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Covid-19: Photographers battered but not beaten

Victorian photographers are emerging from the world’s longest lockdown re-energised and enthusiastic, although the unpredictability of lockdowns from the last 18 months has left battle scars.

Photo studios are now open for business!

A surprisingly positive outlook is shared by the four professional photographers who spoke with Inside Imaging, who are all dealing with the good problem of non-stop work to catch up with a massive backlog of jobs.

When kindergarten photographer, Jina Zheng, spoke with Inside Imaging in August she felt ‘tired and numb with no fight left in me‘ and was seriously considering giving up her dream job. But, like many others, she hung in there and is now working against the clock.

‘Now all the kindy photographers are working on strategies to squeeze four months of bookings into five weeks,’ she told Inside Imaging. ‘It’s not going to be easy, but having certainty sure beats being left in limbo! Between now and Christmas, or beyond, we will have to start at the crack of dawn and work past midnight, our backs are going to hurt, and our kids will be having frozen meals every night. But we will put our heads down and meet our obligations to our kindergarten clients to the best of our ability. We did it last year, and we’ll push through one more year. But hopefully never again.’

Anthony Leong.

Fashion and commercial photographer, Anthony Leong, director of Modform Photographers, was a regular fixture in Inside Imaging‘s 2020 pandemic coverage. Despite keeping his North Melbourne studio shut through each lockdown this year, he’s feeling upbeat about the future.

‘I also think I’ve been pretty lucky, as I’ve worked alone for so long it made little difference, apart from not taking photos,’ he told Inside Imaging. ‘I bought myself a new Nikon then the lockdown hit. Oops. So I played with it by myself with never an angry shot fired till three days ago! Thing is, work is flooding back. In fact, I’m feeling the love – more like inundation.’

Besides binge-watching Squid Game, Anthony spent his lockdown researching cameras and Adobe post-processing software. And he’s pouring money into renovating the studio.

‘Reception is getting a huge makeover, the cyclorama floor has been re-done with epoxy and the wall is repaired & re-painted to match the white hue of the floor. It’s an investment and hopefully the Victorian Government will come to the party with a small contribution I’ve put in for. However, even if they don’t, it’s still worth it.’

Last year Inside Imaging reported how the battle-hardened specialist photo retailing channel was tough and resilient after trading through numerous market disruptions. ‘So instead of the Coronavirus shutdown being the last nail in the coffin, it’s just another challenge for the hardy souls who run our wiry specialist photo channel,’ we reported.

The same goes for professional photographers. There have been huge disruptions like the ‘democratisation’ of high-quality digital photography leading to increased competition, devaluation from semi-pros and pro photography platforms, the noise created by digital marketing, a shrinking market for professional prints, the global financial crisis, and so on. Maintaining a successful modern photography studio requires an established and loyal client base, built up over years of delivering a reliable and trustworthy service.

That’s not to diminish the severity of events from the last 18 months – the pandemic and restrictions have been extremely testing and sadly claimed plenty of scalps. Wedding photography has been smashed. But Australia is heading toward a new phase where states ideally won’t isolate from each other, let alone the rest of the world, and daily case numbers will (hopefully) no longer have such a dramatic bearing on daily life.

Although it’d be foolhardy to take for granted that the worst has passed. There is an eerie feeling of déjà vu – this is familiar territory. Almost exactly a year ago, the sentiment was the same about the coming year, 2021…

Back to school

John Ansell.

‘Most of us probably had a few quiet drinks on New Years Eve 2020 and said “Thank goodness that’s over. Next year can’t be any worst than that”,’ Gippsland schools and portrait photographer, John Ansell, told Inside Imaging last week. ‘But I think this year has been worse, to be honest, and we are currently still banned off school property but I think it will change from Monday, November 1. ‘

The Traralgon-based photographer has schools clients across eastern Victoria, from outer Melbourne suburbs in the Latrobe Valley and as far as Marlo. Time is now of the essence to get back onto school campuses, where attendance has been banned for most of the year by the State Government and the Catholic diocese, which oversees a number of clients. In 2020 schools photography was permitted outdoors from mid-October, and John was shooting until the start of December. This year school photographers were only given the green light to go back to work this week, and combined with graduation photos it’s going to be extremely busy.

There are logical reasons why the bulk of schools photos are done in the First Semester, such as for ID cards and student database systems. But John had no idea that delaying school photos until the end of the year would have such a negative impact on his sales.

‘Sales were hugely down for schools shot in the back-half of the year in 2020,’ John said. ‘The package orders were well down. It was just a mixed up year for everyone, and I think all schools photographers’ sales suffered because of it.’

The worst case was a staggering 90 percent drop in sales from Year 12 students at a reasonably large and affluent private school, which ordinarily has a 100 percent order rate. Prep mothers at the junior campus were so desperate for a photo of their kids that they began ‘dragging them into our studio because we could do them there, but weren’t allowed on campus’.

‘Preppy mums do not miss out on school photographs – oh no, you’d be in trouble if you tried to tell them otherwise,’ John laughed.

He speculates the end-of-year pictures don’t sell because students and families are more busy by that time of year, and the novelty of the new school year has completely worn away. ‘By this stage there was other priorities for the Year 12s. And as for preps, some parents don’t want them done later in the year because they’re pretty much in Grade 1 by then.’

John grateful to have government financial assistant compensate the drop in sales, with JobKeeper in 2020 and the Covid-19 Disaster Payments this year, along with a Victorian State Government business grant. The extra money also helped adapt to become a ‘Covid safe’ business. All photographers interviewed for this article sought government financial assistance, and it can’t be stressed how much it kept the industry alive.

‘I’d say our sales are also a teeny bit down in 2021. Anecdotally, Rosemary (Ansell, John’s wife and business partner) will pop her head out and note revenue from sales from a particular school is down from previous years.’

Who you gonna call?

Jina noted back in August how the most annoying aspect to this year was how quickly the rules would change.  One moment all jobs are running to a tight schedule, and the next it’s in shambles as re-scheduled shoots disrupt future bookings. It’s the same story for schools photography, which takes careful planning to deliver a quality service. John describes the last two years as the ‘most frustrating’ time he’s had in three decades as a photographer.

‘On a personal front, as photographers, I think we don’t like being told how to run our own businesses and what we can and can’t do,’ he said. ‘Most photographers are small business owners for a reason, and I didn’t like being at the mercy of all these other factors.’

There was a painful lack of clarity each time the business rules changed. Photographers, who aren’t necessarily operating a conventional business, had to interpret how the one-size-fits-all rules should be applied to their business.

‘A lot of times we just couldn’t get answers, and you’d go around asking “is this an Education Department decision, a Business Victoria decision, or a Health Department decision?” There was no indication from anybody in the government as to where these decisions were being made, so it was hard to find people to speak to.’

For John and Jina, both AIPP members, this is where Melbourne portrait photographer, Emily Black, saved the day.

Last year Emily, then-AIPP Victorian Council president, lobbied the Victorian Government for clarity regarding outdoor portrait sessions when wearing a fitted face mask outdoors was mandatory. Emily launched a petition and also started building a contact network of Victorian bureaucrats to find answers.

After this successful initiative, she was appointed the chair of the AIPP’s new Advocacy Committee. Each time the rules change, Emily has volunteered to cut through the tangle of bureaucracy to find out what it means for photographers. This has earned Emily the praise from colleagues, with John calling her efforts ‘brilliant’, and Jina stating how ‘incredibly grateful’ that Emily lobbied the Victorian Department of Education.

‘I think everyone’s feeling a lot more energised, if maybe a little overwhelmed in a good way,’ Emily told Inside Imaging. ‘Spring weather, coupled with an earlier than expected ease of restrictions has meant photographers are very optimistic.

‘For a while there, it did feel like we may not get the kindergarten and school photographers back in Term Four, knowing that the Department of Education was erring on the side of caution given the settings risk in the current climate. It was a wonderful moment on the phone with the Department of Education when they advised and emailed to confirm that, yes, the school and kindergarten photographers would indeed be back to work, on site. It was a huge moment.

‘I believe that the commitment and hard work and continued conversation between AIPP Advocacy Committee and the Department of Education, alongside the industry coordination with relevant ministers, were vital in the positive outcome. I think the AIPP has shown it’s depth and relevance to the industry by being a voice for not only our members but the entire profession of image makers. Kindergarten and school photographers who had previously felt unseen were brought to the forefront and shown how valued they are.

‘Personally I am incredibly proud of the outcomes we have achieved, not only in being a voice, but in assisting photographers to understand their place within the roadmap and how they are placed in their return to their businesses. From Friday the 29th of October, the industry as a whole fully returned to work, and that’s a remarkable thing after such a hard couple of years. Photographers are bracing themselves for a busy season.

‘We do hope, with the vaccination targets and safety measures in place we will gain a solid momentum and recent times will be a distant memory moving into the future. Lockdowns have been rough, there is no sugar coating any of it, it’s been the greatest challenge we will likely face in our businesses and our lives as a whole, but for many it has allowed the time to reassess and structure their work in a much more sustainable way.

‘Indeed, I think the next six -12 months will be the true measure of how we evolve and adapt. Will we burn ourselves out for fear of famine again, or will we commit to new boundaries consistent with our now deeper value on mental health and importance of being truly connected?

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