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Turning Street Photography Into Paid Assignments

July 18, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Good street photography requires time to roam—a luxury that deadline-driven assignments rarely afford photographers. We contacted three photo editors who have hired street photographers to find out what opportunities there are for street photographers to earn money shooting assignments.

Elizabeth Renstrom, photo editor, VICE

“Street photography happens to do well on VICE.com,” says Elizabeth Renstrom, who has assigned street photographers to shoot photos for feature stories and profiles, and has featured portfolios by street photographers on VICE’s website.

After she discovered New York City street photographer Daniel Arnold‘s work at a book signing, Renstrom hired him to shoot portraits in a loose and candid style: “Go follow this person of interest for a day,” she says.

For a feature about the brothers who were the subject of the documentary The Wolf Pack, Renstrom sent Arnold to Los Angeles and had him follow his subjects for a week. “I wouldn’t put a street photographer in a situation where they have only ten minutes with the person of interest,” Renstrom says.

VICE’s advertisers also want candid, spontaneous photography, Renstrom says, and she has frequently recommended photographers she’s worked with when sponsors need photographers for commercial assignments and branded content. She recommended Jorge Garcia, a New York City street photographer, to photograph a feature sponsored by American Eagle that explored music venues near Manhattan’s Union Square.

These days, commercial clients who are “trying for authentic moments” want photographers who deliver “raw, gritty captures.” She adds, “I think there are a lot of applications if you have a street-heavy portfolio.”

Renstrom advises all photographers to show her the work they love to shoot-and if that’s street photography, she is happy to see it. “If you’ve invested a lot of time in it and it’s your personal work, I’d rather see that than see that you can shoot a more composed, commercial portrait.”

Amanda Gorence, photo editor, Refinery29

Refinery29 assigns photographers working in almost every genre, and photo editor Amanda Gorence says she has turned to street photographers to cover events “where we want to feel like we’re there.” For example, she hired Michelle Groskopf to photograph participants in the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC, a cheerleading competition, and “the inspirational ‘Miss Amazing,’ a local pageant in Nebraska for girls and young women with disabilities.” Groskopf shot flash-lit frames in the thick of the action—such as a scrum of hugging, exultant cheerleaders.

Gorence also assigned Groskopf to create a fashion story about luxury handbags in her trademark street photography style. “We shot older women in their 70s and 80s in Miami, and knew Michelle would have a blast with it and pull out some real joy,” Gorence explains. “Her love of people was the impetus, and that same energy, vibrance and optimism she is known for on the street added such a delightful twist to a fashion story.”

In evaluating portfolios from street photographers, Gorence says, “I’m looking at whether or not they manage to find something intimate amidst the chaos of the street, or their ability to make something feel dynamic and energetic even in a dull moment—and then think about applying those qualities to the assignment at hand.” She will then hope they can bring “that connected quality” to a portrait assignment or fashion story, she says. “Perhaps it’s about having them bring an unexpected level of energy to a quieter topic.”

© Gus Powell/Layout Departures

For a Departures issue on New York City, photo director Scott Hall hired photographer Gus Powell to do a fashion shoot with professional models. © Gus Powell/Layout Departures

Scott Hall, photo director, Travel & Leisure, Departures

Many of the travel stories Scott Hall assigns offer opportunities to show some street photos, he says, “but it might be one or two on an entire shoot list that includes restaurants, hotels [and] portraits.” He rarely gets an opportunity to let a photographer simply explore a place.

For a special issue of Departures on New York City, however, he hired street photographer Gus Powell to shoot an eight-page fashion story. Powell’s style suited the idea proposed by the magazine’s editor. “His one request was that we not make it just about the fashion,” Hall recalls. “We wanted the city to come through.” Hall thought traditional fashion photographers “were going to be focused on the models and the clothes,” he recalls. “I had Gus’s book, The Company of Strangers, sitting on my desk, and I said you know, maybe Gus would be an interesting choice.” The book features Powell’s images of pedestrians mixing and jostling on crowded sidewalks.

For the Departures story, Hall hired several models, “then we’d have them in places where crowds of people would be moving around them and Gus would just do Gus’s thing.” Powell came up with a list of possible locations, and the magazine hired stylists and secured permits. Hall explains, “We just let the models and Gus go while the rest of the crew hung back.”

Hall says photographers who specialize in street photography rarely send him work, but he’s open to it. “If you don’t have a hotel room or a dish in your portfolio, it doesn’t mean I can’t hire you,” he says. If a photographer showed him a book of “top notch” street photography, he says, “I’d talk to you about it and say, ‘It would be great to have some of this from the city we’re sending you to shoot, but how would you feel if I had to tell you that you had to shoot this museum or interior or this egg dish?’ I want them to say,’Yes that’s cool.'” Hall adds, “If you’re a talented photographer, you can probably pull them off.”

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