What it’s like to be a photographer for America’s richest families

ByDavid M. Conte

Dec 21, 2021

  • Sally Prissert, 52, is a photographer and founder of W Studio in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
  • She started the business in 2008 and now documents the lives, vacations and birthdays of the elite.
  • For her clients on mandate, she travels everywhere, from summer camps to ski resorts to take pictures.

Sally Prissert told Insider that she never intended to become a photographer. Born in the Netherlands, 52 years old, founder of Studio W moved to America with her husband and four sons in 2001. Their home was – and remains – in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, but she said she would take their sons to France for four months every summer.

Then the financial crisis hit in 2008. “We lost 90% of our income, and we had to get rid of our assets and have money to feed our children,” she said. “So I decided to roll up my sleeves and start a photography business. I didn’t have a camera or photography skills, but I did have people skills.”

Thirteen years later, Prissert is the go-to spokesperson for some of America’s richest families, documenting their daily lives as well as milestones such as birthdays, bar mitzvahs or the holidays.

She attributes her success to three things: first, having started her career in human resources as one of the first employees of Disneyland Paris. There, she said, she was tasked with hiring thousands of workers to help open the park, which helped her hone her people management skills.

Second, she sees her nationality as an asset. She said she was constantly trained to chaperone the royal families whenever they book a visit to Disneyland Paris for this reason. “I was just comfortable with people like that. They don’t impress me, but I respect them. It’s the Dutch – we’re down to earth,” she said. The Dutch, she added, are also decidedly egalitarian in their affect: “Doe maar gewoon dan doe je gek genoeg” is a favorite phrase, which roughly translates to “Just act normally. That’s crazy enough ”- a nod to their nonchalant simplicity.

Add to those two skills her own expertise having raised four rowdy sons, a set of practical skills given that she often works with children as role models: “I’m not intimidated by children’s temper tantrums,” she said. she declared. “I know what’s going on in their head and how to get them out of it.”

Sally Prissert and her family

Prissert and his family.

Courtesy of Sally Prissert

Prissert said she now leads a team of five, including a retoucher who specializes in finishing each shot. “They work my images like a painter, raising the sky, etc. It’s a very sophisticated Photoshop job,” she added.

Her daily rate, she said, is $ 2,000, but some shoots have cost nearly $ 40,000, including the photographs and albums she sells to her clients after each shoot. She works about 50 hours a week, although her schedule is unpredictable – one day she might work 12 hours; the next day, she’ll just take care of a little administrative work.

She said she was the “mistress of energy naps,” adding that she could sleep anywhere – “especially in cars, my hammock in my backyard and parking lots. Fifteen to 20 minutes at a time and I’m ready to go back. “

This is what a day at work looks like.

She is on call for several ultra-rich families, a bit like a chef or a nanny

Sally Prissert on a shoot

Prissert on a shoot.

Courtesy of Sally Prissert

As a family photographer in the elite niche, she said she has two main sources of income – some families keep her on duty or on call whenever they need her. She said she works with three of these families.

“I take care of these billionaires throughout their lives,” she said, adding that it was a flexible and ad hoc role. “Right now I’m paid to be on hold, although nothing has been confirmed. I could fly to Aspen for the week. This family, I’m jumping from East Hampton to New York through Aspen to to the yacht. It’s a partnership. But it’s complex because they don’t state their needs six months in advance. They don’t live like that. “

She said that one of her clients had worked with many photographers before and was never satisfied with the results, despite requiring many documents to ensure security and privacy and that all images had to be taken using a long lens to minimize disturbance.

“And as a result, they didn’t have good family photos,” she said. “I came in like a breath of fresh air because I broke that contract, but I knew when was a good time to put the family down for a bit. Maybe when we climb a mountain in Aspen, I ‘I’m whispering in everyone’s ear that if your name isn’t so-and-so, slow down, so that only the family was left in front of me and we could get some golden photos of them coming out. holding hands. “

Children are often the center of attention, she said, and her motherhood instinct helps her coax the more stubborn into cooperation. “There’s a lot of reverse psychology. If, say, one of them says he wants me to go, I completely ignore this kid and only photograph his siblings. is happening? aren’t you taking pictures of me? ” ‘she said.

She added that she is often invited by team clients to spend time at summer camp taking souvenir photos and that she has developed a routine for this, contacting all counselors and staff at the camp. ‘ahead to check schedules and plan when to capture the children’s show or its client hanging out with friends. “Parents come by helicopter and walk around doing whatever they want, but I run like a headless chicken all over the camp,” she said.

At the onset of the pandemic, it was difficult for her to continue such close contact work, but Prissert said she had worked out issues with clients for key events – like a huge bat mitzvah initially scheduled for New York in April. 2020 which has been canceled. The family wanted to honor their daughter’s preparation, so they opted for a small beach get-together in East Hampton, New York instead. “They robbed me and locked me on top of a cliff in Montauk for two weeks in quarantine, and I just went for a walk morning and evening,” she said. “We did this for a four hour job. But it was a very, very special night, and when money isn’t an item, you can protect everyone.”

His second source of income comes from one-off sessions, including elaborate holiday portraits.

Sally Prissert on a shoot

Prissert on a shoot.

Courtesy of Sally Prissert

Prissert’s second source of income is unique portraits which are often commissioned, she said, by matriarchs or patriarchs who wish to commemorate several generations of their families.

She said another experienced photographer advised her to resist a static studio setup and visit them instead. On the one hand, she said, working on location allows you to capture unconventional portraits that are more relaxed than regal. She can chat with a client about what he enjoys doing with his grandchildren and then suggest a session focused on that. “The best pictures are of grandparents holding a book with grandchildren stacked on it,” she said.

The other reason it makes sense to visit clients at their homes, said Prissert, is that she can suggest where and how to display the photos she’s taken. Prissert offers a print service for wall art, books, or framed images of her shots, using a service just outside of Venice, Italy, which she declined to name but which, according to her, is an essential part of her industry. It marks up costs four times over the six times the mark-up typical of brand rivals, she said. So, for example, a wall art piece that costs $ 500 will be billed to the customer $ 2,000. “I remember a husband telling his wife, ‘I’m going to move the Dalis because I want Sally’s pictures on the walls here,” “she said, referring to the couple’s Salvador Dali paintings. .

Greeting cards are the mainstay of her business, although her clients also ask her to take professional festive portraits. She estimated that 90% of the clients she’s worked with during the year, in some capacity, ask her to take care of their vacation photos.

“Stylists can come up with six outfits, but it’s like any other session,” said Prissert.

She said she was summoned to a country club once for a quick shoot, but was surprised by the snow machine blowing around both parents and two children in sunny Florida. In another, she said, she arrived at the Jupiter Hills Golf Club to find the family dressed in festive adornments, hitting Christmas decorations like golf balls. “The dog had even hung them around her neck,” she said.

Its images can appear on premium glass snow globes sent in place of a conventional card. One customer, she said, even took a picture of her favorite band, replaced each member’s head with that of their family, and integrated an audio chip that played the band’s best-known hit when the card s ‘is open.

There are some unexpected bonuses to his business being based in South Florida

Sally Prissert on a shoot

Prissert on a shoot.

Courtesy of Sally Prissert

There are other perks to being a Palm Beach-based photographer for the top 1% beyond income. Prissert said she was an avid golfer and was often chosen to shoot ties near her home.

Recently, she said, she took a walk with PGA player Gary Woodland as he left with 10 VIP clients from a well-known watch brand. (She declined to name the brand, citing confidentiality agreements.)

She did pretty much the same when private jet company NetJets got their top 100 customers to play a few tricks with an assortment of pros. “I love golf, and follow them around taking cool photos and interacting with them? That’s when I can relate to people who are amazed,” she said.