niche drama

Street Style Photographers Attempt to Unionize

Photo: Melodie Jeng/Getty Images

In fashion, there is always a price to pay — even when something is free. And an ongoing debate between street-style photographers and influencers, which came to a boil at Milan Fashion Week, is making this loud and clear.

It all began on Thursday, when a group of 30-something street-style photographers met to organize an “unofficial union.” Their goal, as outlined in a statement obtained by WWD, is to stop “disproportionate gain being derived by the influencers” and to “no longer be viewed as a passive entity in the equation of this industry.” In other words, “The Photographers,” as this anonymous group calls themselves, argue that they need to be seen as an invaluable part of the equation; they’re done watching influencers profit off their images, with no compensation or acknowledgement in return.

The Photographers’ statement read:

Brands, influencers and bloggers regularly make use of these photographers’ copyright-protected photos to fulfill their responsibilities to the brands that pay them to wear and promote the garments and accessories which they wear to the fashion shows and events. The group will no longer tag or credit these influencers and instead, will replace their tag/credit with an agreed-on hashtag: #NoFreePhotos.

Though the Photographers concluded by saying they intend “no malice” with their new union and stipulations, the #NoFreePhotos hashtag quickly made the rounds on Instagram, sparking a conversation that focused on monetary compensation for both sides. On Friday, the popular blogger and influencer Bryan Grey Yambao also known as Bryanboy, posted his own rebuttal:

While I have enormous respect to all of these lensmen (and women), the notion that many influencers are being ‘disproportionately’ paid to wear clothes is quite laughable.

“I don’t get paid to wear clothes at a show,” Bryanboy told the Cut in a follow-up conversation. “No one gets paid to wear clothes; most people don’t even get paid to attend the show. It’s really about establishing relationships with the brands and playing your cards right. Brands work with us throughout the year on different projects, but they’re not going to pay me to get shot by someone else.”

According to Bryanboy, influencers actually end up spending money during Fashion Week. At the end of the day, Uber rides to and from showrooms to borrow clothes, shipping them around the globe, plus hotels and flights are all business expenses that influencers like himself figure into their budgets.

“As an influencer, there’s something demoralizing about a brand passive-aggressively asking you to be dressed and then they’re going to put you in the third row,” Bryanboy added of giving free press to brands just to establish a good relationship with them. (Much like many street-style photographers do as well.) But it gets your foot in the door, and hopefully results in paying gigs down the line. So, even if influencers are not profiting directly from street-style photos, they are potentially gaining from them in the long run.

In a recent article titled, “The Big Business of Street Style Bait,” the blogger Zanita Whittington told Refinery29 that street style is a “huge part of [her] business.” She explained that these photos help boost her reputation as a “style authority,” and a single New York Fashion Week season could yield as much as $100,000.

Some bloggers and street-style stars hire their own photographers, but most of the time, they’re relying on the photographers outside of shows — some of whom are being paid by magazines, and others who are also working for free to kickstart their careers. These photographers run after influencers for the chance to be featured on their Instagrams, and the influencers know this, with some then turning it into a game of cat and mouse — as well as a competition amongst photographers. This is exactly the power dynamic that #NoFreePhotos is trying to dismantle.

“Some of these photographers have been involved in the promotion of the girls, making them famous and a nice product for brands to use,” said Nabile Quenum, the Cut’s street-style photographer who runs his own journal J’ai Perdu Ma Veste. “We have a platform where we put them, too. People and brands come to us to see who to follow. Street style is about the details, but’s also about finding cool people with good taste. But then they just take all that and say, ‘Oh no, I did everything all by myself. I don’t owe anything to photographers.’ I’m just asking for respect.”

Quenum, who claimed he was one of the organizers behind the #NoFreePhotos union, said that the story has been “deformed a bit,” because the focus in the past few days has been about money. Yes, the Photographers are arguing that if their photos are being used for advertising (either during or after Fashion Week), that they should also get something in return. But in general, they want there to be more transparency and communication about how their photos are being sourced, and what for.

“With magazines, the rules are clear. But on social media, the rules are blurry,” Quenum continued. “We have a tacit understanding: If you want to use my picture, you tag me. But the point of this is the use of the picture, and that’s where something has to be done. It’s easy to screen capture a photo and use it for an ad and make money. But where’s the photographer in that? Somehow, street style photographers lost everything in the conversation.”

Unfortunately, the immediate reaction to this unionization has perhaps even furthered the divide between street-style photographers and influencers. They want the same thing, though, and also depend on each other to succeed. They are also both still at the mercy of brands and magazines to pay their rent, but as the past few years have proven, power dynamics in the industry are shifting; if they banded together, they could come out on top.

In this way, #NoFreePhotos is a natural evolution in an industry where the influence of images on individual platforms is quantifiable and quickly usurping traditional modes of distribution. Despite the current “drama,” photographers trying to unionize and protect their work is a sign of maturity for social media and fashion. There are all kinds of rules to protect photographers in print — page rates, usage fees, copyrighting, etc. — because early fashion photographers demanded them. So, a viral, charged-up hashtag may not be an elegant or final solution, but it indicates a shift in the seriousness with which we must take non-print media, from photographers to street-style stars.

Will #NoFreePhotos immediately change the way things are done? Probably not. As Bryanboy said, “There’s always going to be someone who will work for free.” But the beauty of social media is that it can start a conversation, and at no cost.

Street-Style Photographers Attempt to Unionize