Selective Focus: The Industry and the Coronavirus . . . and the...

Selective Focus: The Industry and the Coronavirus . . . and the Cancellation of photokina


While the subject of this column was to be the transformation of photokina in its 2020 manifestation, those considerations are moot. According to a release from the trade fair dated March 17, “Even before the appearance of the coronavirus, the imaging market was already subject to strongly dynamic movements. This trend will now gain momentum and must be factored into plans for the upcoming photokina.

“Added to this is the fact that our customers’ resources are already under heavy strain in 2021—as a result of general economic trends as well as rescheduled events on the global trade fair calendar. The orientation towards 2022 gives everyone involved time enough to design the next photokina with an eye to the needs of the market, and of our exhibitors and visitors.”

Some Background

It’s not like we didn’t see this coming. A bit of history: the show last unfurled its banners in 2018. That event had a very impressive turnout of the public, albeit with somewhat less business trade than usual. Major new product announcements were made; new technology was unveiled; the city of Cologne and the halls of the trade fair itself were filled with photography, workshops and events.

At that show, we were informed that photokina was switching to an annual event starting in late spring 2019. It would also have a new emphasis on “photo community.”

I left the 2018 show with an overall positive feeling about the energy and crowds. However, I must admit my colleagues were a bit more sanguine about the future plan. That was mainly because the timing seemed out of joint with the usual buying calendars of photo retailers, be they big-box stores or online arms of regional shops.

Thus, they figured, less business and product news would result, making what was a regular pilgrimage into a foray not justified in their travel expenditures. Selective-Focus-4-2020 coronavirus pandemicApparently, a number of manufacturers and distributors shared their concerns. Moreover, given the drop in overall camera and gear sales and the costs of what was a quite expensive show, they balked at coming back to Cologne so soon and decided to pass. Thus, the 2019 show was canceled. The organizers made changes in show management. The new team had time to mull over what they might do to revivify interest and participation for 2020.

Fast Forward to Spring 2020: Coronavirus Pandemic

This February, there was some momentum toward changes in the attitude of what photokina would become: more of a photo festival than a trade show. At a press event in mid-February, the organizers stated:

“Trade fairs are always reflections of the market, and markets change . . . and require continuous adjustment or sometimes even a new edition.” They noted the challenges of “harmonizing a quite heterogeneous group of stakeholders and their different event interests.” To my hearing, this meant trying to balance between business (writing orders) and public participation and events.

Perhaps most telling was their conclusion about trade shows in general. “Trade has become digital (online), and there is increasingly less ordering at the show; so, trade shows are not so much about sales anymore and more about being an important outreach to consumers.”

While the events of late have put consumer (and trade) gatherings on hold, they point to greater implications for our industry. At the grassroots level, pro photographers, who are to a great extent “1099-ers,” have seen their client base disappear. Couples put their wedding plans on hold; press events were canceled, and much commercial work was relegated to online imagery—hardly a market that supports the small businesses run by many pros. Having started my work in photography as a freelancer, I can imagine the impact this will have.

On the amateur level, social and travel photography (family events, trips abroad and local) that account for a large bulk of images were cut drastically due to border closings as well as the advice to keep a low profile outside the home. The impact on camera and gear sales will be great, exacerbated by supply chain concerns of which we are all aware. Retailers are already feeling the pinch.

What to Do?

The question becomes: what do we do now, and what of the industry’s future? Perhaps I can share my approach to this and other life challenges. In the face of any existential threat, there is a tendency to see the future in a negative light; a view that colors our thoughts and actions and opts for flight rather than fight. A possible way through this is affirmation—a repositioning of attitude that discovers what is most essential and meaningful in our lives, and how we can adapt to the situation at hand in that light.

Rather than give in to despondency, we can seek out deeds, attitudes and actions that admit the realities of the time yet face the challenges with decisiveness rather than depression. It’s getting our heads out of our hands and doing something with both to change ourselves, our close circle of family and friends, as well as, in an ever-widening circle, the world around us. Pollyanna? Perhaps, but to me a better course than throwing in the towel.

I don’t pretend to have the big answer; I’ll leave that to those with greater minds than my own. However, I can offer some suggestions. Given that many of us are in a “sheltering in place” mode, the industry can begin by encouraging activities that make good use of the time with photo-oriented projects. My niece and her kids, for example, are going through all their photos and creating photo books via online shops of the hundreds (and thousands) of images they have accumulated over the years.

Online Workshops, Tutorials & Events

Pros I know who used to get a portion of their income from running travel workshops are doing more tutorials via online how-to events and meetings. While they aren’t going to get rich, they are keeping their name out there and making creative use of their time.

Likewise, manufacturers of printers, inkjet papers and scanners can encourage projects for archiving old family photos. Or creating prints of treasured work, thus steering folks to positive activities in photography.

Furthermore, camera, lens and accessory makers can help by hosting online events, sales and tutorials to keep the passion for photography alive. In other words, create the type of “community building” that photokina used as the basis for the reimagining of their event.

Yes, sales will continue to go down for a while. However, we should do all we can now to communicate with our present and future base and keep the photo flag flying until one day, when this scourge lifts, we’ll see the world open for business once again.

Changes Ahead

There is no question that this pandemic will affect and alter our industry in the short run. Frankly, some businesses will not make it to the other side.

We also have to question a number of factors we took as gospel in the recent past: we take supply chains for granted; consumers, pros and amateurs have a good deal of disposable income and will upgrade for any leap in technological prowess; retailers without a strong online presence can survive; and distribution will flow along traditional lines. And quite likely, we have to question whether the old trade show model can stand.

The likelihood that we will get through all this, and the coming recession, is good. It will take time, discipline and also clarity to see through the gathered dark clouds. I clearly remember the late eighties, and the late nineties; all seemed quite depressing and predictions for the industry were not good. Yes, there was disruption, and closings, and all the pain that produced. But if we hunker down, admit to the situation and reaffirm our creative and business smarts and instincts, we will get through it. Albeit in a new and perhaps greatly changed world.

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite movies, The Third Man, spoken by Orson Welles. “Don’t be so gloomy. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed; but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”