As China Booms Photographers Struggle

Photography: Philip Gostelow

There are two ways to enjoy a high standard of living as a photographer. The first is to create great pictures, sell them for large amounts of money and rent out your services for giant commissions. The second is to charge regular amounts of money for your work but move to a place where the cost of living is lower but where there’s still enough growth and vibrancy to support a photography business and deliver an interesting time.

Shanghai, for example, is China’s most dynamic city. It contains more than 20 million people, has a per capita income of almost $1,000 a month and an annual growth rate of around ten percent. When it comes to the cost of living, residents can take their pick of Western-style two-bedroom apartments for a little over $1,000 or local digs that are equally comfortable for much less. That flexibility, growth and the thrill of living in a city as lively as Shanghai has brought in more than 100,000 foreigners who now call the city home. Some are highly-paid expats living luxury lifestyles but many are independent workers trying their luck in a growing market and a place they can afford whatever their income level. Many of those workers are photographers but even Shanghai, they’re finding, is not immune to the pressures affecting the photography market.

Clients Move on, Photographers Move in

Philip Gostelow is an Australian-born photographer who has spent much of his working life on the road. After starting his career as an architect in Canada, he moved first to Japan then in 2006 to Shanghai. Specializing in portraiture and corporate photography, Gostelow’s clients have included Vogue China, HSBC, Cathay Pacific, Time, Conde Nast Traveler and many others.  His still series on Australia’s 2001 Black Christmas Bush Fires is held by the country’s National Gallery.

Although he was looking for a segue into videomaking when he reached the city, Gostelow initially found that photography work in Shanghai was both easy to come by and reasonably paid. A friend in an architecture firm was able to arrange a long-stay visa for him. Work came in through connections and through local advertising on creative listing services such as SmartShanghai. Corporate jobs, often portraits of local executives and images for annual reports, became a lifeline even though the market appeared to offer two different pay scales. International companies would pay standard international day rates of between $1,500 and $2,000. Local companies who were more concerned with cost than quality would pay much less, often as little as $1,000. Even at those rates though Gostelow found that it was possible to cover half a year’s income with just six weeks of work.

Image courtesy Philip Gostelow

No longer. After a year in San Francisco, Gostelow returned to the city to find that the market had changed. The recession had forced corporate clients to look for cheaper ways of sourcing images than commissioning a professional photographer. Many of his old clients had moved on and many new photographers had moved in. A listing for a professional photographer on SmartShanghai that would once have attracted half a dozen responses would now bring in about 70 replies, many from people with little or no experience who were hoping to build their portfolios as much as make a living out of photography.

“They’re able to undercut prices,” says Gostelow. “It’s not a level playing field any more; it’s more like a rugby field.”

Stock has brought little respite. Although Gostelow has images with Getty, they deliver little more than an occasional check for $150 to $200, a nice unexpected bonus but not something that a photographer can live on.

Young Photographers Know Photoshop

The causes for the market’s change are multiple and aren’t unique to Shanghai. Companies everywhere are looking at expenses and trying to find places to make cuts without harming quality too much. That’s true even in China’s coastal cities that are still enjoying phenomenal growth rates. Low cost equipment has granted easier access to professional markets, a process that Gostelow notes started in the 1950s, when manufacturers produced the first portable SLRs. Gostelow himself started his career with print photography but hasn’t touched his Hasselblad for more than a decade. Many of those new photographers, too, have now grown up in a digital world and are more comfortable with Photoshop and digital editing than photographers who first honed their skills with print. The result is that even in Shanghai there are now more images available from more photographers and at lower prices, and those images can be delivered directly to the client.

“The uniqueness of the image has been downgraded,” says Gostelow. “The client has more choice and direct access to images so he doesn’t have to commission.”

The response of professional photographers has varied too. Some of his colleagues in Australia have turned to workshops as a way of supplementing their income, Gostelow says. Other have added movie-making skills to their repertoire and some have created niches for themselves with images shot in unique styles such as nightlit photography. For Gostelow, whose visa now requires him to leave the country every 60 days, the response will probably be to give Shanghai one more year then head back to Australia while trying to expand into movie-making.

Gostelow’s story, of course, represents the experience of just one photographer trying to build a photography business in a foreign market. Other photographers may be having an easier time. Philippe Roy, for example, another Shanghai-based photographer, is doing well enough to employ a full-time art director. But the pressures that Gostelow feels even in Shanghai are typical of the challenges photographers are facing around the world: the rise of competition, the drop in prices and the squeeze on clients’ budgets. Even being in a city like Shanghai, is no longer enough to escape photography’s problems, says Gostelow, and give a photographer an edge. That requires something much simpler.

“Luck is the edge,” he says. “Meeting someone in a bar who knows someone who needs a photographer.”

That may be no more likely to happen in a bar on Shanghai’s Bund than in a drinking hole in your home town, but at least the beer is likely to be cheaper.

6 comments for this post.

  1. Jesse Said:

    as a photographer in china this was very interesting to read. however i must say that a beer in my city (shenzhen) is just as if not more expensive than in my hometown!

  2. patrick wilken Said:

    Interesting story. I wonder how much his year away in SF affected his business in China? It sounds like the sort of market where you keep a close eye on things. Have to say that anywhere you can get a year's income with 12 weeks work, is bound to be ripe for undercutting at some point.

  3. Laurie Said:

    It seems to me that there is a unstoppable change happening in photography worldwide, not just in China.

    My father was a UK based pro photographer from the 1960s onwards, and has found that the market is shrinking to a tiny fraction of what it used to be. The cause, as you point out, is the "democratisation" of the art of photography. It has changed from being a skill requiring arcane knowledge and rare tools to something everyone can join in.

    The only way photographers can earn money know is to stand out in some way. Either take better photos than anyone else, or more relavent photos, or have a more direct way of marketing themselves (or their photos if they are selling stock).

  4. David Wegwart Said:

    Interesting read and information, thanks. Is this a global phenomenon? Certainly its true where we are.

    Digital has made a huge impact along with the changes in the global economy IMO. I tend to agree with Laurie above, where the impact is not just China.

  5. @KOVALNY Said:

    As China Booms Photographers Struggle

  6. sara michal Said:

    Great summary. At the end of the day, for a given photographer there are not too many model options.

    PhotoDeck ( aims to make it possible (and affordable) for more photographers to create their own stock website - this will change the landscape for some photographers at least.

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