How freelancers are making commercial photography safer by joining together

Aug 31, 2020

This post was written by Galadriel Masterson and Kelley Quan, co-administrators of Think Tank, a group for freelancers in the commercial photography industry. Working with Freelancers Union, the members of Think Tank worked together to develop a safety protocol for workers in their industry, from hair and makeup to tech and props, and distribute it to major clients. If you’re concerned about your safety on-set, download the full protocol here and reach out to

KQ: Somewhere around the beginning of March, I got the feeling that things in my world — commercial fashion and lifestyle photography — were in for a critical shift. Like many of my colleagues, I was afraid of what the COVID-19 future held and was trying my best to prepare. As a freelance hair and makeup artist for the past 28 years, I had experienced some crisis times in New York City for sure — 9/11, the 2008 market crash, just to name a few. But nothing prepared me for what happened after March 15. After the shutdown, everything came to a screeching halt, I had an empty calendar for the first time in decades, and the industry evaporated overnight. I found myself smack in the middle of limbo-land with nowhere to go and loads of questions I needed answers for.

Around this time, my friend and colleague Galadriel Masterson launched a Facebook group called Think Tank. There, we were able to ask each other industry-related questions like job ideas for our hiatus away from our real jobs and savvy ways to hang on to the money we still had. Very quickly, it started to expand from there.

GM: Think Tank was born as a form of crisis management for the freelance artists in the fashion photo world following the concept of United We Stand, Divided We Fall. Just a few days after the shutdown, I very quickly built a private Facebook page for my fellow freelancers in the commercial fashion photography industry. The day I created the page, gig workers had not yet been approved for unemployment. Honestly, I thought we would use the page just as a way to guide each other to create income during the shutdown..."Hey guys, such-and-such needs customer service reps to work from home, $25/hr."

Within a week, gig workers were approved for unemployment. And that's when the support and camaraderie of Think Tank went into fifth gear. Navigating the unemployment application as a self-employed person brought many a freelancer to tears. Individuals could post their roadblocks or questions on Think Tank, and by the end of the day, 5-20 other freelancers who had already been through the exact issue would offer tips and support.

Our industry can be a bit competitive. We may posture and pose to be doing better than we are and we may hold our client contact info as close as we do our PIN codes, but the shutdown happened to every single one of us in the fashion photo world. Regardless whether you were a huge earner at the top of their game or an assistant just starting out, we all needed the same thing: guidance and support to keep a roof over our heads and food on our plates. I am so proud of the freelancers in my industry for coming together as a support network.

KQ: It’s typically hard for creatives to open up to other creatives. Competitive doesn’t even cover it — to be open, candid, and vulnerable is not common. This was the first time I felt the veil had been lifted. I felt like I was seeing some of my colleagues for the first time, and I realized that no matter where any of us were on the spectrum, we were all in this together. For many, I think it gave a sense of purpose, to supply and receive critical, time-sensitive information and help each other out. We had a shared goal. This was when I realized the potential of advocacy, and the powerful tool it could be to bring change to areas that need it most. Think Tank lit the torch that helped light the ways to best support our community. When Galadriel asked me if I would be a co-administrator of Think Tank, there was no hesitation. It was work, but it was for a common good for our community.

By late April, we’d all heard rumblings about shoots starting up again, and that opened a floodgate of concern from our members. We’d each received so many COVID-19 safety protocols, none of which felt like they really protected everyone on set. So we decided to gather raw data from our members, asking them to submit their ideas for best practices in their segment of the industry. The members of Think Tank collectively created a document that was cohesive and realistic, one that would help make the workplace a safe space and would be easy and clear for our clients, as well as artists.

GM: Social distancing is never a possibility in our industry. We realized our clients were burdened as they rebuild their businesses after the shutdowns, and we recognized that a CEO just wouldn't be able to guess what a makeup artist needs to stay safe. In fact, in gathering recommendations from Think Tank members, I realized I don't know what any of my fellow artists need outside of the areas I work in. For example, my friends who do hair had to explain that you can't work while wearing gloves — it would be like rubbing a balloon on the model’s hair!

KQ: Creating our own advocacy and partnering with Freelancers Union opened up several new conversations for a group that typically has very little benefits or protections. Galadriel met several legal reps and affiliation presidents to see if unionizing was a possibility.

As independent contractors, we don’t qualify for this; unions are typically formed by employees (W2), whereas the artists you meet on set of commercial photo jobs are self-employed, gig workers (1099). However, we discovered it may be possible to form an association or alliance under the umbrella of an existing union, and that’s something we are currently looking more closely at.

Upon creating the safety protocol, we were able to partner with Freelancers Union and their support team was able to circulate that valuable doc to our community. This guide was created to help our clients better understand what we all can do to stay health and safe on set.

I’ve done quite a few shoots since New York entered phase four of reopening. I have been really pleased with how clients have responded to the challenges and feel that they have included me in the preproduction conversation much more than they did before COVID-19. They ask about the needs of the beauty department and want to make sure we are all comfortable and, above all, feel safe. Many were aware of the safety protocol created by the Think Tank members and asked me directly to clarify specific details as it related to their production. I found all of these conversations really encouraging, and it's my hope, as we all become more comfortable with this new way of working, that we continue to support one another, be it as a client or creative.

After all, we all are in this together!