Pandemic Threatens Architectural Photographers’ Livelihoods
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended almost every aspect of day-to-day life, confining people to their homes, precipitating unprecedented unemployment and worldwide economic turmoil, and sickening more than a million individuals—tens of thousands of whom have died.
With most businesses shuttered and construction projects brought to a halt, the architecture community has already begun to feel the impact of coronavirus. Designers, of course, aren’t the only ones affected; architectural photographers are experiencing a major hit to their livelihoods as the disease spreads. RECORD spoke with 10 photographers across the globe about how they’re navigating the rapidly changing landscape.
By the middle of last month, all those surveyed were seeing job postponements and cancellations roll in for late March and April. While some shoots have been rescheduled for the summer, others—like higher education work, for instance—are on hold until fall at earliest. Albert Vecerka, a New York–based photographer who belongs to the Esto collective, is waiting to see if jobs at Dartmouth College and Rice University will proceed. “The clients are hoping we’ll be able to do it, but only if classes resume and we can actually see how people use the buildings,” he says. “We want some semblance of normalcy, but also safe working conditions.”
Travel bans and international flight cancellations ruled out work for others, like Belgium-based Danica Kus, who planned to shoot Zaha Hadid’s One Thousand Museum in Miami, and Roland Halbe in Germany, who was scheduled to photograph eight projects in Chile and Uruguay. An almost 3-week-long trip to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia was scrubbed for Santa Fe–based Nick Merrick of Hall + Merrick when the countries closed their borders in early March. “Some of my clients had trouble getting their people out of there and onto flights,” he tells RECORD.
Merrick also noted that his Chicago-based colleagues, Steve Hall and Kendall McCaugherty, would normally be deep into shooting projects for local AIA awards at this time of year. “None of that is happening now,” he said.
While many projects remain tentatively on the books for the late spring and beyond, Younes Bounhar and Amanda Large of Toronto-based doublespace photography are skeptical, but trying to remain optimistic. “We believe we are in this for the long haul, so staying positive is key, but as far as we are concerned, our livelihood has been put on hold indefinitely,” they says. “Seeing how things have evolved in China and Italy, we don't really see this lifting before the end of the summer.”
Although some photographers work alone, many have at least part-time help in the form of assistants, image editors, re-touchers, or administrative support staff. Casey Dunn, who is based in Austin, Texas, employs a (now-remote) producer. “I’m currently trying to navigate the relief bill’s Paycheck Protection Program to keep her on board until things start to come back around,” he says. And in Germany, where the government is covering two-thirds of workers’ lost income, Halbe is able to retain his four part-time helpers, although they are all doing less work. “I can keep them employed until the situation changes for the better,” he says. “The main problem is to keep the necessary liquidity.” The situation is not so good for freelance assistants, many of whom work on a per-job basis for multiple photographers. “Obviously the trickle-down effect is that there is no work for them either at this point,” say Bounhar and Large. In Houston, photographer Peter Molick has kept in touch with his assistants, “thinking of ways that I might be able to help them, should this drag out for a long time.”
Ema Peter’s four-person studio in Vancouver has kept everyone onboard so far; her image editors are busy selecting photos from recent shoots, while she and her second-shooter are considering what operational changes they’ll need to make in the post-coronavirus future. “We’re discussing everything from how we touch the cameras and whether we use gloves and masks, to how we’ll handle projects going forward,” she says. “Photographing a house, for example, means being in it for an entire day—and often we include the family in the shots.” She and her colleagues are bouncing around the idea of asking about travel and illness history before entering a residence, she explains as an example. “We’re in such an unknown territory now, and navigating it will take some time.”
Future work protocols aren’t the only procedures in question; photographers are also wondering whether they can—and should—still do any photography at all, in the current climate. For instance, some of Dunn’s longtime clients recently offered him work shooting exteriors. “We are still weighing the feasibility and risk of taking something like that on,” he says, “but the gesture is so appreciated and speaks to the type of design community we have here in Austin.” In Vancouver, Peter felt pressure from some clients to continue shooting outdoors, but ultimately said no. “It was a moral dilemma,” she says, weighing how to “protect your family and community, while at the same time, of course, I would like for my team and myself to be paid.” Halbe has continued to do limited shooting around Stuttgart, but “with extreme precaution,” he notes—mask, gloves, and six feet of distance. “I have no social interaction except what is strictly necessary for my business.”
Repercussions of the pandemic will undoubtedly shape the industry going forward, but just how, and how much, is anyone’s guess. “That is the trillion-dollar question, isn’t it?” says San Francisco–based Bruce Damonte. He remains hopeful that even in an uncertain future, architects will still need photographers. “I shoot buildings large and small, and there will continue to be new ones that people will want documented. Less work, maybe—but enough work, I think.” Molick, meanwhile, wonders if the effect on photographers may be delayed, relative to the rest of the profession. “I foresee a fair number of projects earlier in the design phase to be put on hold, which I think may have more of an impact on us later down the line.” And Halbe speculates that the crisis will usher in a shift away from globalization, as countries and communities hunker down and focus on their local roots. “This will make my business more difficult, being an international architecture photographer,” he says.
Others look to recent history when considering the path forward. Merrick, for instance, recalls weathering the Great Recession of the late aughts. “If the firms have to start laying people off, they’re not going to be hiring photographers,” he says. “The last thing they were doing in 2008 and 2009 was sending me off to a foreign country for a week to take pictures. I think the impact on our clients will ultimately determine the impact on us, the photographers.” And for Vecerka, the situation stirs memories of another tragic event. “The closest thing I can think of is 9/11,” he says. “I was living in my tiny penthouse studio on 140th St. and Convent Avenue, and I was looking at the towers when the first one started to crumble and fall. I said to myself: The world will never be the same.”
Read the second part of this series on architectural photographers in the age of COVID-19.