As the rise of digital continues to transform the fashion industry, no role goes unchallenged, photographer included.
Failing print magazines, once a photographer’s lifeblood, often lack the budget to pay for their work, while brands largely forgo traditional advertising methods in lieu of the endless product promotion done by social media influencers. Photographers themselves, like everybody else these days, are expected to wield online influence, as well, which sees agencies and clients vetting them more on follower count than talent alone.
As a result, photographers today must think of themselves like brands — and even if they succeed on that front, appropriate payment is not ensured.
For our latest installment of Confessions, we talk to fashion photographer Kristiina Wilson, who has worked for more than 12 years in the industry, shooting for clients like Allure, L’Officiel, Glamour and Opening Ceremony.
What are the biggest misconceptions about being a fashion photographer?
The most common one is that it’s glamorous and that it’s a nonstop stream of parties and free stuff. The reality is that it’s 90 percent e-mails, phone calls, pre-production, mood-boarding and sitting at a computer, and 10 percent squatting with a camera. The creative part is fun, — and I don’t mind the paperwork, either — but it’s certainly not glamorous. Unless you’re Steven Klein.
How has the job changed?
The industry has changed. In the ’80s and early ’90s, it was more glamorous because there was more money, but now budgets are really tight. I would shoot for some rich-people magazine on Long Island, and they would pay me a ridiculous day rate. I’d have all my friends out to work on the crew, and they’d have a chef cooking us soup from scratch in handmade bread bowls. We weren’t, like, eating Hot Cheetos and building shoddy sets out of stuff from the hardware store, which is what we do now.
How reliable is payment for fashion photographers?
I don’t know anyone in this industry who isn’t currently owed thousands of dollars. I’m owed well into the $27,000 range in truant payments. Every morning, I wake up and check the list of who still hasn’t paid me. I’m even bringing a class-action lawsuit against a client who hasn’t paid me for four shoots, including a cover — meanwhile, the publisher is posting all of these photos on Instagram of him jet-setting and buying new cars.
Why do you think that happens so much?
A lot of companies will just see what they can get away with and don’t value people who are creative. They think you’re just having a fun party all the time so don’t really need to get paid. And 90 percent of clients will not even sign my contract [that ensures payment].
Oftentimes, I’m paying to create the work for the client. They’ll give me $200 for [production], when I need at least $1,000. And if you don’t go along with that system, or you complain about it, people think you’re a loser or that you’re not doing well enough. You’re supposed to be doing well enough that you’ll work for free.
Is the craft of professional photography devalued?
Instagram — and just having phones that take pictures — has massively changed the industry, [along with] social media influencing and bloggers. It’s less about producing quality content and more about producing quick content, or [it’s about] who you know and can get your content out to versus what kind of content you’re actually creating. Photographers have to be a brand now, too. That was never something that was talked about before everybody had social media.
Do you feel like social media influencers have taken work away from you?
I’ve lost jobs to influencers who have thousands of followers, only to hear from the brand afterward that they didn’t even know [that they should] take pictures of the product. But that’s the nature of the industry: It changes, and that’s who clients care about right now. I can’t get salty about that.
Do you feel pressure to have a certain presence on Instagram?
There’s always an expectation [from brands] that you will, but I don’t personally care because I’ve yet to see that it translates into anything real for me or the company. Brands definitely care about the whole team being cool on Instagram, but I think it sucks most for the models; if you don’t have a large following as a model, you don’t have a chance — whereas, if you’re a photographer or makeup artist, you can potentially scoot by on your talent, maybe.
Another big change has been the move from print to digital. Do you have a preference for working in one over the other?
For a while there, I was really stuck in print just like everybody else in fashion, saying, “I’m never gonna work for a digital publication!” — which is funny, because now I have my own. But, honestly, now I think the web is better, and I don’t think anyone buys magazines anymore. The only people looking at them are people whose work is in them.
Do you feel like the industry accepts that?
The people at the top-level of fashion are so old, which is why the industry moves so slowly. Once you’re an editor-in-chief, there’s nowhere else to go. So there are still people [who won’t do work] if it’s not for print, but no one’s going to see it [in print].
What’s the fashion photographer community like?
The reality is that it’s still a white male–dominated industry, so those people are always going to get fed before everyone else. As ladies, we’re all kind of at the bottom, and there’s a good community of us who get along. The men tend to be hyper-competitive and protective of their dominance in the industry, and less open to communication and a friendly atmosphere.
Have you experienced discrimination from clients for being a woman?
Oh, yes. I’ve had ad agencies tell me that the client really liked my work, but they’d be more comfortable going with a man for the job, so they’re going to use my concepts but hire a male photographer. There are like packs of these interchangeable, tall, beard-y white dudes who get hired for everything.
What’s one of the craziest experiences you’ve had on set?
I shot an actress who was crazy and kept taking her clothes off in the middle of a public street in Dumbo, so that was interesting. She kept going into the bathroom to do drugs and then coming out and stripping all of her clothes off.
There was another time when a model was walking down an abandoned airport runway, and we told her not to run in these crazy McQueen shoes that she had on, but she did. She fell down and broke her ankle, so we had to take her to the hospital. Afterward, she tried to sue every single person involved, from the stylist to the people who made the shoes.