On 16th January we gathered a panel of industry experts to discuss trends, projects and opportunities at play in the world of photography today.

On Thursday morning we invited a panel of practitioners to Getty Images' London HQ to explore current and upcoming trends in photography. Talking through case studies of recent commissions and collaborations, and sharing their personal perspectives, were Sam Robinson, lifestyle photographer, director and founder of Paper Mill Studios; Guy Merrill, award-winning photographer and Global Head of Art at Getty Images (which has recently launched its Creative Insights platform); Madeleine Penny, art director and co-owner of StudioMM, and Max Ferguson, photographer, writer, Founding Editor of Splash and Grab Magazine and Director of Photography of Port Magazine. More info on our panel here.

Here’s what we learned.

Kicking off the discussion from a commercial viewpoint, Sam gave us some insight into his work as an advertising and lifestyle photographer. Since he started working in commercial photography the field has changed dramatically: where once clients were asking for the model-family-laughing-and-eating-salad stock images, there is now an emphasis on “authenticity”. Such is the demand for authentic content that it’s become an industry buzzword; “every single brief I’ve ever read has asked for authenticity,” says Sam. 

Shifts in the industry

He describes his job as “storytelling” – a reflection of how commercial photography has changed. “Now brands come to me and say, ‘we want to talk to our audience, can you help us tell a story?’” It’s an exciting prospect that grants a photographer more agency and artistic freedom. Another trend Sam has observed is a move towards hybridity. At the start of his career, he was marketing himself as a photographer in order to get work; today “people spend a lot of time trying not to be defined by labels,” and his own career reflects this shift. Now not “just a photographer” he co-owns a creative space with his wife which has led to “unexpected tangent” projects including a shoe brand and an eco-friendly beer business.

Making sense of data

The data gathered by Getty Images’ researchers supports these observations. Guy explained how marketplace trends, combined with research of external trends, can reveal a lot about the industry. The search term “diversity”, for example, has “gone up by 900%.” These kind of figures reflect “a new standard for inclusion” and “give us an idea of what people are responding to,” explains Guy. He gave Rihanna’s wildly successful beauty and lingerie lines as an example (her makeup line was the first to offer over forty shades of foundation, while the models in her runway shows represented a diverse array of shapes, sizes and ethnicities) of how trends in music, fashion and beauty can point to emerging trends in photography. 

Deeper than a trend

“Inclusion” and “diversity” are “more than a trend” however, and to reduce them to marketing buzzwords undermines real progress. To prevent tokenism, Guy believes it’s about “what’s going on behind the camera” as much as who is in front of the lens. He referred to Vogue’s history-making covers (2018’s December cover was the first ever to be shot by a black photographer, 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell, while January’s was the first by a woman of colour, 26-year-old Nadine Ijewere) under Edward Enninful’s time as editor-in-chief, and showed us a series of adverts featuring lesbian and gay couples – of which the first was only published in 1994. Despite significant legislative and cultural progress for the LGBTQ community, their “representation in advertising photography is still surprisingly limited,” and not reflective of “the new normal,” believes Guy, who quoted a YouGov survey which found that 49% of 18-24 year olds would not classify themselves as 100% heterosexual. 

Being trend-proof

With experience on both the editorial and agency sides of the industry, Madeleine spoke next about “how to monetise creative”, and the relationship between artists and commercial work. In her experience, trends in photography are driven by “what happens to be going on around us”: as a photographer, taking inspiration from what drives you creatively and professionally results in work that “resonates with audiences.” Echoing Sam and Guy’s emphasis on authenticity, she highlighted a series of photographers who are “telling stories”; tackling issues and giving a voice to those in our society who are marginalised, silenced or invisible. “Brands are chasing this kind of authentic storytelling,” she said. Integrity and authenticity are trend-proof: photographers whose personal, editorial and commercial work overlaps in terms of style and content, are “the ones who will never go out of fashion.”

What people do when they’re not getting paid for it

Finally, we heard from Max, who graduated with a degree in photography six years ago and has since founded Splash and Grab magazine, and is Director of Photography for Port Magazine, Photo Editor for the Financial Times Weekend Magazine and a lecturer in documentary photography at the London College of Communication. In his experience, genuine passion – or as he put it – “what people do when they’re not getting paid to do it”, has proved to produce the most powerful work. Splash and Grab, which he sees as “personal work”, “takes up all [his] time and money” and its focus is to “put people into print for the first time.” Max also offered a new perspective on the “authenticity” issue. While he believes “advertising becomes quite interesting when it buys into the artist,” the danger of blending art with ads is that “the trickle up of authenticity will bring a trickle down of the opposite” – the process “goes both ways.”

The future of the photographer-client relationship

As Madeleine pointed out, there is a renewed emphasis on the role of the artist in commercial projects: clients are bringing the photographer back into the conversation at the beginning of the creative process, rather than approaching them with pre-approved briefs with no room for artistic licence. From a commercial perspective, Sam’s experience has often been that “you achieve what [the client] think they want, then, in the process, create something they actually want.” If the quest for authentic content continues, what does the future hold for personal work? Max was positive. “These things are cyclical. There will be other buzzwords. ‘Authentic’ can’t last forever.”

How to get your work out there

Our panel reflected on the impact of platforms, old and new, on trends in photography. Madeleine has observed the impact of Instagram on photographic storytelling, pointing out that it pushes people to publish individual, more abstract images as opposed to a series of consecutive photographs that produce a narrative. Max, whose magazine started in the form of a Tumblr page, (“before Tumblr died”) views Instagram as a “very valuable tool” for some photographers, “but just that – a tool.” He advised photographers to “find out what works best for you,” whether that’s websites, print or exhibitions. For Max, “it’s always been the magazine.” He closed the discussion on a thoughtful note: “photographs are more like poetry than they are prose.” Rather than telling you the whole story, photography “is way more interesting” than moving image, “because it asks questions.”

All photography Rob Parfitt.

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