Capturing the Bigger Picture 

A grassroots approach to photographing the world

Categories: Case Study — Bridget Harris and Shoko Wanger

How can a brand accurately represent its community through photography when that community is constantly growing—and thrives in all corners of the world? Head of Photography Bridget Harris started at Airbnb in 2014, tasked to solve that very challenge. Formerly at Time magazine, she brought a range of experience—from news and fashion to editorial and commercial production—to the job, crafting an innovative approach to global brand imagery from the ground up. Here, she explains how this approach has helped the company reach its targets, while generating work as diverse as the Airbnb community.

You arrived at Airbnb when the product centered solely on homes—long before Plus, Experiences, Adventures, or Luxe. How has the photography program evolved as the company has grown?

When I started, the photography team consisted of six people. Almost five years and many launches later, we’re a team of 20 producers, photo editors, photographers, and retouchers. As Head of Photography, I’m responsible for overseeing a vision for photography across all touchpoints of Airbnb and our brand, which includes everything from the product itself, to print and digital campaigns, product marketing, and everything in between.

Above photos captured in Bali during Airbnb’s 2014 rebrand initiative. Photography by Emma Hardy.

What were some of the challenges that arose as the company expanded?

I never could have predicted how our scope would evolve and expand, from homes to real world experiences you can book on Airbnb. It’s totally wild. But even when I got here, Airbnb already had a presence in all but four countries in the world. I started getting questions early on from international colleagues needing photography assets that more accurately reflected the communities they were engaging with.

Consider our Asia Pacific region. There are so many different countries and cultures across Asia alone. We had gorgeous photography of Japan and our community there. But as a company striving to create a world where anyone can belong anywhere—and that places such high value on being local, inclusive, and human—could we really expect those images to resonate with our communities in South Korea, Thailand, or China? Absolutely not. 

Harris’ Seasonal program snapshotted everyday people in Mexico City, Bariloche, Bangkok, and Portland. Photography by David Robert Elliott, 2016-18.

Since starting, you’ve developed two programs to help address these sorts of questions. The first was designed to build Airbnb’s internal image library by maximizing resources on existing shoots. Tell us more.

In 2014, Airbnb rebranded. That was really when the company first established a point of view on its brand photography—that it should be colorful, energetic, honest, and human. When I joined the creative team a few months later, my role was to bring a level of production experience to execute that point of view in every project. But I soon learned that the speed and scale of Airbnb was going to make that challenging. Projects happened very quickly, so the team was constantly choosing between using photography from our rebrand archive, or pulling together a last-minute shoot. On top of that, nobody was thinking ahead to how we would maintain or evolve the foundational work done during the rebrand, and scale it in a way that could reflect a global company and community.

After a year of this, I took a step back and looked at what we had produced. I thought about what the common threads were, and which images weren’t working and why. Then I used those learnings to create a shot list that our brand photographer, David Elliott, and I could go out and shoot alongside the company’s more pressing photography needs. Because these shoots happened three or four times per year, I called this program Seasonal. 

A Mexico City moment photographed in 2018 for the Seasonal program. Photograph by David Robert Elliott.

Basically, we’d work with our marketing, regional, and product teams to figure out what the most urgent business priority was each quarter, whether it was new educational assets for Airbnb for Work, or a library of travel content for our China team. We’d then schedule those shoots in geographies I knew were relevant to the project, but missing from our brand photography library. I’d build out our production plan to include extra days to capture other assets we badly needed. We’d find a variety of hosts, guests, and unique homes to photograph in the same city, so that we were accumulating diverse imagery showing real people who use Airbnb.

We found a way to tackle the needs of many teams on existing productions, by investing a little more up front to save us exponentially down the line. Twenty-nine cities and hundreds of thousands of images later, the work continues to get better.

Were there any drawbacks to this new approach?

This approach allowed us to effectively chip away at scale, but what we found two years in was that it didn’t adequately solve for speed. These are big productions that could only feasibly happen three or four times yearly, but we are in constant need of diverse imagery of our global host community. Again, I had to think about how we could produce quickly, without compromising our values or quality standards.

San Francisco, Sydney, and Tokyo take center stage in photos captured for the Neighborhoods program in 2016.

What was your thought process in solving that issue?

In 2016 we launched a product called Neighborhoods, meant to give guests a better understanding of the neighborhood they’d be staying in when booking a home. In one six-week period, we photographed over 600 neighborhoods in our top 25 trafficked cities, resulting in a tidal wave of images coming in from all over the world to be edited and color corrected by my team in San Francisco. I was grappling with the question of how to scale the project globally while ensuring that the photography always felt current. Neighborhoods are constantly changing, and in order to capture them accurately, we can’t just dip in and out at random moments. 

I thought a lot about my experience at Time, about the photojournalists who inspire me — who essentially live and breathe their work, embedded alongside the stories and communities they are covering. I thought about how an embedded approach would translate — what if we empowered photographers who lived in these cities to shoot for us, capturing hosts, neighborhoods, Airbnb homes, regularly, telling a more real story over time? What if we could support photographers who travel to certain communities for their personal projects, by commissioning shoots while they were there? This would streamline production communication, and in turn, give photographers more creative freedom and control over their schedules. It would enable us to build relationships and establish trust that I’d give them work as long as they delivered on the brief, and that I’d invest in their growth. And, most importantly, the imagery would reflect the points of view of locals, who know how to capture these communities more authentically than I could ever prescribe.

An image taken in Berkeley in 2018 for the Embed & Breakfast program. Photograph by Ryan Kim.

I pitched the program as Embed & Breakfast, a playful nod to our company’s origins as Airbed & Breakfast. And to start, I wrote to a photographer I’d known for many years, Tara Rice, who’d been taking frequent trips to Haiti. She agreed to shoot for us in this way during her next trip, so we reached out to four hosts who agreed to be put in touch with Tara directly. She took it from there, communicating with them on the ground, instead of through me, miles away in California. 

When she shared her wide edits with me, I knew right away that this was something special. With my simple creative brief and our mutual trust, she was empowered to take the project and run with it. Not only that, she gave me feedback on her experience and we talked about ways it could be better the next time. That feedback loop has been fundamental to building strong relationships and trust with each photographer since. 

What happened next?

I wanted to explore how this approach would land working with photographers in their home cities, so I paired one of our internal photographers, Ryan Kim, with five hosts in the Bay Area. Then I pinpointed geographies that were lacking in our image library so that any successful tests would yield images we could put to good use. India was a region we hadn’t covered extensively as a brand, which I believed we needed to correct. So I reached out to a photojournalist I’ve followed for many years, Karen Dias, in Mumbai.

That conversation with Tara was a year ago. Since then, she, Ryan, Karen, and a growing community of photographers have photographed hundreds of our hosts on every continent, and they’ve helped us expand the program into Airbnb ExperiencesI’m insanely proud that in one short year this group has shot the content for some of our most visible initiatives, including the launch of Adventures, Superhost appreciation week, and our Airbnb Magazine online column Meet The Locals.

Photos from Jacmel, Port-au-Prince, and Mumbai taken in 2018 for the Embed and Breakfast program. Photography by Tara Rice (top 3) and Karen Dias (bottom 3).

Looking back at my original proposal, I can still feel the weight of the business challenges we were trying to solve with Embed: locally relevant content, global coverage, speed, more meaningful imagery, and fostering better partnerships with our hosts and photographers. There is still a lot of work ahead of us, but I can confidently (and excitedly) say that one year later we are actually chipping away at solving these challenges. 

As you mentioned, the shoots center on a one-on-one interaction between photographer and host. How does this hands-off approach impact the work?

It’s made the work stronger, more authentic, more human. The one-on-one approach also gives us more intimate access to our hosts, who tend to feel more comfortable being themselves with a single person versus a large crew. That’s important, because we want to see who these people really are. We capture elements of hosting, but we also have images of moms picking up kids from school, authors at their computers, gardeners tending to their flower beds. These are images that can ultimately show someone in San Francisco that they have a similar routine as someone in Seoul. This is the kind of work that can break down barriers to belonging, and in order to capture it, we need a level of intimacy and comfort that a one-on-one interaction affords.

A nature scene in Calabasas captured for the Embed and Breakfast program in 2019. Photograph by Ryan Kim.

We’re also light-touch in our approach to styling and retouching. You can’t “belong” in a place manipulated in Photoshop. That’s not what we’re trying to sell. And Airbnb isn’t just for people who fit a certain profile. We want to celebrate people exactly as they are. We’re interested in showing what’s real, because that’s what we offer: real places you can visit, real people you can meet.

It seems like another way that this program stands out is in the loyalty you’ve built with photographers worldwide.

Strong relationships with creatives have been critical to the success of both programs, and again, trust is key. And it works both ways: I need to trust that photographers will take our brief, apply their creative point of view, and come back with what we need. And they have to trust that once they hand in their images, we’ll bring the same heart and emotion to the selection process as they did creating them. In every edit, project, and review, I never take that trust for granted. 

It means a lot to me to build these partnerships—to develop talent and careers, to give photographers an opportunity to make a steady income by working in ways that make sense for their actual lives. In our world, a photographer could have the freedom to travel spontaneously for a project—and in 10, 20, or 30 years that same photographer’s circumstances could change and they’d still be up for great local projects happening in their own backyards. 

There’s a belief that to “make it,” photographers need to be in New York, L.A., London, but we don’t operate that way. We have to be everywhere. That’s opened us up to so much amazing talent all over the world.

I love the idea of our photography community being as global and diverse as the rest of Airbnb.
 

New York, Chiang Mai, and Cape Town take center stage for these Embed & Breakfast photos. Photography by Tara Rice (top left and right) and Rudi Geyser (bottom left).

Inclusivity has been a recurring theme in many of Airbnb’s design initiatives, from illustration to language systems and beyond. How has the need for inclusivity affected the way you approach photography?

We have a responsibility to authentically represent the range of people, places, and cultures present on Airbnb. Other travel brands don’t carry that same responsibility, and as a result, we see a lot of glamorized images that leave many communities out of the narrative.

We’re used to seeing incredible marketing imagery of Paris and Tokyo, but what about Shimla? Petra? Lijang?

Are there learnings you can share with other photographers, designers, or marketers based on your experience developing these programs?

What I’ve proven to myself is that a brand can be truthful, authentic, and human in its approach to photography, without losing sight of its business goals, sales, or need for efficiency. Even when you’re moving quickly, don’t have a huge budget, or feel you need to scale back, there’s always room for creativity and authenticity, and there’s always going to be someone out there who’s willing to partner with you if those are your main objectives. 

What’s most exciting about what’s still to come, and what’s your vision moving forward as Head of Photography?

What excites me most is the community of photographers we’ve connected withrelationships with real, very human, very talented people, across the globe, which will outlast any business initiative or product launch. Those relationships don’t end when the project ends.

I’m also excited to put more structure behind this initiative, and build it into a more expansive program that’s more accessible. We have the opportunity to provide a creative platform for photographers in parts of the world we haven’t covered yet, and to discover the next wave of amazing storytellers.

Embed & Breakfast. Jerusalem, Beirut, Petra, Sydney, Cape Town, Shimla, Bangkok, 2019. Photography by (clockwise from center left): Ryan Kim, Rudi Geyser, Adam Birkan, Tara Rice, Rudi Geyser.

And this year was only the beginning—we’ve got a lot more territory to cover. So, if you’re a photographer who doesn’t see your city, your neighborhood, or your perspective represented in our work, I want you to find me on Instagram

I’m inspired by photography institutions like The Magnum Foundation, National Geographic, but also recent trailblazers like Women Photograph and Diversify who are dedicated to amplifying a growing community of diverse artists. And that’s my vision for Airbnb: that we’ll continue to empower socially conscious imagemakers around the world through discovery, support, and mentorship. Imagine the collective impact that group could have, by simply creating images that celebrate everyday people for being themselves.

Bridget Harris is the Head of Photography at Airbnb. Prior to joining Airbnb in 2014, she was a Senior Photography Producer at TIME Magazine. When she’s not editing thousands of pictures, she spends most of her time on hiking trails with her labrador, Brick, shooting hoops with her nephews, and laughing at her own jokes.
Interviewer Shoko Wanger is a writer and editor based in New York City. When she isn't working, she's likely to be found reading culinary memoirs, pushing the limits of hot sauce consumption, or racing her husband at the New York Times crossword.

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