Red Carpet Photographers Brace for a New Normal Post-Pandemic

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The Hollywood events business vanished overnight in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, taking with it the livelihoods of countless photographers. Now, as the crisis stretches past the six-month mark, many are contemplating how and when work will return and if some of their peers’ careers will even survive.

For those positioned in a pit behind red carpet stanchions — a place where photogs are piled on top of one another, often sweating and shouting — there’s also the issue of safety.  The Hollywood Reporter polled industry insiders who are all in agreement: Nothing will look the same. Expect to see fewer photographers overall, plastic barricades separating them and no more wild (and saliva-projecting) shouting — at least for now.

Veteran freelance photographer Lisa O’Connor, who has been shooting for 36 years, said she went from working “as much as I wanted,” oftentimes seven days a week and multiple events per day, to a full stop. At first, the break made space for home repairs and domestic projects, but now the panic has set in. “At first, it was, 'OK, I needed a break,'” explains O’Connor, a regular contributor to AFF-USA. “I’ve gone from being hopeful to hearing there might not be big events before the end of the year. Now what do I do? It doesn’t seem like anybody has any answers.”

O’Connor suggests that it's going to take a major studio or company like Dick Clark Prods. to put on a large-scale event to show others that it can be done safely. “Somebody has to be first.” In the meantime, she’s been filling her time with creative pursuits like painting and crafting artistic wooden signs that she’s been selling to friends. “I have to do something,” she says.

Fellow freelance photographer Birdie Thompson, who has worked for AdMedia Photo since 2011 and shot major events like the Vanity Fair Oscar party, HBO’s Golden Globes fete and the Independent Spirit Awards, says she’s missing out on anywhere between 10 and 30 events per month around this time of year.

“It's so unfortunate because I really love what I do,” she says, adding that she’s even had to put her side business of headshots on hold. “With COVID still spreading the way it is, I don't feel comfortable about to returning to work right now because we can be shoulder-to-shoulder or in very close proximity to one another. … From my perspective, because of the way things are currently, I don't know how we can return. But whatever happens, it will be a drastic change and things won't be the same for a while.”

Getty Images’ Neilson Barnard, head of entertainment photography in the U.S., who oversees a staff of 60 plus a network of more than 600 photographers, says they’ve adapted, in part, by leaning on lessons learned from the company’s photographers who worked through the SARS and Ebola outbreaks. “They’ve given us their teachings on how to operate safely, whether it be through decontamination or how to operate around other people.”

While there has been some work with protests, drive-in events, various concerts and even the recent Democratic National Convention, the majority of business has scaled back. “Some events are coming back,” he explains, singling out brand activations and nonprofit work. Other work has come with portraiture, virtual events and Getty’s other verticals like sports and news photography. “Some of the work that has been coming out has been beautiful.”

That said, when business ramps up again, Barnard said he doesn’t want to see 30 photographers positioned on top of one another. “We’ve seen how scary those pits can be,” he says. “I just want to make sure that everyone is safe, but I know that it’s going to change the landscape — not only has it already, but it will continue to do so.”

Will there be remote or robotic cameras? Individual pods? Dividers or drastically reduced headcounts? Those are just a few of the options Barnard mentions. As for the industry as a whole, he suggests that a lot of previously busy photogs may not find their way back once business fully returns, should that be later this year or in 2021.

“That's a long time for a lot of people to not be shooting and working,” he says.  “There’s nothing better than Vanity Fair and the Met Gala with all the pomp and circumstance. Nobody wants to see a virtual Met Gala. We want to see the photographers in there,” he adds. “I do worry that the Oscars won’t ever look like the Oscars ever again. It’s going to be sterile or borderline clinical in the way it will be run for a few years until we can figure this all out.”

Veteran photographer Billy Farrell, who runs his own agency, BFA, and manages a network of 70, acknowledges the entire ecosystem has been hurt. “It’s like nothing I’ve seen, and I was in the business for 9/11 and the financial crash. This is a lot different.”

Farrell said his agency has produced content, working with Tommy Hilfiger on a social campaign, shooting some virtual events and finding surprising business through its archives. “We’ve seen a lot of people being nostalgic by searching and buying images of themselves from the good old days,” he said, adding that ultimately, he’s hopeful there are better ones ahead. “It’s like hibernation, a bit. The bear and the cubs will all be OK, but you have to wait until spring.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.