Photography is in a state of 911 and the Unsplash debate heats up about copyright and usage allowances, potential lawsuits and misrepresentations of the photo subjects. Unsplash is taking major heat from the photography community and they are just one representation of a greater movement, the demise of the photographer.
At the heart of the matter is the abuse of photographers, not by Unsplash but a larger movement in nearly every industry. Publishers and commercial brands understand how to get free product by calling it "exposure".
The conversation about marketing and photographer rights is long overdue and I hope you listen and hear what I have to say. This pertains to the future of photography, the pictures you take and the ones I take. You have can have an active role in salvaging a medium under attack or allowing it to continue bleeding.
By definition, artists shape culture. That's really what we do, we shape culture through telling stories. Side note: During revolutions, the first ones jailed are intellectuals and artists. You owe it to your craft to step up and save it.
Photography's 911 Moment: Why the Unsplash Conversation Matters
Simply said, Unsplash offers your high resolution images for free. They offer it for anyone to use, for any product. Amos Struck of PixelRockstar.com says "There is a real risk that you could end up getting sued for using images you downloaded from a website offering them as “free” photos. You might not even realize that you have infringed the rights of a Copyright or Trademark owner."
In other words, a large shoe company can take your image and place them on billboards and even on TV. They could feature the likeness of a model you photographed, leaving you in hot water. An ad agency could take your high resolution photograph and sell it to the client as photography fee. They can make money off your hard work, but you won't. Had the ad agency paid for such an image, you would likely be paid $4.5K on the low end and upwards of $75K for the large scale.
They've been growing steadily as a company (though not yet monetized) and offering beautiful work of photographers for free, at a high resolution. In fact their license fee says that you can use the image in any capacity, commercial or personal.
Imagine your beautiful photographs as wallpapers of the world's largest hotel chains, in frames hanging at restaurant chains nationwide, sitting atop the Billboard music charts because the record label loved your work, used on the package of a makeup brand and on shelves across the globe, on a banner ad advertising a movement you may not agree with, on a website as THE face of a hate group, or plastered all over social media without any credit.
Exact Unsplash verbiage states "Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash, but this license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service."
Let me break this down. Unsplash is absolutely cool with your images ending up on billboards, TV shows, and magazine covers but you're not allowed to use the images to replicate their service. Oh the irony of all.... By the way how does Unsplash give such wide usage rights? Could it be that you forfeited all your rights? WAKE UP!
What is the Defense of Unsplash?
Photographers rely on one positive aspect of the Unsplash platform to justify their participation. Many have said that Unsplash provides great exposure and it can be a resume builder. In today's saturated market, achieving fame as a photographer comes at a higher price and harder work.
This may be true but at what cost? By trying to get ahead in the field you love, you're actually contributing to the sinking of the industry. It's not worth it. The exposure you think you're getting is destroying your chance of making any financial gain later on. You're also undermining fellow photographers by fighting to reach the bottom of the barrel.
As a cliche reminder: Fame and exposure cannot pay your bills. They will not raise your rate or your respect level. There are times you can consider photographing for free. Perhaps there is a charity you believe in, that's a contribution for a greater cause. Perhaps you wish to help a fellow artist by offering your photography services to someone who cannot afford you in their current financial state or you wish to build on your portfolio where it helps YOU. There is a difference in shooting for free, to build yourself up and offering your work for free to million dollar companies.
Do You REALLY Gain Exposure with Unsplash?
On a technical aspect, yes you do. Lets be fair about it, because their Instagram account has 154K followers and gain an average of 7K new followers each month. They post 3-4 images a day on Instagram, so if you're one of the lucky few each day then it might be great exposure.
For the past couple days I tracked their posts when Unsplash posted. I screen captured the post from Unsplash and immediately screen captured the photographer's page, to see what they do for your "exposure" growth. You will notice growth on these accounts and I'm not entirely certain the reason for growth is directly from the Unsplash post on their strong IG account. For the sake of fairness and argument, I will assume all the growth on the photographer's account is directly as a result of Unsplash influence.
Scenario One: I captured the image a few hours after Unsplash posted, but from the looks of it this photographer received a minimum of 2 followers. Because I captured the image a few hours after the fact, there's a chance they could have gained double what I'm reporting. Lets say they gained 4 from being featured on Unsplash.
Scenario Two: In over 24 hours, the photographer gained 1 new follower.
Scenario Three: In over 24 hours, the photographer gained 5 new followers.
This is a small study but from my findings the exposure factor isn't a strong argument. Still the recognition is nice, if you are into giving away your hard work for free.
VIEWS vs INGESTING
Zack Arias of DEDPXL said it best, "is this the race to the bottom that we're all tumbling towards?" on his latest youtube video about Unsplash. There is a clear difference between viewing an image and actually stopping to ingest an image. Zack at the 20 minute mark really explained what the views on Unsplash really mean. I'll let him say it because it was perfect: "It was seen, it was viewed but it was not taken in. Let me stop, let me catch my breath on this photo".
Photographers, WAKE THE F*CK UP!
Is Unsplash Entirely to Blame?
NO. I want to clearly state this is not the fault of Unsplash who is merely taking advantage of the community's spiral downward. They are exploiting the fact that photographers feel exposure will pay their bills and build success. This platform is a direct representation of where we are as photographers and were we've allowed ourselves to go.
Photographers are a special breed. We are practically the only occupation that allow such abuse to happen. Will someone please name one other occupation that would fight each other for the opportunity to work for free? What is wrong us? What the f*ck happened where we lost all self-confidence and a sense of community? We allowed this to happen. Don't blame Unsplash. Don't blame commercial brands or ad agencies for taking advantage.
An old comedian once said, "It is morally wrong to let a sucker keep his money" - W.C. Fields and that's what's happening to us. They think of us as not just suckers, but divided idiots.
Unsplash not only exists but thrives because of the state of photography. We not only gave permission for Unsplash to develop but we nurtured its growth by undercutting each other to the point of fighting for free. In the same way that Donald Trump isn't the real problem, he's a merely a reflection of where the America is that's what Unsplash is.
Lets take it easy on Unsplash for a moment because they would never spend the money to run such a website if they didn't have the support needed to run the platform. I've learned through life that people cannot take advantage of you, if you don't give them that power? We've allowed this to happen. Unsplash is the #MeToo movement of photography. In no way am I comparing sexual assault to taking advantage of photographers, but I consider the #MeToo movement as the tipping point for women in the work place. I hope the Unsplash moment is the tipping point for photographers.
You and I are to blame for this, not Unsplash.
You and I are to blame for this, not Unsplash.
You and I are to blame for this, not Unsplash.
(Repeat until it makes sense)
It Does Not Concern Others What I Do as a Photographer
As Zack Arias said, "is this the race to the bottom that we're all tumbling towards?" on his youtube video, that's what you are doing. Perhaps you do not understand the significance of such actions yet, but take my word because I have nothing to gain by lying to you. I do however, have a lot to lose and so does everyone else holding a camera hoping to make a buck with their talent.
When you shoot for free, you're feeding the notion that photographers just push a button. You're taking away their chance respect our work and talent. Your cameras didn't land from the sky as a gift from God. You paid for that! How many hours did you practice your work, sitting late nights on that computer learning to color just to give your talent away for free?
If you don't feel it, if you don't think it ... let me tell you something you will later on realize. You are valuable and worth it! When you politely demand payment for your work, they will respect you. When you politely educate your client about the value of a great photographer and image, you're defending the little kid who doesn't have the money to buy his/her first camera. When you keep your copyrights, you're standing up for the photographer who doesn't yet have the courage to stand up for theirs. What you do, directly affects me. It works that way if you do good or bad.
Personal Story: I had a meeting (THEY called me in) with a powerful music manager. He said that his client (one of the 10 biggest names in the industry) was about to release an album. He loved my work, wanted me to possibly direct short videos and take documentary style photographs of the project. I heard the new music in the office, exchange some creative ideas and went home to plan. They asked for my rate and I mentioned it and the budget required. All was fine...supposedly.
I emailed the assistant the next day. She ignored it. I emailed her again the next morning, ignored. I left a voicemail and emailed again a couple days later, saying I wanted to make sure we had enough time to properly execute the projects for the client. A few ignores and I got the message loud and clear, so I moved on to the next project. If the want me, they will reach out because I've tried a few times.
Fast forward a few weeks and the first song hits radio. The first visuals come through on the music blogs and it's the song they mentioned, but not my work. It was the work of another photographer, comparable style and stature. He photographed perhaps a couple years less than me, but I still consider equal billing. I was confused because the job was mine. I didn't solicit, they called me in and said they wanted to work with me. So what happened?!
I picked up the phone and called the record label. I spoke with a friend of mine who said the other photographer decided to take the job for free. He wanted the artist to mention him on Instagram. I'll never forget what the label executive said to me, "Walid, I'm sorry. This was a business decision and if we have a photographer of similar style and level offering to shoot for free, we have to take it." - She's f*cking right! She's not wrong and she is not to blame. Then she followed up with part 2 of the statement: "But we'll never hire him for anything Walid. Once he offered himself for free, that's the price he's frozen at. I would love to work with you and I owe you, but you guys did this to yourself. Photographers are fighting each other for less and less and the label just sits back, letting them fight it out"
I will never forget that moment. That one photographer decided your future, my future and his own. Yes, he got the images for the star but he crossed himself out of any money jobs with that record label. Was it worth it? Was it worth selling out all the other photographers for your stupid Instagram mention? I might even understand if this was his first BIG artist. I actually would understand that because this artist was HUGE. But this photographer already shot with them, has tons of images and they reached out to him because he's worked for free in the past. They wanted Walid's work but didn't want to pay. They went to second choice and got the work for free. I can't blame the artist or the management, nor the record label. I blame the photographer.
Do you still think that your actions won't affect anyone else? Think about it.
Why "Exposure" is Brand Speak for "We Think You're Dumb"
You should be insulted when someone approaches you for exposure. They came to you because you have exposure, that's how they found you. Think about that for a minute.
Multi-million dollar companies have the money to pay for photographic services. They can afford us but why pay when the product is free, and not only free but photographers fight to shoot for free. They are winning so hard right now, it's unlike any other time. Refer back to the exposure gain I posted a few paragraphs up. Gaining 2 new followers, maybe 5 is great exposure? That's what you're worth? By the way, exposure compensation is a camera setting and NOT
How did we get to this point? How did we reach a low that no other industry will dare match? Can you imagine restaurants fighting to feed you for free, for exposure? Can you imagine trying to justify that claim as a restaurant? Well we feed everyone for free, because it's for exposure. Can you imagine giving away free haircuts? Because you're so afraid the client may visit another salon that you give away your services, for you know...exposure.
They won't hire you for money, once they've had you for free. It won't happen! It doesn't work that way in life.
How can Unsplash make a wrong into a right?
Photographers have said that they enjoy the exposure given by Unsplash. Personally I don't feel that's worthy enough to give your art away, but to each their own. Unsplash though control the gateway to high resolution images. They could easily make changes that would save many photography careers and the future of this business. It's not like they're making any money whatsoever right now, or are they?
Here's a possible solution, for the sake of conversation. Can you offer a lower resolution image with a small Unsplash watermark on the image? This was agencies can take the images and use them for mockups and fans can use them on social media. Remove the full usage rights and allow promo usage only.
For those wanting to pay for a higher resolution, offer them an entry price. For example Stocksy, a reputable stock website offer prices that are affordable and don't damage the future of photography. Charge for higher resolution and for usage rights, the way photographers do this. The low resolution can be free, with or without a small watermark. Remove the all usage terms and only then it's truly exposure.
Unsplash this is your chance to correct a wrong, and instead of being a villain in photography come out as the hero. We are watching and we will remember.
If Unsplash Changes, Will That Change the Industry?
If Unsplash does the right thing and fixes their wrong it will be a major win for photographers and photography. We will show that unity and community have an effect, that we defend the art and the business of photography. It will show that companies like Unsplash value the creator and setting boundaries on artist abuse. It will not fix the whole situation but it's a giant leap in the right direction. It sends a message that it's not OK to abuse artists and take advantage of photographers rights.
What Can you do NOW to help?
Stop giving your work for free. Share this message and video. Educate your friends and educate clients about rights & usage. Remind yourself that only photographers fight to work for free, and that it's completely normal and acceptable to require payment for your work. We will build it back, TOGETHER. That's why I started this account, to help and empower others. I'm there for you and so are many, many others!
OK is any free OK to shoot?
As promised, lets do a quick discussion on when it's OK to shoot for free. I'm certain you're tired so I will bullet point much of it.
- If you're photographing for a charitable cause, and they cannot afford a photographer then it's OK. Keep in mind many charities have a budget because photos & videos bring in donors, so they often make budgets for photography. Feel it out and go with your gut and information that's different from each case.
- If YOU are going to benefit. You want to photograph more food but don't have enough images to justify a rate? Donate/barter your services to a restaurant. You're doing it because YOU will benefit from it and so will the restaurant but more importantly, YOU WIILL BENEFIT.
- If you want to donate to the arts, and you believe in their message...give!
- Barter for pictures. Someone wants images of their restaurant? They don't want to pay cash? That's OK! Give them an invoice of what it would cost you, If they paid full price. Then give them that invoice and they should barter you that much in services at their establishment. They don't want to do that and give your rate with food that costs them less? Great! They don't respect your art, let them find another photographer. Do your best to educate them with compassion and be polite. Remind them that you're paying for your camera, car, editing gear, lights, expertise, and the hours of post edit time. If they still don't understand they can find another photographer.