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Life Irritates Art: My Mean-Girl Airbnb Photographer

Published by Carolyn in the blog Carolyn's blog.

(Dear Reader: In this entry I take to task a certain photographer, who just seemed rude and not helpful. I know that most Airbnb photographers are great people who do wonderful work. Maybe this one had dealt with too many difficult hosts. And, maybe I'm too sensitive. This story only reflects one experience with one person. Pamela is a pseudonym.)

I had a bad feeling about Pamela, even before we met. Something in her tone, through our Airbnb email thread, made me feel that she was condescending and snobby. I had that uncomfortable feeling that we sometimes get with prospective guests, when the person seems difficult or demanding from the first email. But she wasn’t an upcoming Airbnb guest; she was the Airbnb professional photographer assigned to my new listing, the guest room.

I requested photography two weeks before I’d have my house ready, so that I could set a deadline for myself. The impetus of a set time would at least put me to work preparing the space. So, I submitted my request and soon heard from Pamela. She explained that she couldn’t schedule a session two weeks in advance.

>>>So sorry Carolyn but I can't keep a job open for two weeks as it blocks up my schedule & prevents me from doing work which is ready to go. See Airbnb notes on Photography Help. I will cancel the request. Please re-request when you're ready to commit to date/time. Thank you.

Okay, it’s true that I should not have tried to schedule something so far in advance. But the email really bothered me. After my two successful years of hosting, who was she to point me to the Help Section? And is she questioning my commitment overall? I know that I overreacted. After all, Pamela’s note was really just informative, but I had the sense that I wasn’t going to like her much. It turns out I was right.

As it happens, Pamela is also an Airbnb host. I was able to find out a bit about her through her profile: she worked for high-end magazines and had a lot of arty interests. And her listing! Hers was the type of Airbnb listing I’ve often envied: a deluxe, upscale offering with perks like a Jacuzzi and designer furniture. The title even mentioned “90210.” Like a high school girl with hand-me-down clothes, I compared my planned listing to hers. She had the designer home in the popular neighborhood, and she was coming to the poor side of town to photograph my lowly room.

By the time I got my home ready for pictures, I no longer had the “request photography” link, so I called Airbnb. Airbnb sent me Pamela’s email and told me to contact her directly. I received this reply from her:

>>>Sorry, but I'm not allowed to accept a job from you directly. The information that you were given is incorrect.

Did she think I was trying to bypass Airbnb policy? We straightened it out and set a time, but I still felt compelled to email her a warning: my place, while clean, had a lived in-look, with lots of books and too many pets. Her response:

>>>It really is best to make it a tidy as possible. Think of the pictures as your shop window. And I always think less is more....

With these messages, I’m not sure if she thought I had sinned against Airbnb protocol or had offended her as a professional artiste. Either way, she wasn’t happy. I thought back to her listing, which included a sort of “price menu” for cleaning fees: the longer you stayed, the more you paid. Even for short stays, her cleaning fee seemed high. Now, I really do like to have an open mind before meeting people, but with Pamela, I already had her pegged as finicky and condescending.

Our scheduled time came around. I had spent the preceding two weeks cleaning, organizing, hanging pictures, and storing all manner of stuff in my basement. Pamela arrived five minutes late, which didn’t bother me, as I had left myself plenty of time for the session. She had told me it would take 30 to 45 minutes.

In she came, like a princess, wearing blue suede stilettos and holding a tripod for a scepter. Her attitude in person was as I suspected it would be: superior, unfriendly. She frowned slightly as she surveyed my tiny living room. Her first comment: “You should move that dog bed.” I told her I wanted the dog bed in the picture, because I wanted an accurate representation of what I offered. That seemed to touch a nerve for Pamela. She said, “When I first started taking photos for Airbnb, I used to help tidy up. Not anymore!” Was she issuing a warning? Of course I didn’t expect her to clean anything before snapping pictures! Did Pamela think I was going to ask her to vacuum and dust? As it was, I had the house in excellent order, but she looked around as though she was afraid to touch anything.

Pamela set to work, snapping photos of the living room and kitchen. She worked quickly, and she took no notice of me. Then: “Where’s the bedroom?” I showed her to the guest room, and she closed the door behind her.

I thought the photo session would be a cooperative effort, but Pamela didn’t include me. She didn’t ask which areas or items I wished to highlight. In fact, she didn’t even speak as she worked. She ignored me. Why should she chat with me? I was as superfluous as the cute but broken table lamp, sitting there trying to blend in.

She came out of the guest room after perhaps five minutes. What had gone on in there? I had especially wanted to be present for the photos of that room, but I didn’t ask to join her. When she came out, she asked, “Any other areas you want me to photograph?” I led her to the back patio. She frowned at the crooked old brick steps, and she stepped carefully. What photographer wears 5-inch heels to work? The profession requires a lot of movement. I think Pamela was relieved when she finished outside. I opened the back door for her and she sort of swept in. I wondered if I should curtsy.

Then Pamela left. She had been at my house exactly fifteen minutes.

I went into the guest room to see if it still looked as great as I thought. Yes, the room was lovely – except for my slippers, forgotten on the floor. Oh no! Evidently Pamela hadn’t bothered to move them for photos. Or had she moved them, then put them right back? Then I peeked into the bathroom. What?! I had forgotten to remove the litter box! Why hadn’t Pamela mentioned it? I would have moved it immediately. Yes, people know I have cats from my listing description, but I intended to keep litter boxes outside, in the screened porch. Would I have to crop the litter box out of the bathroom photos? We’re probably not even allowed to crop an Airbnb Verified Photo.

Shouldn’t Pamela have taken nine seconds of her time to tell me that my slippers were on the floor and that the cat box was in the frame? Yes, she should have, but I also should have taken the initiative and accompanied her as she worked. I had decided she was a mean girl, so I stayed away. In truth, she was unfriendly and brusque, but because I let that get to me, I’ll end up with some unusable photos.

The incident made me long for a gentler time. Specifically, this time: May, 2013. That’s when a young fella named Corbin came out to photograph my first Airbnb listing. He was the first Airbnb employee I ever met, and he charmed me. From its start in 2008, Airbnb had laid claim to that ethos of "nice," a hallmark of the 21st century. Proponents of the Sharing Economy spoke of it as a grass-roots, hug-a-stranger movement, and Airbnb was at the forefront of the movement. Case in point: my first photography session, with the engaging, kindly, helpful Corbin.

As soon as Corbin arrived, he offered suggestions and inspiration. We chatted; we moved vases; we arranged coffee cups and throw pillows. He admired the fact that I was home-sharing, and he loved using Airbnb when he traveled. A true beacon of the warm and welcoming new Sharing Economy—that was Corbin.

I suppose I could have complained to Airbnb about Pamela. Even better, I could have spoken up when she was in my house, so that I could participate in the photo session. Really, though, I was just glad when Pamela left my house. I’ll use some of her photos, and I’ll take some more of my own if I need to. Airbnb offers photography only once every three years, per listing. That means that in another year, my studio will qualify for new photos! I’ll be sure to request Corbin.



Carolyn is a teacher & host.
c. 2015 by author
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