The Business of Documenting Your Casually Perfect Vacation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because capturing memories helps us relive the experience.
By Fiona Zublin
They always want to go to the Eiffel Tower. Stéphanie Bobault, a professional photographer in Paris, knows that dependable fact about tourists — heh, Tour-ists — who find her on the internet and hire her to take pictures of them while they breathe in the polluted air of the City of Light. So that’s where the tourists go, sans selfie sticks, Bobault trailing along, camera in hand. Ready, set, vacation memory.
You think professional wedding photos, engagement photos and baby pictures are overwhelming your social media feed? Get ready for an avalanche of vacation photos. These days an increasing number of travelers are hiring local photographers via specialty websites for $220 and more per session to snap them in all their leisured glory — perusing the souks of Marrakesh, strolling along the Seine, petting an elephant in Bali. Once upon a time, studio photography was considered an identity construction, while casual snapshots represented real life. But in the age of Instagrammed-everything — and dozens of practice selfies before you get the right one to filter and share with the world — it’s the other way around. Call it the pro version of the meme POIDH: Pictures or It Didn’t Happen. “You can take a selfie wherever,” says Ana Mireles, a photographer and artist in Amsterdam who studies identity construction. “You can take a selfie of your feet with sand, but it could be sand in a cat box and it looks like the beach. If you hire a photographer, it gives validity that it actually happened.”
I’m a middle-aged mom, and I just want to be in photos with my kids.
Nicole Smith, founder of Flytographer
Natalia Gonzalez of Shoot My Travel describes the business model as “Airbnb for photographers.” The website has been in business since 2012, but initially had trouble finding its place — Instagram wasn’t huge at the time, and the sharing economy hadn’t yet taken over the zeitgeist. Now everyone understands, Gonzalez says, because everyone knows about Uber and Airbnb. Those businesses are meant to utilize the idling capacity of assets, as economists like to say. Instead of cars parked in garages, they’re used to pick up strangers. Instead of bedrooms gathering dust in empty-nester homes, they’re used to accommodate out-of-towners. When it comes to the hire-a-local-shooter trend, the idling assets are just, well, downtime in the studio schedule, serious camera chops and in-depth local knowledge. Sites like Trip4real and Vayable extend the concept beyond photographers to include insidery locals who want to pick up a few bucks as tour guides, leading pub crawls and street-art tours and helping travelers find hidden gems in unpopular neighborhoods.
While other sharing-economy entities have triggered well-documented protests from, for example, taxi drivers and hoteliers, it’s not as though there are a lot of photographers with stable, pensioned jobs who are losing work over moonlighting shooters. In fact, photography, like many of the arts, has always been a precarious profession. Even established photographers like Bobault, who gets 40 percent of her work from Shoot My Travel, Vayable and similar sites, says sharing-economy marketplaces are just a way of finding more work. And unlike, say, elopements, vacation photography can turn into a repeat business. After finding Bobault through Vayable, Nikkie Gill, a doctor and mother from Seattle, has hired the photographer for the past three years to elevate her yearly trips with what’s become a new family tradition: a group portrait taken on the birthday of Gill’s daughter. “Personally, when I was growing up, we didn’t have many traditions in our family,” she says. “When we had a family of our own, this was something we wanted to cultivate.”
That tracks with the experience of Nicole Smith, the founder of Flytographer, who says some people dismiss vacation photography as another symptom of Generation Selfie. “People think it’s for narcissistic millennials who want pictures of themselves all over the world, but it’s people like me,” she says. “I’m a middle-aged mom, and I just want to be in photos with my kids.” Flytographer’s business has tripled every year since it kicked off in 2013, and while it also serves up vacation photographers in photogenic destinations, Smith says it’s not the same Wild West marketplace that has come to define the 1099 economy. Instead, her team cultivates a community of photographers in cities around the world, hosting online meetups to make them feel like they’re part of something greater rather than just being freelancers. Each photographer is part of a curated team that’s introduced with glossy profiles on the website, which is meant to cut down on the cutthroat feelings that can sometimes emerge in an artistic community confronted with limited work.
Of course, when it comes to employee classification, photogs at Flytographer are considered vendors, just as they are everywhere else in the sharing economy. Nobody goes into photography for the pension.