Mall Studio Flashbacks: My Experience as a Mall Photographer

My career as a photographer has taken me a lot of places. I’m a photojournalist now and have been for several years but before that I was a studio photographer at two different companies, a much different type of work flow than what I do now. I get asked a lot about how to get into photography. I learned a lot while working in commercial photography. I learned how to deal with a crisis in a family, I learned how to communicate with people whose language I did not speak, I learned how to shoot with a flow and get a session done pretty quickly – all very, very valuable skills in photography, don’t get me wrong. However, mall photography will not get you further than the mall. It’s a great jumping point but if you want freedom and flexibility as well as creative control, you need to create and market yourself as your own brand. Keep in mind, this is just my personal advice from my experience. A number of people have asked me to blog about it, so here it is. Not everyone will feel this way or give you the same advice on the topic, so keep an open mind, as always

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I first started out as a customer service rep for a sports photography company. You know, the type of company that plasters your kids on trading cards that wind up in a desk drawer somewhere in the depths of suburbia.

It was a pretty sweet gig. My job was to set up the product table and stand there and answer any questions parents might have about the ordering process.  I watched my peers shoot swim teams, baseball teams, soccer teams, and softball teams up and down the East coast all the while lugging my bins of priceless possibilities of memorabilia. For just $125.00 you could get the deluxe package that featured a set of trading cards, three 8×10’s, two 5×7’s, 24 wallets, and a keychain! Once school started back up for me I needed something a bit more stationary. Having my work schedule on the fly wasn’t going to cut it while taking five classes. I wanted to hold the camera and I felt it was time for me to move onto bigger things. I was tired of being the table bitch in my blue shirt and white shorts.

That’s when I ventured into working in a mall studio.

Now, because of legal reasons, I’m not going to state the name of this specific company but I’ll let you figure it out with your deductive reasoning skills. I thought I had it MADE. Here I was, twenty years old and working in a photography studio. I got to wear dress pants and a button down. The camera was finally in my hands! I got hired because of my amazing skill with a camera, right? I quickly learned that this was a no skill needed type of position. Everything was set to automatic and the lighting was already synced up with your camera. No skill needed. I started at $8/hr down seven dollars from what my previous job was.

My first day on the job was where my photo dreams went to die. They shriveled up in that back room, camera room three, and settled into the dirty toy bin full of gray stuffed animals and puzzles with missing pieces and never came back out.

*Priscilla. Priscilla was my very first session. She was a chubby four year old who, under no circumstances, DID NOT want her photos taken that day. Being stuffed with french fries and chicken nuggets did nothing to stifle the spine scratching screaming that came out of her. It was one of those things where you want to look away but you can’t stop watching. Priscilla’s lavender dress was soaked with drool and bits of chicken nugget skin that her mother so lovingly peeled off for her before hand feeding them to her, as if expecting some type of Pavlovian response to smile when fed nugget. We did not have smiles, but instead we had screams with mushed up chicken nuggets involved. It was enough to make any sane person vomit but since I hadn’t eaten that day all I could do was dry heave.

I spent forty minutes in that session. I managed to get a handful of semi-decent photos from Satan’s spawn and was pretty proud of myself. I dropped them to be edited in the back room, more fittingly nicknamed the fiery depths of hell. “Kaitlin, we need to talk,” my studio manager said to me, her face not looking happy.

What is this?
Why is she crying?
Why didn’t you use three backdrops?
Why is there only one outfit?
Why didn’t you finish in eighteen minutes?

I said I’d do better next time. Thus began a two year process of me apologizing for not being able to take decent photos of bad children.

Holidays were the worst. I worked up to fourteen hours per day, slightly above minimum wage. Some days I didn’t even see the sun and if I was lucky I’d catch it setting just as I searched for my car in the sea of SUV’s and Subarus parked in the mall parking lot. They all had those little stick-on stick figure families marching across their back windows taunting me with their freedom.

My manager would beg me to stay. “Please, can’t you just stay a few more hours, we need you today we are swamped!” The booking system would have us book one family every twenty minutes in each of the three available camera rooms. We had to do three backdrops, two-three outfit changes and turn out at least eighteen different poses in each twenty minutes session.My favorite were the pro-photographer dads. The dads that came in with their Nikon D700’s and shot behind my back the whole session, only to leave and say that they’ll return later to look at the photos. They never ever did. The eyes in the back of my head didn’t always work so I got in trouble for this on a regular basis.  I once had a family come in for Christmas photos only to have mom threaten to divorce dad over the fact that he wouldn’t wear pink like the rest of the family. I once had a family who made three different photographers reshoot their session because mom looked fat and all they ended up getting was a free 5×7 from a voucher they got in the mail for being “loyal customers.” FYI people, we’re photographers, not magicians. 

This was my life. I suffered through holiday props of decimated present boxes, styrofoam easter eggs coated in baby saliva, that fucking fake Easter basket grass, and those silky fall leaves that I had to gather and throw eight thousand times over the course of a shift. The most basic of my camera skills were utilized but damn if I didn’t have some sweet arm muscles from all that happy leaf throwing. 

Every day there would be numbers posted in the backroom with the monetary sales from each photographer’s work. If you were highlighted in yellow, you were safe from elimination and had immunity. If you were in the pink you were doing a shitty job and were up for elimination. I held the torch! I held that torch for $9/hr.

The day I decided to quit was about a month or so before the following holiday season. I walked into the backroom at 10am, the fluorescent lights flickered and the smell of carpet cleaner filled my nose, because you know, some kid’s vomit was all over the floor again. I looked at the photos on the wall, my photos, some advertisement of the type of work we were capable of. I saw that stupid highlighted sheet and held that slimy camera in my hand and knew this was it. I was done. I made eye contact with my manager, he knew it, I knew it. I quit and walked out into the still daytime light, grabbed my roommate and went and drank a Stella on the water having no clue what I was going to do next. It didn’t matter though because all I knew was that I never had to photograph something I didn’t want to ever again and that in itself was wonderful. I did my time at the bottom rung of the industry and I was ready to move up. I had no idea how, I just knew I needed to try and in doing so the first step was getting the fuck out of camera room number three.

My advice for you, photographers, is that if you’re looking for a great way to get comfortable working with and photographing people you don’t know, by all means, go for it. Try the mall thing out. Give it a whirl. Do it in addition to learning about what you like and what you don’t like. How you interact with people is what is going to make your photos come alive or tank. It’s a quick way to learn because you get thrown in the deep end from day one. However, if you’re in school for this and you’re spending tens of thousands for a photo degree don’t make this your end game. This is your beginning, your way to collect funny stories about when you first start out. It’s not a career. It’s a tool to learn. Your end game should be all about you. Brand yourself, market yourself to a niche audience who will appreciate your eye and your personal style. Not a place that forces your sessions down to twenty minutes and a set number of certain poses.

Photography is a hard, hard industry. I’m still figuring this out, it’s a lifelong learning process. To all my mall photographers out there, keep working hard and busting ass because without you there wouldn’t be those awful holiday family photo postcards to receive in the mail from people we hardly know. 😉

To all of those nice, amazing, sweet families I had the pleasure of photographing for holidays and birthdays every year, thank you for being awesome. 

*Name has been change because people are crazy.

5 thoughts on “Mall Studio Flashbacks: My Experience as a Mall Photographer

    • Thanks! To be fair I did have some fun times. The people I worked with were awesome and we laughed at all the crazy stuff that we encountered on a daily basis. Wasn’t totally awful. 🙂

      • I can appreciate that. It’s kind of like that for me in my job with tech support. I’m glad my coworkers are cool and we can share our stories and laugh about the craziness. The hourly pay at the place you were talking about did not sound worth it for all the aggravation though.

  1. This is an extremely well written funny entrancing and disgustingly horrible account of your journey to finding yourself and your niche in the world of photojournalism. It made me laugh and grimace. I love you works

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