A new report on the state of the photography industry, funded by the Knight Foundation and Catchlight, surveyed over 1,000 people across 87 countries in an attempt to better understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted photographers. Among its key findings are that existing financial insecurity has been exacerbated by the pandemic, with almost a third of women-identifying respondents experiencing a significant loss of income. Considerable disparities in access to work, income, and healthcare were reported, and racism and sexism are perceived by most to be continuing problems in the field.
Major inequities in pay persist, the report shows. Marginalized groups — comprising women and non-binary photographers as well as photographers of color — disclosed that they had a median income of between $20,000 and $29,999, whereas those who did not identify as marginalized logged median incomes ranging from $40,000 to $49,999.
An even starker differential emerged between photographers from non-Western versus Western nations: While the former’s median incomes fell between $40,000 and $49,999, the latter reported median incomes of $10,000 to $19,999.
The report claims that it is “the first international study of photographers that specifically looks to understand the experiences of imagemakers from historically marginalized communities in greater depth.” It is a follow-up to the Visual Storyteller Field Survey, research that was conducted in 2020 by some of the same authors of this report.
“We really wanted to do a much more expansive international survey that asked a lot of questions about what it means to be working in photography today,” photojournalist and visual media consultant Tara Pixley, an author of both reports, told Hyperallergic. “What are some of the key issues? What are limitations to success and barriers to entry? What is the demographic makeup of the field?” Pixley added that another purpose of the 2022 survey was to open up the scope beyond just news photography to encapsulate the industry as a whole.
White people are the dominant racial category represented in the survey, making up 47.3% of the pool. By and large, non-White photographers reported facing greater precarity. Black respondents were almost seven times more likely than White respondents to lack health insurance, for instance, representing a significant and uneven barrier to entry in the field. The survey also shows that Black and Latinx respondents were much more concerned about their ability to pay for housing.
More than half of photographers polled said they carried a “great deal” to a “moderate” amount of debt.
Women and non-binary photographers were disproportionately harmed by the stresses of the pandemic, with 46% indicating that they were considering whether staying in visual media was worthwhile from a financial standpoint. Beyond the financial detriments of the pandemic, they reported that the lack of diversity in the industry was a reason they considered leaving.
“The industry has continued to be very expensive to get into and yet the pay has actually decreased over time,” Pixley said.
She hopes that the results of the survey contribute to changes in the way that labor is structured in the industry. One suggestion she proposes is that editorial outlets and commissioning agencies pay half of the rate up front, since freelance payment terms can be over two or three months in length, often burdening photographers with debt in the interim.
Finally, Pixley noted that much of the work undertaken to build community and push for change in the historically White, historically male industry — such as the work that she has shouldered in the past couple years — is uncompensated.
“Building collectivity and making it possible for photo editors and curators to find Black women photographers, women of color photographers, Indigenous photographers — we’re doing that labor for free,” she said. “We’re building those communities on our backs. The industry needs to be compensating and recognizing the value of that work.”