Is There a Future for Commissioned Photography?

I never use the word ‘commercial’ to describe commissioned photography for a very simple reason. All photography is commercial, in my eyes, if a commercial transaction takes place, that includes the sale of a print, a book, or even an NFT! Therefore, commissioned is a more accurate description of the practice of being asked to make photographs in return for financial reward.

Traditionally commissioned photography was divided into two specific areas, editorial and advertising, but that is no longer the case, and in fact I would argue that this has been the reality for the past decade.

Let’s deal with advertising first. As brands have sought to represent themselves with images that are ‘believable’ they have moved towards photographers who document reality, a sanitised and manipulated reality maybe, but not a complete fantasy. That kind of work was traditionally made by editorial photographers who subsequently found themselves being commissioned by brands. Advertising photographers responded by creating personal work that demonstrated their ability to create less traditional work and the fences between personal, editorial and advertising photography disappeared. Both editorial and advertising photographers began to enter personal work for competitions and art buyers, photo editors and art directors liked the idea of commissioning ‘winners’ however they described their practice.

This is in my opinion a good thing. Although I am no fan of pay to enter photography competitions being the arbiter of what is good.

Now let’s take a look at editorial photography. If we accept that editorial photography is commissioned to accompany text, it’s natural home is the magazine, the illustrated book and the newspaper. Areas of publishing that have been severely affected by the rise of online platforms, drop in advertising revenue, paper costs and reduction in readership. The result of course is less editorial commissions and budgets that make working within the editorial field difficult or impossible for many.

The fear of investing in staff also impacts on the photographer hoping to get commissioned even if they are working across the commissioned environment. Poorly paid, inexperienced commissioners fearful of making a ‘mistake’ that may impact on their own employment results in safe, unimaginative and unrealistic commissioning choices. The obvious choice for such commissioners is to not commission and turn to stock images and free to use press images instead. No risk involved solutions with minimum outlay.

A decision made on the basis of a spreadsheet rather than a sense of creative ambition. Sad but true, understandable, but not defensible. Perhaps the title of this article should be is there a future for the photography commissioner? As this is where the issue lies with commissioned photography.

It is not that it’s not needed or that it is not available. The problem is that it is not valued by those whom an art director friend of mine describes as “those upstairs” the accountants, clients and management who lack imagination and a sense of respect for creativity. After all, pressing a button can’t be difficult if they can do it with their phones!

The commissioned photographer relies upon the good commissioner to create good work. They must respect each other, understand each other and challenge each other’s preconceptions and potential. The commisioner should act as an interpreter and champion for the photographer and conduit between the client and the creative. I know this as I commissioned photography for twenty years.

The issue today for commissioned photography is its devaluation in the minds of those who need it most, but are willing to pay for it the least. Short term thinking and lack of investment in staff is producing a quick fix for creative problems that require a long term strategy.

The photographer can do little about this. They could refuse copyright image grabs, unrealistically low fees, impossible budgets and inappropriate levels of expectation, but sadly in a crowded market there is always someone who will bite the bullet and accept the commission.

Is there a future for commissioned photography? Yes, I believe so, visual problems will always need to be solved, however, I believe that this will be on an even more reduced scale than it exists today. Pack shots and purely informational images will be mechanised, and aspirational images will be rarer, but demand more from the photographers capable of producing them.

Budgets will not get bigger and fees will not increase. Magazines and newspapers will continue to close and brands will continue to take control of their visual identities rejecting expensive advertising agency contracts.

Much as it is today, but even more contracted. The challenge for the commissioned photographer is to understand this trajectory and to respond accordingly. That is both a creative and a business challenge, one that some can respond too, but others cannot. The truth is that commissioned photography will remain, whilst many photographers will disappear, the laws of the jungle will apply, and only the toughest will survive.

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

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