The Year in Review - Editorial
A nervous optimism began to grow in editorial photography towards the end of 2020. 2021 was to be the year the new normal began. The 2021 normal wasn’t what anyone expected. Candide McDonald explores what it was.
The “great editorial culling” that occurred in print in 2020 waned this year, but its scars remained. In Australia, NewsCorp stopped printing 112 newspapers in May 2020. 36 closed and 76 became online only. In July 2020, Bauer Media (now Are Media) magazines Harper’s BAZAAR, ELLE, InStyle, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Good Health, NW, and OK! closed shortly after Mercury Capital acquired the company. The pattern was the same throughout the world. The “great democratisation of photography” showed no signs of abating either. Unearthing less established [read: less expensive] photographers became not only a budget necessity, but a trend – aided and abetted by the diversity movement. Less work, smaller commissions, and more photographers promised that 2021 would be a challenging year.
Then came a second wave of COVID. This struck the northern hemisphere early in the year while Australia was enjoying a few months of production with rules, but without lockdowns. In July, Australia’s dream run ended as Europe and the US began to be freed. This year, the world didn’t conquer COVID either. We’ve realised, instead, that the new normal involves living with it. 2022 should be an interesting year.
Here is how five Australian photographers managed 2021
Adam Ferguson: It has been such a year
When the pandemic overturned life as usual last year, Adam Ferguson’s work became limited. Like most freelancers, he found it very difficult financially. “Nothing really lined up for me in 2020 workwise – a combination of my timing with a few projects and where I was positioned globally,” he explains. Ferguson had been living in New York for more than a decade. 2021 has been a different story, although he spent much of its latter half trying unsuccessfully to return home to Australia. “To be honest, 2021 has been pretty good to me as a photographer,” he admits. “I think it’s been a confluence of mid-career point and relative success. I’ve been fortunate enough to get some really interesting editorial assignments in America and in Mexico, including a field project in Mexico on migrants for The New York Times, a cover story for The New York Times recently about climate change in the American West, and a cover story about COVID long-haulers for The New York Times magazine.”
There was no real surge of work after lockdowns ended in America because it was a slow, state-by-state process, but Ferguson had been working steadily through them. “I had work during the height of the pandemic. I covered the presidential election in Wisconsin when COVID numbers were going through the roof. I went to a Trump rally and was unmasked for about two hours in a sea of people who had no masks on at a time when the COVID numbers were super-high and I thought it would probably be mathematically impossible for me to leave without contracting COVID. But I didn’t get it,” he says.
While he hasn’t noticed any stylistic changes in editorial photography, he feels that the pandemic exacerbated other industry trends. “Editorial budgets have definitely gotten smaller. It has definitely become harder for smaller publications. Ultimately, I don’t think it is really possible anymore to work the way I did for a large part of my career as a documentary photographer, as a photojournalist. It’s possible for a period of your life, but I don’t think it’s a sustainable work model. The budgets of magazines and newspapers have been continually declining over the years and there’s also been a large diversification in assigning by newspapers and magazines.” He adds that he sees these as positive changes because they’ve come out of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements. “But what you have is less work and more people getting hired, so it’s really difficult to work regardless of who you are, how old you are, and what gender you are.”
The pandemic definitely made it harder to cultivate personal work, Ferguson stresses. His current personal project depends on him being in Australia so he has had to suspend that. “A lot of people have had stalled projects and stalled travel. People in the middle of book projects have had to stop. That’s challenging for most photographers in all spheres of photography, whether you’re a wedding photographer, an advertising photographer, or a documentary photographer.” He adds that while here’s been a lot of flux in everyone’s careers, it would have been so even without the pandemic. “Old fields of photography are becoming increasingly challenging to survive in. The pandemic just added to that,” he notes.
This year became a turning point for Ferguson. He began to write about his work on subscription platform, Substack. He does a weekly newsletter-masterclass, sharing his career knowledge and teaching. “One of the things that I’ve realised through doing it – and to be honest, it wasn’t the total intention, but became apparent really quickly – is the way it has benefited my career. By being an author, I’m taking a bit of power back from just being a photographer and being hired by people. All of a sudden, I’m making my own stories and crafting my own narrative. The whole photographic landscape has been equalised by technology and social media has changed photography fundamentally, both in how we disseminate photographs and who sees them, so by becoming more of an author around my own work and explaining its conceptual process I’m adapting as more of a teacher. It feels like a new career developing.”
Georges Antoni: Testing, loving, and recalibrating
Georges Antoni has continued to win commissions from fashion magazines as usual this year, but he has also shot fashion advertising. “I was lucky enough to shoot a Hugo Boss campaign that was published on 450 billboards all over the world, for example,” he notes. Although work has continued to flow to him, albeit in lower numbers, Antoni has faced an obstacle that tends to creep in when times are uncertain – conservativism. Dealing with the conservative mindsets, he gauges, has been his greatest challenge.
There have been two obvious changes in editorial content this year that Antoni has noticed. “There is far less actual editorial content than there has been in previous years. COVID stopped so many productions overseas and the industry went through a very dry patch of content,” he explains. That dry patch was amplified by a decrease in the number of traditional printed magazines, he adds. “I would also say that editorial content has been democratised. What I mean by that is very few magazines have the budgets that they used to have, so many shoots are done on a shoestring budget now. This is an excellent way to see true talent and effort rise within the industry. When everyone has the same resources, you tend to see true talent rise. So, it’s a great time for new photographers to break through.”
He has adapted his business, but no more than usual. “I always try to adapt. It’s subconscious, I think. In short, the demands on photographers have begun shifting to quantity. As such, I’m trying to create a system that makes it easier and more affordable to generate high quality images in large numbers in a day. I have changed many things in this regard. I bought new cameras and lighting that can assist this time-saving approach. I also think more in terms of a total production standpoint. I never just light for stills anymore. I try and light for videographers on my shoots now, for more client consistency in execution across all media.”
The year has also brought Antoni one gift that he treasures. “The best gift of all,” he notes, “has been more time with my two little girls and my wife. This was amazing. I also had time to work on our family home renovation. I’m blessed, that’s for sure.”
William Meppem: A rollercoaster year
Food and lifestyle photographer William Meppem has continued to fuel Australians’ gourmet (and especially, baking) aspirations this year in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food, Good Weekend, and Sunday Life. But the year hasn’t been as easy as he would have liked. His answer to the question about the greatest challenges he has faced is, “Wow, so many!” Detailed they are: dealing with the volatility of the COVID situation; bookings have been on hold, cancelled and taken at short notice; keeping track of the diary as a major chore; it has been particularly tricky to oversee and run studios as well as manage personal photography commissions; and learning how to run a shoot via streaming both domestically and internationally (“considering my lack of tech expertise”).
When asked what stood out for him in particular, he answers, “Coming to terms with the realisation that a lot of editorial opportunities have disappeared and budgets have been cut, so you really appreciate the opportunity to do creative work when projects present themselves. I think it’s not so much a change this year because the magazine industry has been facing challenges for a while now, but I hope that we are getting to a place where the industry is going to experience a certain level of security.”
Meppem’s greatest opportunity, he says, has come from being jolted out of an easier existence. “Because of the COVID lockdown situations, I have definitely had to look at ways to market myself to obtain new clients. We have been more proactive in offering packages of content to smaller agencies as the social media platforms are fast becoming the major advertising outlet, and as a result the demand for content is increasing steadily,” he says. Meppem has also adapted to meet the thriving demand for motion. “I have been getting a lot more briefs that involve motion elements, either as a complement to still images for a campaign or as the main collateral for assignments,” he notes. “I’ve had to embrace this, and I feel that it is only going to become more prevalent that you need to be able to cover still and motion footage moving forward; if not so much in editorial, definitely in advertising. I can’t say that I feel I have anywhere near mastered the motion side of things, but I have enjoyed the challenge of learning new processes.”
Phebe Schmidt: A bloody rollercoaster year
In 2020, Phebe Schmidt was one of ten photographers who contributed to a Refinery29 photo series, We Asked 10 Photographers To Visualise Joy In Quarantine. 2021 also brought her joy. She added filmmaking to her repertoire and was given what she sees as an enormous opportunity. She was signed by international production company, Sweetshop, as a director. “I can’t wait to work alongside such an experienced team,” she says. Schmidt feels editorial photography has made an interesting transition since the pandemic hit. “Photographers have been forced to explore alternate methods of shooting and delivering work, producing some pretty unique results.” Most of her stills work has been published online, but she is inordinately proud of her short film, Your Time, which was shown at MONA FOMA, Mona’s summer festival in Tasmania, in January.
Schmidt faced challenges, of course, the greatest being attempting to shoot around lockdowns in Melbourne. “Often we would have spent a great deal of time and energy on pre-production only to have a shoot postponed or sometimes cancelled for a snap lockdown. It was necessary, but unfortunately it put a decent spanner in the works at times.” It also gave the young photographer some valuable business lessons. “I have had to be pretty flexible in terms of re-scheduling and deadlines, as well as keeping up fabbo communication with the team during these uncertain times,” she says.
Jesse Lizotte: A year of stillness and patience
2021 has challenged Jesse Lizotte’s versatility. He has been co0.. COVID’s restrictions, he feels, have caused a shift in editorial photography by making photographers turn their focus to what’s already in their own backyard. “That has really informed creative decisions involving the talent or the location. I know for me, coming home in 2020 pre-pandemic, I’ve had a chance to really explore Australia more and the beauty it has to offer.” His greatest challenge this year, he says, was unrelated to his work. It was, “not being able to travel and see friends and loved ones,” he says. But the year brought some gifts, the main one being a chance to slow down and take stock. “My wife and I have been lucky to spend more time with my family here in Australia,” he notes. Lizotte has not had to change his approach to business to manage a tough year, nor has he changed his work in significant ways. “Although I think I’ve had to get more creative when producing images. With restrictions in place the industry has had to adapt; for instance the use of Zoom on set to communicate with clients and collaborators locally or in different parts of the world has become commonplace now,” he notes.
COVID made life tough this year, but maintaining a sustainable editorial photography business had already become a challenge. Photographers and clients adapted readily to COVID’s safe shooting requirements. What neither has been able to conquer yet, is a shift in the media people are using. That battle is likely to dominate next year as well.
Georges Antoni georgesantoni.com
Adam Ferguson adamfergusonstudio.com
Jesse Lizotte www.jesselizotte.com
Phebe Schmidt phebeschmidt.com
William Meppem williammeppemphotography.com
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