Photography from a business point of view

Over the decades, David Yarrow (Glasgow, 1966) has photographed some of the world's most iconic personalities, sporting moments and endangered species. The attention for his work has translated into exceptional auction results. Thanks to this success, David has already been able to donate around 15 million euros to charities, making him one of the most influential photographers in the world. Last November he was in Amsterdam to launch his latest book Storytelling and to open the exhibition of the same name at Kunsthuis Amsterdam. MASTERS visited the legendary photographer.

What memories do you have of your childhood in Glasgow, where you were born in 1966?

“My first memories are from Glasgow in the early 1970s, a period when the city was characterized by heavy industries, especially shipbuilding and coal mines. Our family was active in shipbuilding, a profession that was passed down from generation to generation with a large shipyard as the central point of our existence. Unfortunately, Glasgow was also known for divisions between Protestants and Catholics. I still remember how my father, despite our Protestant background, was secretly a fan of Celtic, the football club with a Catholic identity. Many workers at our yard were supporters of the club that reached the European Cup final in XNUMX. To avoid being recognized, my father parked the car two kilometers from the stadium and wore a balaclava. The tension of this hidden loyalty and the successes of Celtic, with players such as Tommy Gemmell and Kenny Dalglish, paint a picture of a grim time when sport served as an outlet. In addition to football, golf occupied an important place in our lives: the region is rich in golf courses. And I was skilled at snooker. As the youngest in a family with three, later four, children, I sometimes felt like an outsider. A feeling that was reinforced by my parents' turbulent relationship, which ultimately led to their divorce. Their arguments drove me to lonely hours at the snooker table, away from the domestic unrest. Furthermore, in my youth I was shaped by the hard lessons of life at a boarding school in Pitlochry, a village in the north of Scotland. It looked a lot like Hogwarts, Harry Potter's school. The mornings there were so cold that the washcloths froze.”

How did you come into contact with photography?

“My mother remarried a photographer who specialized in documenting horse events. Not that he walked in with that. Money was always scarce in our household. My mother was a sculptor with great talent but had difficulty commercializing her art. This made for a childhood surrounded by art, but also with the struggles of an artist. These experiences have profoundly influenced me. I work continuously, hardly take time for holidays, am constantly on the road for new productions or to show my work. Perhaps this motivation is partly shaped by the times when I slept in a caravan with my mother out of financial need. My mother's poverty and artistic integrity taught me that art must also be commercial to be successful. Creativity alone is not enough, it must also be marketable. My first introduction to photography was in my stepfather's darkroom. Seeing photos appear in the developer was a revelation, an almost spiritual experience. That sparked in me the passion that would shape me into who I am today.”


“I work continuously, hardly take time for holidays”


As a 20-year-old, you were on the field as a photographer for The London Times during the World Cup final in Mexico City (1986). How did you manage that?

“Because I photographed football matches of top division teams for a magazine, I qualified for accreditation for the World Cup in Mexico. Alec Ferguson's Scotland had qualified and was in a group with Denmark, Germany and Uruguay. We had to win the last group match against Uruguay. But unfortunately we were stuck at 0-0. I was there and hated it: I was more of a fan than a photographer. FIFA had a rule that each qualifying country could have one photographer on the field. Because all the other Scottish photographers had already gone home after the elimination, I had the opportunity to photograph the Argentina - Germany final (3-2) in the Estadio Azteca. Not that I was that great, I was simply very lucky with my photo of Diego Maradona holding up the World Cup in the middle of a frenzied crowd. It would become one of the best-selling sports photos of all time, earning a total of approximately $29 million in revenue. I own the rights to the photo and still get requests to this day. Of course, on that day, June 1986, XNUMX, I had no idea the impact this photo would have on my career.”

In the same year you were named Young Scottish Photographer of the Year. Despite these successes, you chose a career in the financial sector. Why?

“As a photographer I felt a bit like the best Dutch skier: I had little competition to fear in Scotland and then it is not difficult to be successful. I still covered the Olympic Games in 1988, but simply couldn't find any role models within the press to whom I could draw inspiration. Many photographers seemed bitter and unhappy, often angry or drinking alcohol. They didn't exactly inspire me. I also realized the saturation in the market. My photos, which I thought were unique in composition or use of light, often turned out to be identical to those of up to twenty other photographers. With my basic knowledge of economics, I knew that this was not a sustainable route. During the same period, Oliver Stone romanticized the world of Wall Street and many of my friends entered the investment world. I saw the financial world as an opportunity to learn and meet interesting people. The starting salary was the same as what I earned as a photographer, but the prospects in the financial sector were much greater. And so I made the switch. I worked as a securities trader in London and New York, became Equities Director at Natwest Securities and set up my own hedge fund. My career in the financial world brought a lot of prosperity, but little happiness: the stress and long working hours were to the detriment of my marriage. I felt every crisis personally. My life was a constant dealing with problems, which I absorbed like a sponge. It was a constant battle. The financial crisis of 2008 hit me hard. My company, with forty employees, was at the epicenter of the chaos. Virtually over night everything collapsed due to circumstances beyond my control.”

What drove you to choose photography at this crossroads in your life?

“During these difficult times, the camera was my only outlet. But how could I earn enough with that? Every evening I worked on a new business model, inspired by the TV series Breaking Bad.. I realized that if I could create a strong enough brand and product, it should be possible to make money while sleeping. I had calculated that in order to pay school fees and alimony, among other things, I would have to earn half a million dollars a year. While the average annual salary of a photographer was around $35.000. It was an ambitious goal, but I was determined to achieve it.”

How did you manage that?

“A defining moment in my career was the photo I took of a shark attacking a seal. This Jawsphoto, which I shot for fun while still working in the financial industry, was sold worldwide in 2009. At the time, sales were still made through Getty Images. I was paid about $25.000, but the cost of the entire production was about $30.000. I suffered a loss. Everything changed when a Houston lawyer nicknamed Jaws called me. He wanted to hang the photo in his office. How much did I want for it? Unsure of the price, I suggested $7.000, fearing I had bet too high. To my surprise, he immediately wanted to buy four for that amount. That was the moment I realized that the value of a photo in the art market was many times higher than in journalism. Inspired by this insight, I wrote a paper in 2011 on the future of photography, predicting that the art market would be the only viable way to make money from photography. Despite the criticism I received, my view turned out to be correct. That moment, that realization, marked a turning point, and it turned out to be one of the right things I had done in my life. In the art world it is essential to look beyond the literal representation of reality; this is a point that many nature photographers struggle with. The art of capture is about more than just showing what something looks like, it's about adding an extra layer. The value of photography in the art world is determined not only by the image itself, but also by what it represents. Muhammad Ali's iconic photos, for example, are valuable because they are more than a sporting moment; they embody an era and a personality that transcends sport. This illustrates how a photo can gain value through the broader context in which it appears. The chairman of Tate Modern once emphasized that nature photography is the least attractive in art for him, because it reflects reality without artistic addition. It is this artistic addition that defines art. It's about creating something authentic and original. That is what resonates and sticks with people. In this way, photography becomes more than an image: it becomes a story, a statement or an issue, deeply rooted in the search for originality and meaning.”

Besides Maradona and Jaws, what other photo represents a milestone in your career?

“That's one I shot during the civil war in South Sudan, Manchild. This image, with both depth and a certain serenity, had a huge impact and felt like Dante's Inferno – oppressive and hellish. It was authentic and Biblical in scope. It was the start of a momentum. Selling work through galleries requires a balance of risk and reward. With the image of South Sudan, my work spread worldwide and my name was definitively established. My hard work and the ambition to continue to improve remain the core of my pursuit. It is comparable to a top athlete who continues to practice, not for the money, but to stay at the top.”

Like many photographers, female models are a recurring phenomenon in your work. How do you distinguish yourself?

“Unlike a lot of traditional art photography, the women I photograph usually keep their clothes on. In fact, I emphasize clothing and setting to convey a certain story or feeling and add an extra layer of parody, humor or beauty. That's not all that sets my approach apart: I've partnered with some of the biggest models in the world on a basis that's as much philanthropic as it is business. These collaborations are unique because the models have the opportunity to earn a million dollars in one day, an amount that is unusual even for them. This arrangement requires trust on their part. The more we are successful, the easier it becomes to gain this trust. We operate a disruptive business model where we cover production costs of up to $200.000. Once these costs are covered, we split the profit 50/50 with the model. This means that they run no financial risk; their only risk is an unproductive day with no gain. But if they succeed, they earn half the profits. This format has been applied to collaborations with a variety of celebrities, from John McEnroe to Cindy Crawford. With the latter I did a project where we were able to donate a check for 3,5 million dollars to a children's cancer hospital with a single photo. It has been a long road to get to this point, the result of thirty-five years of learning, experimenting and refining.”


“My photo of Diego Maradona holding up the World Cup in the midst of a frenzied crowd would become one of the best-selling sports photos of all time”


What does charity mean to you?                

“Charity is a way to give more meaning to what we do. It humbles you, it gives life more depth. I think we've raised about 15 million for charities in the last five or six years. That fills me with pride.”

Do you photograph for a better world?

“Yes, although I am aware that my impact is minimal: the proverbial drop in the ocean. We recently photographed Erling Haaland. This would not have been possible if we had not promised that the proceeds would go to disadvantaged Norwegian neighborhoods. Such small projects make a difference at a small level, but will not change the world. Presidents change the world, artists don't. I also photographed forest fires in Australia, the proceeds of which, one and a half million, were donated to the Australian Koala Foundation. But I don't go to all the hot spots, I'm not a war photographer. But there was something visual about the forest fires.”

Like an erupting volcano in Iceland?

“Yes, but there are already so many photos of that. How can that still be art? The key to good art is often uniqueness. This is how I tried to portray North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. It turned out to be too complicated, although I got close to the second shell.”

If you were the world leader for one day, what would you change?

“What really concerns me is the discrepancy between salaries in the public sector and, for example, investment banking. Politicians earn less than a starter at Goldman Sachs. We complain about bad politicians and bad services, but what do we expect with such low salaries? I am not a socialist, but I do think that people should be paid well. I wonder if the gap between rich and poor, especially for those in the service sector, should not be reduced. We have seen during Covid how overburdened and underpaid healthcare workers are. Furthermore, I believe that gun ownership should be banned in America. I am aware that there is a strong political lobby that believes that gun ownership is a fundamental right. But given the many lives destroyed by mass shootings, I believe the use of automatic weapons needs to be addressed. I understand why someone wants to have a gun at home for self-defense, but no one needs a gun that can fire fifty bullets in one second.”

You photographed a campaign with Cara Delevingne for LVMH in 2017. When do you feel more comfortable: during a commercial shoot with a large crew or alone with your camera in the bush?

“I actually enjoy the diversity in my work. Collaborating with a crew brings a variety that enriches and prevents my work from becoming monotonous. And I never go into the bush alone with a camera. I also work with experts such as the 'Lion Whisperer' when photographing animals. It is precisely these collaborations that allow me to portray animals in all their glory. I always look for the perfect angle, the uplifting pose, the direct look into the eyes. But I'm not a traditional nature photographer who spends weeks in the wilderness for that one shot. I see art as magnifying and glorifying my subject, not as passively waiting for it. However, the definition of art is not up to me, but up to the viewer. I don't pretend to dictate what art is; I do what I do and it is for others to judge its value and beauty.”

How do you see the role of photography in the fight for nature conservation?

“Photography plays a crucial role in how we understand the world, especially when it comes to showing the beauty of animals. These images create awareness and appreciation. In this context, zoos are of great importance; they provide education and a chance to see animals that many would otherwise never experience. Good zoos contribute to awareness, research and conservation. However, the world of photography has changed. The work is not always appreciated and is sometimes even the subject of criticism. Twenty years ago a unique photo of a giraffe would be celebrated, today the same photo can lead to accusations of disturbing nature. This led me to withdraw from animal photography. It has become a politically charged and sometimes toxic field. I have shifted my focus to supporting pediatric cancer research, an area that no one can criticize. This reflects my need to contribute positively, away from the controversies of nature photography. And although I still photograph animals, it's not like it used to be. The market is saturated, many aspiring photographers are trying to follow in my footsteps. But they don't realize that we thoroughly prepare every photo. We don't just go on a trip to portray a wild animal. We leave nothing to chance and purchase expertise. When we went to Alaska this summer, we spent $65.000. You bet you have a better chance of getting that moment than the person who only spends $2.000.”

You have traveled to the most remote and inhospitable areas. What have such journeys meant to you as a person?

“My travels and experiences have profoundly influenced me. I have traveled all over the world, from North Korea to areas controlled by Al Qaeda. These experiences form the lens through which I see and the stories I tell. They emphasize the importance of preparation and investment in capturing that one-of-a-kind photo, and are a reminder that despite its complexities and controversies, the world remains an amazing place. In that respect I am a romantic.”

Have you ever felt threatened?

“My most terrifying moments were not with wild animals, but with people. They are often more dangerous than animals because they can drink, use drugs and buy weapons. Although gorillas can also get high on certain types of sugar, haha. But I am always on the lookout, especially for hippos. I've also found myself in dire situations, like the time I fell into the ocean while photographing orcas in Siberia, without a wetsuit, with heavy cameras around my neck. Not that the orcas were the danger, but the severe hypothermia.”

MASTERS Magazine

Curious about the rest of the interview? How passion, craftsmanship and enthusiasm can excite the senses. That is the common thread of the spring edition of MASTERS, which takes you through many catering entrepreneurs: from the big winner of the recent Michelin ceremony, Jurgen van der Zalm van Vinkeles, to 'Horecatering Entrepreneur of the Year' Herman Hell. Speaking of Michelin: what is actually the impact of the green star, which saw the light of day in 2021? MASTERS posed that question to six prominent chefs. During a business lunch in Bridges restaurant, Dennis Albada Jelgersma explains how he farms as a winegrower and celebrates life: “Not with a block of cheese and a lukewarm pipe.” The appetizing creations in Culinaire Couture prove that a good outfit is like a feast for the eyes. David Yarrow's fascinating photography is also a feast for the eyes. We get into the Lucid Air Touring to experience whether the electric car can have the same effect on the senses as the combustion engine. And we enter heaven for audiophiles: Bang & Olufsen Brussee. In short: plenty of stimuli for the reading buds. A song to enjoy!

Order MASTERS Magazine #57 here