reasons to be cheerful

First-hand stories of photographers’ resilience, innovation and resurgence in the face of the pandemic

In March, when the speed of the spread of coronavirus and its effect on society caught everyone off guard, Ray Demski watched all the shoots he had lined up disappear. “It fell pretty heavily pretty fast,” he says. “Most of my income comes from advertising jobs, the bigger international kinds. Marketing budgets for those jobs were all cut back. I had five or six big projects lined up. Some were immediately cancelled, one or two were delayed, hoping we could do them in April, May or June, but one by one they all struck out.”

Ray, who lives in Germany, also spent much of 2019 not working, on parental leave after the birth of his son. “I had prepared for a rainy day, which was kind of good, and my little nest egg was there. Some of the guys I used to share a studio with in Munich got local jobs soon after a break of only a month or so, but I wasn’t working again until September: almost six months with no work. I’ve had a job every week since then, mostly smaller ones. A lot of those marketing budgets remain slashed, but there is still money to be spent. And it has meant we come up with different plans and different ideas.”

Nearly every professional photographer has his or her own version of this story: a stoppage in spring, new rules to work with – or that work against you – and then a change in working practices which, with news in November of successful vaccine trials, may not last as long as previously thought. But when society slowed down, the news cycle ramped up and the only hurdles many news photographers faced were travel logistics and sourcing face masks. 

“I was confined to Moscow, where I live,” says Valery Melnikov, “but I could still work for my agency [Rossia Segodnya]. I know I’m lucky because I’m on salary. They sent me on assignment to coronavirus clinics to shoot the doctors and patients there. I wasn’t nervous about catching the disease. Then, when things started again, like flights and shops opening, and schools and universities, I shot that.” As travel restrictions lifted, Valery went to Lebanon in August, to shoot both a Russian rescue team working in the aftermath of the Port of Beirut explosion and the subsequent anti-government protests. Then he went to Nagorno-Karabach, the disputed territory fought over by Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1988, after the conflict escalated to war in September. 

Valery and Ray say spending more time with their families during lockdown was a bonus. Photographers living alone under lockdown rules had that to deal with as well a change in work and income. Portrait photographer Nadia Meli, based in Brighton, England, lost shoots and speaking engagements in the UK and US, and clients due to come to her from Germany and Italy could not travel. “It was very lonely,” she says, of the solitude she experienced before shoots started again in July. She shot portraits over Zoom, to raise money for charity, and some cancelled live talks moved online, but the main thing she did work-wise was move the online sale of her prints from Etsy to Pic-Time.

“I was already using Pic-Time to send prints to my clients. On Pic-Time, you set up a store and can pick the labs you want to work with, wherever they are in the world, choosing your frames and print formats and then people buy from them. You don’t have to do anything. If I got an order on Etsy, I would have to go and have it printed, packaged and shipped. And Pic-Time could just be integrated into my website.

“I sold more in lockdown, which was lovely. I had a much more limited selection of prints. Before I had just thrown everything on Etsy and with this new method, I am more intentional, narrowing down my selection and presenting it in a nice, simple way on my website. It all just looked a bit more neat and professional. I have received lots of images of people showing me the new prints on their walls. It’s such a great thing to see.”

Spending more time than usual at home, or at least not travelling, is also something many photographers have grappled with. Pep Bonet, co-founder of the NOOR agency, usually spends several months of the year on the road for work. During 2020 he has mainly been confined to his home on the Spanish island of Mallorca and, in a move that will be familiar to many photographers, began to see his home turf anew and take pictures of it. “I used an infrared camera to take pictures of a beach, which I sold to National Geographic,” he says.

“Budgets have been cut, but that just means coming up with different plans and different ideas”

Then, self-funded, he broadened the project to shoot the island from the air, with the help of a friend with a tandem microlight. Six months in, with 35,000 photographs taken, Pep is working on a book and an exhibition for which he is seeking funding. 

“I always saved for a time when I would not be working so I could pay my mortgage,” Pep says. “You always need back-up, and I am using mine now. Also, this year was the first time that I managed to spend a lot of time with my wife and kids. And I really enjoyed it. It was a time to slow the pace, start working on things that I really like. I’ve been busy on a long-term project I started five years ago. I even made an experimental short film with my kids. I took advantage of the situation.”

Pep’s NOOR colleague Sanne De Wilde also returned to a long-term project after her plans were curtailed in March, including trips to Nigeria, China and Micronesia. The latter was the shoot of a documentary in her award-winning project, The Island Of The Colorblind. “Everything came crashing for me. I mean really everything,” says Sanne, a Belgian photographer based in the Netherlands. “So I started thinking about prison again.” A few years ago, Sanne was invited to teach photography to inmates in a Belgian prison and help them document their lives and experience. 

“I decided to continue that because I thought, here was an opportunity to find a parallel between the prisoners’ feeling of imprisonment and what everyone else was experiencing, worldwide, with lockdown. 

“In this prison, prisoners are allowed two hours every two weeks in a room with a wife or their family, with no cameras. But this was taken away because of COVID. For months, many of them touched no one.” Sanne was allowed in as a socially distant visitor. 

“I explained [to the prison authorities] that I saw this as an opportunity for perhaps more empathy or more understanding. Because if there was ever to be time to have empathy, to understand what it feels like to contain yourself in a space with no access to social contact or your partner or children or grandchildren – now is the time.”

Sanne also had to put on hold the building of an archive to store her physical work: the money she had hoped to earn for this was coming from cancelled jobs. She did one online exhibition, which earned her only a few hundred euros. “Normally, you would exhibiting a work 10-20 times in a year. Artists’ fees aren’t huge, but you get 10-20 of them. Then you go to each one, and do a talk, or teach a workshop, and those fees add up. Now, it’s one online exhibition with one fee for a project I’ve been working on for a long time.” 

She explains this and then laughs. “I’m not going to look at the darkness here. Things weigh less if you can laugh about it. I so much want to take pictures now that I think about doing it for free. I just really miss doing what I love to do. And that is, on one hand, very tragic. On the other hand, it’s really special because I love what I do. But I was extremely exhausted from travelling non-stop and working non-stop for many years. So it is kind of beautiful to reach that point, again, where I’m actually really hungry to do photography. Even when work was flowing freely, and money was flowing more freely, I think there is always uncertainty in what we do.”

So what’s the best guess of what comes next? There’s been time for reflection and reinvention, to recalibrate and rediscover what it was that you love (or hate) about working as a photographer and, if you could, to do something about it. There is still time for that. But when that’s done, there will of course be photos to be taken in a post-COVID world. Your place in it awaits