What happens when, in the “work for free” culture of fashion, your job is to fade into the background in order to capture the perfect shot?
September 2017, Milan: Around Fashion Week venues, they’re impossible to miss. They crowd around entrances in droves. The constant clicks and flashes and yells as they crouch, lean, and climb over each other for that perfect shot. The road is their runway, the pavements their red carpet.
Such is the life of the street style photographer. For the few days deemed ‘Fashion Week’ each year, they patiently await their fashion-savvy pedestrians, ready to capture the most outlandish outfit, a head turn, a hair flick. The gleam from an exposed shoulder or a triangle of light reflected off a vinyl mustard boot. Each snap a chance to be featured in magazines and newspapers, but more importantly on Instagram and blogs with potentially millions of followers.
But what is the point if they don’t even get credited?
This was the ugly picture that fully developed during Milan Fashion Week this autumn. Forty street style photographers, with a combined social media following of 3 million, formed an unofficial union named “The Photographers.” It was a digital protest cemented with the hashtag #NoFreePhotos.
The issue is a simple one. Every section of the fashion industry, from the media to brands to extremely popular online fashion influencers, are profiting off their work without paying them due credit or money. Sometimes they don’t even get a courtesy tag.
Nabile Quenum, who runs the street style journal J’ai Perdu Ma Veste, told The New York Times, “We want people to respect the work we do and recognize that this is our livelihood. We, too, are trying to make a living, and many of us are struggling.”
In the fashion industry, you do expect, going in, to work for free. It’s hard to swallow and it’s not fair, but it’s a fact. You do the hard and terrible work for free so that eventually you get paid. Models sell their face. Bloggers and influencers sell their style. Designers sell their clothes. Newspapers and magazines sell issues. Journalists sell their words. And street style photographers sell… not much apparently. Yet if everyone else is making money, from advertisers or the media outlets that publish them, the budget should be stretched wider to pay for honest work.
Photographers who have joined the movement have added #NoFreePhotos to their Instagram bios and many have also stated: “My images are not to be used without express consent of license. Contact me to obtain the rights.”
A street style photographer’s work is the most widely published: on the Instagrams of the bloggers themselves and even on the designers’ pages themselves if they love it. Even magazines like Vogue or i-D will have entire features dedicated to street-style.
A blogger or influencer may, depending on their outfit, gain hundreds of new followers in a day at Fashion Week. Brands who dress them may sell more clothes or go viral. Journalists will have enough ‘Top 7’ list ideas to last them for at least another week after the whole festival ends.
It’s become a movement that fashion-lovers look forward to more than the shows themselves. How are the most influential people in fashion putting these trends together in the real world? That’s what sells clothes. Though any publicity is good publicity – even if you don’t get paid for it – it’s tied to the expectation that eventually you do get paid for it.
Words: Mimi Davies