Everything You’ll See and Hear as a Club Photographer
No, you can't pay me in blow.
All photos by the author
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
Sometimes it seems like everyone is a club photographer—or at least says they are in order to skip the line like a celebrity or a drug dealer. But those of us who actually do the gig occupy a unique role of privilege (and probably come off super douchey) by providing a vital service in our FOMO-fueled world: pretty pictures. After all, what's more universally important in 2016 than how busy you look on your Instagram?
From the mouth of the beast, where bouncers give us nods and skip the bag search (we're pretty much always hiding drugs), to the belly, where bartenders wipe our bills in exchange for being the one non-asshole customer they've had all night (a kind gesture we totally abuse), being a nightclub photographer often makes you feel like lower-level royalty in the urban landscape. And honestly, if you think about how historically snobby royalty have been despite having to not get their hands dirty, it's pretty accurate. We deal with the least bullshit and feel the most entitled (I try to soften my edge on this front by at least saying "sorry" as I push people out of the way like a toddler in a ball pit).
There is, however, a bit of risk involved. Besides possibly getting your equipment straight-up destroyed in an unrelated brawl or an unexpected moshpit, there's a rotating list of bullshit things you will see and hear while doing this job that will make you reevaluate just how sick of a gig it actually is. So, from someone who's done it for nearly two years in Toronto, here's a shortlist of scenarios you will probably experience while photographing a city's nightlife.
"Hey man, I need you Wednesday at 8 PM. I have a gig."
This is how it all begins. A friend of a friend hits you on Facebook Messenger because he's noticed your photos on Instagram. He thinks they're "so dope" and he "fucks with them hard." He is running an event at a favorite spot for gym bros and walking Supreme billboards. He wants you to shoot it. There's no discussion of pay—don't bother bringing it up online, because he'll just ghost you. When you do bring it up in person, his response will start with, "Here's the thing..."
At best, you'll get $25 and four free beers from a microbrewery that the bar is promoting. Also, he'll buy you two a shot for some bro-to-bro bonding, and will probably give you some free drugs when he's had a few too many Jamesons. At some point past midnight, he will apologize for being broke and explain that spent all of his money on a tech startup in Liberty Village.
"$300 for six hours. BIG CELEBRITY is coming. I need the photos by 10 AM. Thx"
This person also messages you through Facebook, but likes to keep things short and sweet. They don't fuck with you like the last guy did, nor do they give a rat's ass about your photographic skills. They're likely in their late-20s and running on a mix of cocaine and anxiety, so expect passive-aggressiveness in all of your interactions. Also, an important note: someone's fronting the money for the photographer, and it's not them. In fact, they're probably are part of the venue's PR team, or are a friend of the manager of the club, but they'll still insist that you refer to them as "the organizer."
You're going to be asked to provide an invoice (via Microsoft Excel only) and will be told the money will be e-transferred once they get the photos. If you don't press them for the money immediately after pressing the send button, you'll probably never get paid.
The "celebrity" doesn't show up.
This is really crème de la crème of classic photographer moments, because it's one you'll probably catch the most grief over. From club-goers who don't understand how little their favorite pop star/rapper actually cares about them (i.e. people who paid for a whole bottle of Hennessy V.S. to see Skepta dance in the distance for 20 minutes at an OVO Fest afterparty), to mid-level organizers whose bosses are desperately stretching out how long they can lie before letting on everybody the big star isn't showing up, a big name bailing on an event causes chaos in the club.
As a photographer, you have to understand this and stay relaxed. Deny all culpability—definitely DON'T lie and say you know when they're coming. Managing expectations is key, and you don't want to be the person talking a big game. Just enjoy the show, sip on that free vodka soda, and have your Uber destination ready to go once the DJ takes the mic with a disappointed face.
"Can I see the photo?"
The one line every photographer—both inside and outside a club—never wants to hear. Despite living in an age where VSCO filters and Snapchat facemasks can completely alter an image with simple changes in temperature and lighting, most people are still under the impression that what's on a photographer's screen is the final product. Thus, every person wearing a polo or a romper is going to insist that they be able to look at your camera to size up your work. Which brings us to the inevitable follow-up.
"Oh my god, I look SO bad! Take another."
Motherfucker, you either look good or don't. If you're in the first category, congratulations! I hope you get laid tonight. If you're in the second category, don't worry, I have editing software that I use on hundreds of people like you. Also, since you asked, I'm actually just going to pretend to take a photo, throw you a thumbs up to signify the new photo looks sick (there's actually nothing on my screen), and then dip into the crowd in hopes of avoiding you for the rest of the night.
"OK, but, like, where can I find the picture tomorrow?"
This one's understandable. People are getting their photo taken, they want to at least get a copy of it when they can. Of course, most people don't understand that I'm probably not going to edit these the next day, and if I do, it's for the client—not them. For friends, people I happen to like, or celebrities, this rule is flexible, but for the most part, I hand people who ask this question my Instagram handle and remove myself from the situation as soon as they start looking through my feed. It's better this way.
"Who do you work for?"
One of the most obvious examples of a pissing contest is when somebody with a fleeting sense of clout asks you who you work for. If you tell them anyone but the most popular person at the club, they're going to look at you with smug disgust. If you are actually shooting for (or came with) an artist or celebrity, this person is likely to cling to you like a leech. That's because they've probably asked the same question to at least 26 people before getting to you, and they've finally found their ticket to the afterparty. Ditch this person. Immediately.
"Do you? *makes obnoxious sniffing sound while plugging one nostril*"
Some people seem to be under the impression that every flash photographer in the club is The Cobrasnake. In reality, most photographers just happen to like blow (because it makes our jobs somewhat bearable) and people with less clothing (because they're interesting subjects). That doesn't mean they're necessities to our work, or that every person follows suit. Regardless, you'll likely nod and follow this person—they'll give you free drugs. Just don't hang around too long or they'll expect you to start paying as well.
"Let me take of a photo of you, I'm actually *slurred, unintelligible speech*"
Your response here will depend on whether you've decided to stay sober or not. If you're pretty fucked up at this point (me, most of the time), you may give the right kind of person a chance to use your $3,000+ piece of equipment. If you do, it should be somebody who actually knows how to use the thing, and you probably shouldn't let them hold it for more than ten seconds. After that, you're risking serious damage to your equipment and pride.
If you stayed sober like a true professional, this is your chance to laugh and make a joke about how the last guy you saw hand out his camera got it wrecked (that last guy was actually you—that's why you're staying sober). At all costs, don't tell them that you actually think they're an overall mess of a human being. It's better to just blame it on the natural danger of inhibition and pretend like they're otherwise totally functional when not under the influence.
"Who are you? You're hot."
Lean in and say your name with a slow, raspy sway to your voice. It'll make them think they're getting somewhere. After that, ask if they want a photo. This will also make think they've wooed you. Now, take one, nod, walk away, and delete it. It's not worth it, I promise you.
"I'm buying you a drink."
Make this easy and say yes. Remember: don't be picky, take the drink. If you don't want to drink it, slip off into the crowd and leave it on a table. Don't be the guy to leave a full beer right in front of the person who just paid $11 for it.
"You took a photo of me last night. Send it now."
Did you pay me? Are you my friend? I don't even have your name saved in my phone and you're demanding I send you a photo a mere eight hours after the club closed? Actually, please, tell me what you look like so I can look for the photo that matches your physical description and move it to the trash.
"Can you get me on guestlist?"
Yes, but just like a narc being asked if they're a cop, always play dumb.
Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.