that is now made impossible. Unfortunately I know quite some such unlucky photographers as it is a really obvious way to bundle your business fields.
Luck serves best those who have photography only as a hoby (that in better cases pays at least some), but they still have a secure main job that pays them for living. Especially if this is on a field where they can easily work from home and their employer still pays them an unchanged salary.
How this crisis affects me?
I didn’t plan to buy a new camera any time sokn, I didn’t plan to go to school. Neither as a student, nor to teach there. I planned to take photos of some academic competitions – which ones of course are delayed/cancelled just like all of the sports and other events too. These mean a big deal of financial loss for me too. In the beginning I only deleted the cancelled jobs from my calendar as I usually do in similar cases. After a while I started to keep a record of the deleted jobs too to make statistics. For a while the cancelled jobs list is longer than those I had to photograph. Outlook for the coming few month is getting worse every day. As I’m a photographer working for international markets my problem is not only events ar being cancelled, but also this situation devalues a lot of things that normally would be sellable. The so called features. Snowdrops or trees blooming on a spring day. But when a pandemic grabs the attention of readers worldwide, then tolerance of editors is higher and less topics pass their filters. And those pandemic photos that can be made in our current situation, meet modest interest compared to the more heavily hit countries. Nobody knows how long it will take and how it will end. Not even what will happen until it ends. I probably will write about various possibilities and crisis plans. But my advice a decade ago has never been more current: Rather start driving a bus or the updated version of it is: Rather start a currier job.