Let me preface this by saying, f**k you Unsplash!
Whew. Now that I've gotten that off my chest, time to have a little rant about the current state of the photography world. I'll start by stating that I'm no old timer. I never had to make the made the switch from film to digital, or witness the shift to online everything. I started out fully engrained within the digital realm. 10 years ago we had all the same types of social media tools we have today, yet it was the way we used them and how they treated us that was hugely different.
This is what I feel has changed rapidly in the past decade. There has been a huge monumental shift in the way we view photography as a medium, and the values and worth we place upon it. In short...
Today. Everybody is a photographer
Before Instagram became the go-to platform for image sharing, the sites I mainly used that allowed me to get noticed were Flickr and the then-upcoming 500px. Flickr, in particular, was very good to me as many clients looking to license images found me through the platform. 500px had introduced its own Marketplace to sell your images and offered a very generous split for every sale. I made thousands through that store with sales almost on a weekly basis. Facebook had it's own 'Pages', which made it easy to build an organic audience and allowed you to separate yourself from your other personal account. The reach back then was incredible, as there was none of the monetisation we see now. Business was pretty good!
Then one day that little Instagram app suddenly exploded in popularity.
I recall somewhere around 2013, more professional photographers started to adopt the platform as another means to share their portfolio. Indeed I did too and slowly built up an audience. Almost everything I saw on the platform was fresh, new and exciting. I was seeing images I had never encountered on other photo-sharing sites. It was also great to be a part of a community that valued interaction amongst photographers. Indeed I have made many friends over the years solely due to Instagram.
Obviously, the younger generation understood how to better shape the platform and now we have the worlds biggest photography collective, and arguably the most used app in the modern world.
Yet, I’ve witnessed its rapid transformation. Morphing from humble days as a simple photo sharing app to one now dominated by paid ads in disguise, and an endless supply of unoriginality amongst its users. We seem to have gone from recognizing and rewarding talent to giving way to the new breed of fad chasing trendsetters. One look at the 'Explore' page touts countless numbers of copycats all posting exactly the same images as if they’re ticking off a list or collecting Pokémon (an analogy I’ve seen actually Instagrammers use). Visual styles, exact angles and/or locations unashamedly copy/pasted from one Instagrammer to another.
Indeed, the world of photography is now so intertwined with the platform that the word “gram” can suitably be used as a replacement for the word “photo”.
Fast forward to 2018 and it seems like just about everyone is a “photographer”. We are so completely oversaturated and overstimulated with stunning imagery on a daily basis now through social media that it's hard to be completely wowed anymore. Our increased exposure to photography also seems to have had a knock-on effect with complete amateurs. I notice more people nowadays putting extra thought into their snapshots than before. Aided by repeated exposure to perfect images no doubt in their social media feeds. And It’s not like the camera companies and travel companies haven’t taken note either. Many running ads and articles promoting tourism purely for the purpose of getting those perfect Instagram shots. It seems we can’t get enough of it, with little-known photography locations perhaps visited by a mere few only a couple of years ago, suddenly exploding in popularity with tourist Instagrammers.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful too for all the tools and technology that have advanced to a point where photography is made more accessible for the masses, but it begs the question going into the future:
Are Photographs losing their value?
And this is what brings me finally to Unsplash.
For those unaware, Unsplash is a photography sharing website not too dissimilar to say 500px or Flickr. You create a profile, upload your images, get likes. All pretty normal right?
The difference here is that everything you upload, you knowingly and willingly give away for free.
High-resolution images. Completely free to download and use for commercial use
Just thinking about such a service makes me laugh. I mean who in their right mind would want to give away their pictures for ? With that I mind I naively assumed the site would simply be full of poorly executed and otherwise dull amateur snapshots. I was wrong.
Unsplash actually has some pretty darn good stuff on there. In fact, I'm shocked at the level of quality imagery available. Did I mention that it's ALL FOR FREE!
So yeah, where is all this heading? Are websites like Unsplash the future? Are we really willing to accept so-called exposure as the new currency for photography?
Zach Arias recently commented on this issue, amongst some other issues with Unsplash concerning copyright and liability. Well worth a watch to see an old-school professionals take on all of this.
I have to say I totally side with Zach on this issue.
I implore all artists to VALUE their work. Take pride in what you produce and don't just give it away for free. I can guarantee you that views and likes will not make you famous let alone net you a single cent. The instant you place a dollar mark of zero on your name and your portfolio, it will stick with your forever.
Why would anyone want to pay you anything tomorrow when they got it for free yesterday?
On the left, a free image from Unsplash (By Alexandr Bormotin). On the right, my image "Rainbow Hoops"
I've been thinking about these issues for a while now. The whole shift in attitudes towards photography, and the monetary values we place upon it. As an artist who predominantly makes a living through image licensing and physical prints, I've had to accept that the fishbowl is getting bigger each and every year, and it's getting harder to promote one's work and justify the high values placed upon it. We can't all be Peter Lik!
Recently these thoughts all came to a head when I received a fairly typical e-mail in my inbox. A potential customer requesting a quote to buy a popular image of mine. They wanted to use it commercially for advertising a tourism service. I provided them with my fee and later got back this response:
"That's too expensive for us. We'll just search Unsplash for a similar photo to yours and use that instead"
I mean, are you fucking kidding me? Having someone say that to me was more insulting than hearing the old "We can't pay you, but just think of the exposure" line.
Just to try and put things in perspective, here is a breakdown of how I place a value on my work.
I'm a full-time location independent photographer. I self-fund my travel and make a living entirely from photography. Other than the odd commissioned shoot, magazine article or paid client job (I also do interiors for hotels), the bulk of my income derives from image licensing and print sales.
My pricing is based off Getty's own tool for image licensing, and for prints is a mixture of the value I place on the image as a piece of art, minus production costs and profit splits with supplier/galleries. In short, I value my work at a premium and others view it as such. And so should you!
With that said, there are a number of other factors that determine why I place a high value on photography (and not just my own work).
• Camera equipment and lenses cost money. A LOT of money.
• The sheer costs involved in simply reaching destinations to photograph. Flights, taxis, accommodation, food, local guides, translators, insurance, bribes (occasionally).
• Days spent location scouting, shooting, then countless hours of editing and finally promoting.
• Website hosting costs
• Print production costs (paper ain’t cheap!)
• Third party profits cuts e.g Smugmug, PayPal, art galleries, stock licensing
Adding up all the thousands and thousands of dollars that need to be spent before even getting to press the shutter, and putting aside the fact that I too need to eat and sleep, why the hell would I then turn around and give away all my work for free?
What direction do you see the world of photography taking in the next 10 years? Please leave a comment below and add to the discussion.