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Professional peers

Natalie Buckett and Nicholas Horgan reflect on the rise of student photographers

Scrolling through Facebook photo albums of events gone by allows us to relive stories of wild parties and memorable nights. Look closer, and you will see a watermark embedded on the pictures that tells another kind of story.

House of Cameo, RAAW Creative and Samuel Hoare Event Photography; these are the names that pop up in the event meetings of university clubs and societies, the committees of college formals, the excited interchange between friends as they plan lavish parties.

University photography businesses have skyrocketed over the past few years, with ordinary students crafting loyal clienteles ranging from university clubs and societies to corporations and political parties. Their photos boast impressive traction, with Facebook business pages that rack up over 20,000 likes.

The journey usually starts with an interest in photography, and often does not even involve a considered business plan. For Sydney Law School graduate John Fennel, his business developed organically. “I got involved in photography at uni by bringing my camera along to a few events at the start of my law degree. People began noticing that I had a camera and asked me to snap their events,” Fennel says.

But student photographers are clearly not inexplicable success stories; they cleverly tap into an eager, and often lucrative, client base. “It‘s a captive market,” says Samuel Hoare of Samuel Hoare Event Photography. “Everyone knows everyone, everyone [is] having 21sts, everyone is really into social media and want pretty pictures on their Facebook. People aren’t going to go out of their way to hire someone for triple the price, especially when they’ve got university peers who they’ve seen do a good job.”

Generally, the cheap prices that university photographers offer are largely due to minimal overhead costs. It is common to receive cash in hand payments for jobs, meaning it is possible to avoid paying tax on income received, or for it to impact on means-tested welfare payments.

The unique edge that university photographers provide is that, well, they’re university photographers. Hoare says, “Everyone knows me and it’s a lot easier for someone to yell at me ‘yo take my photo’ if they’re your peer”. Young people have a specific grasp of digital media and marketing in the 21st century, making it easier for them to provide these services.

It’s not just 18th and 21st parties that this applies to, university clubs and societies, and many other organisations want a photographer who can appeal to a young audience. Students we spoke to had done event photography for Young Labor events, Liberal party conferences, Out For Australia and a range of university parties. Each job leads to a new network of connections, and an unending supply of customers.

Fennel explains that when hiring other photographers on behalf on clubs and societies he thought it was “important to employ students because it gave them a chance to practice their art”. Moreover, he contended that the “clubs and societies program is one of the best ways to give a bit of extra money to student photographers”.

However, the nature of a student photographer’s appeal, being both peer and professional, can also be the source of difficulty. A focus on college formals and university events requires photographers to navigate the boundary between client and friend, particularly when guests encourage the photographer to drink and socially integrate for a more “intimate” set of photos. Unlike Hoare, who is able to source his income largely from university contacts, some photographers have broadened their customer base to a younger scene.

Tim* spoke to Honi about his experiences as a guest at events shot by student photographers, providing an insight into their capacity to exploit their professional position for personal gain, or even more perverse reasons. “In my opinion the context of professionalism is also deliberately used to network friendships, court relationships and in more insidious cases coerce sexual relations… my 16 year old sister has on multiple occasions been asked to come for private photo-shoots at the beach by event photographers in their mid 20’s who have met her in fleeting at the birthday parties of her friends,” he said.

Rita*, a high school student who has attended numerous parties photographed by university students observed “a party isn’t exactly a [normal] workplace environment and when you take into consideration the fact that the photographers are also usually guests its definitely more difficult to distinguish between personal [and] professional.” Rita goes on to claim that “often they’ll ask girls to  do things “for the photo”’ that are inappropriate and in some cases predatory. She went so far as to say it’s “just an opportunity to add to their own personal soft-core porn collections.”

“The struggles of balancing professionalism and constant expectations to remain youthful, agile and involved are numerous, and sometimes the uniqueness of these photographers’ position can blur boundaries between freelancer and friend, and in more insidious instances sees the blatant exploitation of a position of power”

The distinction appears to be – as Rita identifies it – in the nature of the event. “I’ve had some good experiences with University photographers who have stayed professional. I think it was because it was set in a more reputable place like a function a genuinely successful and dynamic business is impressive to say the least.

The key to producing fun and youthful photo albums appears to be a photographer’s capacity to enjoy events in the same way as a guest, whilst maintaining the respectful behaviour expected in any conventional workplace. Fennel said, “there are no strict expectations of my behaviour. Common sense dictates that I shouldn’t be creepy or rude… often the events involve alcohol and I make sure I have a couple of drinks (if whoever has hired me is okay with that) to help get on the same level as my subjects, without getting wasted.

“It’s a fine line between being professional and unprofessional in such a situation, but I think it’s important to toe that line. In saying that, it’s very important to be respectful of people’s wishes at all times.”

Some photographers dislike the ambiguity in professional and personal boundaries. Fennel speaks about the process of ‘summoning’ where people persistently hassle the photographers regardless of what else they are doing. Another student photographer, Lee*, noted that whilst his age was often an advantage, it also made him feel more susceptible to rudeness and brashness from event guests. “When they want you to take a photo or show them a photo of them, they sometimes feel more empowered to nag at you or yell at you because you’re just another young person at the party,” he said. He also claimed that, whilst a client base at university provided many opportunities, it also elevated expectations of “mates rates”, which made hours of work less lucrative.   

Watching the development of these students’ photography move from a passionate hobby to a genuinely successful and dynamic business is impressive to say the least. However, the struggles of balancing professionalism and constant expectations to remain youthful, agile and involved are numerous, and sometimes the uniqueness of these photographers’ position can blur boundaries between freelancer and friend, and in more insidious instances sees the blatant exploitation of a position of power.

The point at which these businesses are most admirable though, is when students push back against a society that frequently correlates age with vulnerability or incompetence, and use their youth, literally, as their selling point. As this market continues to grow and regulate itself, one can only hope the experiences of students like Rita and Tim become the absolute exception.

*The names in this article have been changed