As fears of coronavirus (COVID-19) balloon in the U.S., many freelance photographers have begun to contend with the economic impact of event cancellations and social distancing policies. Freelancers are accustomed to seasonal slowdowns or the occasional cancellation, but the uncertainty around the breadth and duration of this outbreak has resulted in anxiety, frustration, and anger.
Adweek photo editor Kacy Burdette recently asked photographers on Twitter if they had lost jobs due to coronavirus, and received responses from around the country with stories of cancellations. The engagement provides proof that the economic threat is real and affecting photographers now.
As the U.S. ramps up testing around the country, it’s likely that things will get worse before they get better, and freelancers will undoubtedly bear the brunt of a battered business environment.
As major events are canceled around the country – from SXSW to Coachella to major sporting events – photographers are already feeling the effects of COVID-19 in their pocketbook. B.A. Van Sise (@b.a.vansise) derives a large portion of his income through travel photography, and arrived in Italy on the day that the first case was announced. “I’d gone to Europe for a month for five travel assignments; three of the five ended up canceled,” he said. The rest of the year is looking ominous for Van Sise with cancellations for his travel assignments and workshops. Even the handful of weddings he shoots are in jeopardy. “I feel my brides and grooms nervous, too, and rightfully so.”
Although some of her travel-based work has been postponed or cancelled, New York-based Amy Lombard (@amylombard) said the virus hasn’t “affected me dramatically yet” with the bulk of her upcoming work still scheduled in the city. But while the potential for sudden cancellations has hung a cloud of unpredictability over her head, she’s understanding of her clients’ decisions given the public health implications. “It’s frustrating, but who can blame them? I’d obviously rather be overly cautious, even if it’s bad for my business,” she reasoned.
Existing jobs aren’t the only concern for photographers. Portland-based Craig Mitchelldyer (@craigmdyer) has already seen two big cancellations in the past week, and he worries about the pipeline of future jobs as well. “I suspect more will come but moreover some jobs that would have booked or might book in the future won’t even be put out for bid and just won’t happen altogether.”
Whether budgets will be redeployed at a later date or evaporate altogether remains to be seen. But companies will undoubtedly start to pare back expenses if revenues decline. Travel, hospitality and corporate photographers are particularly at risk. With mortgages and bills to be paid, even photographers with reserve funds have to start considering the impact of unpredictable cash flow on their finances.
Cancellation policies are commonplace for photographer contracts, but enforcement is another question given the circumstances. Chicago-based photojournalist Alex Garcia (@alexgarciaimages) requires a non-refundable deposit, and is planning to take a hard line with clients regarding cancellations. Garcia said, “I plan to enforce it given the circumstances. As a small business person who is heading into some serious headwinds with the economy, I’m not in a position to give everyone free cancellations especially if I have reserved a date for that client.” Garcia astutely points out that the larger businesses that hire him can absorb cancellation fees much easier than he can.
Although editorial and corporate photographer Robert Caplin (@robertcaplin) usually includes a “kill fee” in his contracts, he says, “I’m not going to lose a client over one cancellation or kill fee.” Long-term relationships matter in the freelance business, and Caplin says that clients appreciate that he’s transparent (and flexible) about his cancellation policies.
Some photographers have suggested enforcing cancellation fees, but allowing clients to apply it to future work that is booked within a finite time frame. This provides compensation to the photographer and a modicum of goodwill toward the customer. Whatever the approach, the cost of cancellation (whether through policy enforcement, pursuing legal action, or absorbing lost income) will undoubtedly affect thousands of photographers looking to balance economic survival with relationships.
Philadelphia-based documentary photographer Hannah Yoon (@hanloveyoon) maintains a cancellation policy in her own contracts, but when a meeting organizer hired her to cover an annual meeting of a medical association, she signed their contract. Then the association canceled the conference. “My client said because they weren’t the ones to cancel the assignment,” Yoon explained, “they can’t give a kill fee.”
Signing a client’s contract is sometimes unavoidable, and force majeure and “Act of God” clauses can work against photographers depending on how the language is structured in a contract. Similarly, insurance policies – ranging from traveler’s to business interruption – often insulate issuers from exogenous events ranging from severe weather to epidemics. Photographers would be wise to carefully read contracts they’re signing in the current environment.
An Uncertain Future
Photographers stressed the importance of always maintaining some savings for downturns in the business cycle, and ensuring diversification of customers and industries. “I left the Chicago Tribune 5 years ago after 15 years to start my own business, and some of my early experiences taught me never to depend on a single client or small set of clients,” said Garcia. He’s since built clientele in advertising, corporate, higher education, editorial and more, while offering both stills and video services.
Yoon regularly socks away 5-10% of her earnings while always looking for ways to diversify her income. She advises, “Offer family sessions, headshots, have a print sale, reach out to new clients in the area. It’s a time to revisit my marketing and outreach strategy during a time like this. And there’s no shame in getting a side gig or having a part-time job.”
Swedish photojournalist and editorial photographer Pontus Hook (@lookforhook) has worked in New York City for over 20 years, and has seen his fair share of turmoil including the 2008 recession. “I have been freelancing all my life and I know it will go up and down in my business,” he said. But despite his calm, wait-and-see attitude, Hook advises freelancers to “Be proactive and work harder for every assignment.”
Van Sise advises freelancers to “stay nimble and adapt.” Although the duration of the outbreak has the potential to make it different from other downturns, Van Sise suggests adopting common sense strategies, saying, “Be willing to accept work you’d not otherwise, and also be willing to find the joy in that, too. Don’t panic.”
Our friends at ASMP are hosting a webinar on Thursday, March 12 at 4pm ET entitled “Potential Business Ramifications of Coronavirus (COVID-19)” hosted by ASMP General Counsel Tom Maddrey. Click for details.