When passion for photography changes your life

The story of Andrea Piacquadio, one of the best-selling microstock photographers in the world

When passion for photography changes your life

He is one of the best-selling photographers in the world. His photos were shown on the cover of Time Magazine and were used for advertisements by Apple, McDonald’s and other famous brands. He first dropped out of Brera and then left the market of traditional photography, focussing on the rising system of microstock photography. He felt his talent was underestimated and decided to follow his passion. Andrea Piacquadio eventually won the bet, succeeding to become a self-leader. At the end of 2007, he was 28 years-old. At the Thyssen steelworks in Turin, seven workers died on a fire; Putin was re-elected at the Kremlin; the Confesercenti Retailers’Association presented Mafia as the “national enterprise achieving the best turnover”, and Pippo Baudo was appointed to conduct the 57th Sanremo Music Festival.

The photographer Andrea Piacquadio

The photographer Andrea Piacquadio

Apparently, there was nothing new on the horizon; however, the financial crisis and the first iPhone were about to make their way from America, and the creation of the Schengen Area abolished border controls in Europe. So, everything was bound to change suddenly. «At that time, I was working as a fashion advertising photographer, particularly for underwear. And I was already bored of it. When I tried to propose something creative, I was told that the shots were too artistic», says Piacquadio while walking under the skyscrapers of Porta Nuova. This evening Milan resembles Berlin, the first town I moved to, with the only difference that there are more cars and fewer people in the street.

How did you get bored so quickly of shooting naked models?
«Shooting models has always been my dream and I keep doing it. Beauty is one of the most successful sector of advertising. Apart from this, women have always been my favourite subject, in addition to old people, who have faces signed by ageing. The way I had to work, however, was boring. I had to stick to the standards required by photography agencies. So, I started uploading photos on microstock sites like Fotolia, iStock…».

Andrea Piacquadio passione fotografia ragazza-in-bici-nel-campoHow did you find them?
«By chance. Surfing the internet. All the people I knew then – including my fiancée at the time and my colleagues – told me that I was making a mistake, and that I was a looser relying on the internet. In a few months’ time, I started selling photos and earning money, and my life suddenly changed. Within a couple of years, I became one of the best-selling photographers, because it coincided with the sudden emergence of microstock photography. Fotolia, the site I mostly worked for, was about to make its first steps then. Adobe has just acquired it for 800 million dollars».

We are talking about a huge amount of money. And yet it is a mostly unknown universe.
«Every organization – ranging from the big American company to the small cultural association in Provence – needs an image to convey information and it can easily find one by clicking a key word on a microstock site that generally holds millions of photos. The people searching images are professional customers. The general public still ignores microstock photography. Even inside Italian companies there is still a sort of skepticism for everything that looks new and digital. And yet Shutterstock moved its headquarters to the Empire State Building in New York and got hold of several floors».

How do the microstock sites look like and how do they work?
«Talking about microstock sites may be misleading. Today, nearly all photography agencies sell images through internet sites. The difference between microstock and traditional photography concerns another issue. Any photographer, even if amateur, can upload images, and any person can purchase them at very low prizes, starting from 1 euro and rising up to 20 including the license to use the image. A micro-prize compared to that requested by traditional agencies. Thus, the name microstock».

andrea-piacquadio-3How much does the photographer get out of this low prize?
«It depends. Generally speaking, the photographer gains one third. A small percentage. An inverted ratio compared to traditional photography. However, you have a window open to the world 24 hours and, if you are good, you can sell the same shot thousands of times. This system is hardly feasible in traditional photography, where you are easily accused of underselling yourself and damaging the market. However, a similar situation is taking place in other sectors. Let’s consider music, for instance. How much does a rock star earn for each album uploaded on iTunes or recorded on CDs? I suspect just a few cents. A good earning depends on the quantity. I got to the point of selling 750 thousand licenses every year. I managed to emerge among a global sea of authors. Today, almost ten million photographers try to sell their photos through microstock, but the best sellers are only a few».

How did the microstock system allow you to express more freely your creativity?
«The agencies I worked for in Milan used to say my photos were too artistic. However, it was this specific feature of my work that made me gain success. My photos won over other millions of images because they brought something artistic in a very commercial sector.

If you follow
the mainstream,
you go nowhere

If you don’t have a specific, identifiable style, you have no future. Internet is an incredible resource because it allows anyone to propose even the most innovative ideas».

How would you define your aesthetic style?
«I have always loved making portraits. I started when I was at the high school in Busto Arsizio. I naturally moved from drawing to photography. I bought my first professional camera with the money I earned working as a waiter in a restaurant. My father died when I was a child and left us in precarious conditions. My photography reflects my passion for painting. I like Caravaggio-like strong contrasts. I also took inspiration from the photographer I most prize: Jan Saudek».

piacquadio-2The Jewish photographer from Prague, who escaped from Josef Mengele’s experiments and used to photograph women in his scrap bedsit during the Communist period in the Czechoslovakia…
«It is a mystery how Saudek managed to work in such conditions and became one of the best-known photographers. How did he manage to convince women to get undressed under Communism? From him I borrowed the expressionist, almost grotesque, style in portraits, and the austere and vintage setting. Microstock photography was glossy and ordinary at that time. I was the first one to exploit expressive models, especially actors – my first fiancée was an actress – shooting them in contexts where the only nuance was given by ageing. I often use vintage objects for my settings. Now several photographers follow my example. It is almost plagiarism. If a use an old armchair or a rusty Graziella bike, after a few days, I find these objects on other peoples’ profiles».

Did contemporary art inspire you?
«I consider contemporary art as a fraud, a speculative bubble based on nothing. When I attended Brera, I had a teacher who liked Arte Povera. Indeed, a sub-school which was already outdated and pigeonholed in museums. If you didn’t like the aesthetics of iron wires, you ended up with bad marks».

The designer Enzo Mari, son of a poor immigrant, after winning a competition, was enrolled in Brera but soon after dropped out of school. Despite this, he made a successful career…What’s wrong with the Italian educational system?
«I believe it is a general problem worldwide, even if particularly evident in Italy. Nowadays everything changes very rapidly, while at school teachers’ approach is outdated. Many of them have no relationship with the job market or are simply inadequate. School was a negative experience for me. I find it outdated, rhetorical. At the high school, I was bullied by Punk class mates. Years after, I found out they ended up working as janitors».

ds-sleepbed52iyWas there anything positive in your school path?
«I would like to tell a significant story. I chose to take an Erasmus program in France. It happened at the time of the Twin Towers attack. When I arrived in Nancy, they told me my name was not on the list. My application hadn’t been transmitted from Brera. A catastrophe. Thanks to the Italian embassy, I managed to find a student residence in the banlieue and I signed up for a photography course at Paris8. I was also lucky that a student from Rome fell in love with a girl from my residence and left me his place at the Cité Universitaire, a fantastic place which is very difficult to get in and where the best students from Europe, especially women, live. A sort of Oxford in the centre of Paris. It was a great experience, much better than Brera, but, as Longanesi used to say “everything I don’t know, I learned it at school».

Which advice would you give to young people who want to pursue the dream of photography, a dream that is becoming more popular and yet increasingly more difficult to achieve due to the emergence of internet and digital technology?
«I would recommend to start working as soon as possible, to ask a photographer they think highly of to hire them as assistants. The world changes too rapidly to indulge yourself at school. You need to start with great modesty. I get hundreds of CVs and I do many colloquies.

Young people come
With their mind full of
abstract and pretentious notions

They appear to despise the commercial side of the job. They present themselves as aspiring artists and ignore the basic rules of photography».

andrea-piacquadio-2Have you ever thought of establishing a school?
«One of the main microstock photographers, the Danish Yuri Arcurs, founded a school in South Africa, where he lives and works. His students start early on, at 17 years-old if not earlier. In Italy, we enter the job market too late. I am tempted to open a school devoted to microstock photography. It is the passion of my life. I have been making photos since I was a child. Colleagues such as Arcurs devote themselves to education and training because they transformed their name into an enterprise. Through school, they hire assistants and hold a staff of over a hundred photographers. Doing so, Arcurs managed to create an archive holding half a million images. I have an archive of 25 thousand images. Overall, Arcurs and a few other photographers working in the same way are the top-selling ones. However, considering the number of pictures sold, I sell more than them. I want to keep working as a photographer. I don’t want to turn myself into a company. At least for the moment».

You live as a digital nomad. You live between Budapest and Malta. Why did you make this choice and how do you feel about it?
«Thanks to internet I can live wherever I want and manage my time as I want. I left Italy as soon as I had the opportunity. I don’t like the mentality of Italy. Italy is stuck on old paradigms and does not rely on meritocracy, even if I found valid professionals in many sectors in the Milan area. Furthermore, in Italy taxes are too high, and the cost of life is too high. In Budapest, I easily find models – the Nordic style is the most demanded one – and they cost me less. New entrepreneurs are supported through low taxation. The same happens in Malta».

Is living abroad always sunshine and rainbows?
«Sometimes I happen to envy the people who are born, grow up and find a job in the same place. I sometimes go back to Italy to see my mother, my sister and my nephew, whom I used as a model. Obviously, living abroad has a prize to pay. It sometimes makes you feel unrooted. I try to furnish the houses I live in in a similar way in order to have common reference points. When I am in Budapest I miss the Italian cuisine. So, I go shopping in Trieste. It “only” takes 6 hours. I get back with the car loaded with food. Despite these short-lived concessions, I recommend to move abroad and rely on new technologies. Internet is more democratic. Merit has to be rewarded, also from an economic point of view, but everyone needs to have the same opportunities from the very start. In Italy, young people are soon persuaded that you make a career by acting wise and being recommended. Unfortunately, the situation is still like this. To a young person starting to work today, I would like to say: Don’t allow anyone to spoil your talent».

(Translated by Cecilia Braghin)


Antonio Armano Giornalista professionista, ha iniziato a scrivere dopo il crollo del Muro viaggiando in Est Europa e studiando lingue slave. Collabora e ha collaborato con diverse testate, tra cui il Venerdì di Repubblica, Il Sole-24 Ore, Il Secolo XIX, Touring Magazine, Fatto Quotidiano. È stato redattore di Saturno, il supplemento culturale del Fatto Quotidiano uscito nel 2011-2012 e diretto da Riccardo Chiaberge. Ha pubblicato "Hotel Mosca", "Vip. Voghera important people", "Maledizioni" e recentemente "Sex Advisor". Insegna italiano in una scuola per stranieri dell'associazione Arcobaleno ed è nella giuria del premio letterario intitolato a Guido Morselli