Sometimes you happen to read things that make you think, "This is madness. This is a brilliant thing that no one would do. I want to try it." It's a bit like watching a salmon going upstream or one that does exactly the opposite of what others do. The salmon has its own reason, like the mad guy, and maybe he ain’t a fool after all: maybe he’s got his reasons, he’s got a vision.
The article I read was by Samuel Zeller, a swiss professional photographer who, like many other photographers, mostly amateur, publishes his work on Unsplash. For those who don’t know what Unsplash is: it’s a site that offers free photos at excellent high or very high resolution. Registration is free and all the published material is free from copyright and it’s licensed under Creative Commons Zero. That means that anyone can download, use, modify and share all the photos with unlimited permits, even without mentioning the author and for any purpose, including commercial. You don’t even need to subscribe to download a single picture. It’s like going to the supermarket, take what you want and leave without paying. Madness? Apparently.
Samuel actually decided to do something more than just make his photos available on Unsplash: he decided to devote an entire section of his website to free photos too (you are allowed to upload just 9 photos a week on Unsplash but he wanted to make more images available). He got the idea when he discovered that Apple had been used on of his picture to advertise the iPad.
He then noticed that Unsplash had started to be useful for his own work as well because his photos got millions views and had been downloaded tens of thousands of times. But above all: he got a huge amount of traffic on his website coming from Unsplash, giving him visibility and new clients.
The most common argument against Unsplash or similar services is that it devalues the photographers’ work: everyone - including multi-billion dollar brand like Apple - thinks that photos are not worth anything, therefore everybody can use them without asking any permission or paying anything. Samuel opposed to this thesis a more subtle and interesting one:
An image has value because someone has an use for it. It has absolutely no value if it’s sitting uselessly in my hard-drive or if it’s just on social media waiting to get liked.
You can be the most brilliant talent of the galaxy, but if no one understands or knows your work, then it’s useless. The visibility of your work is the tradeoff that you must accept giving away (some) of what you do for free. Samuel thinks his “free photos” are like a teaser of what he can do and might do for paying clients. And they eventually arrived.
Let’s talk about me
I am not a professional photographer. I love photography and love to publish my photos. I'm one of the billions of photographers out there. One day I joined Unsplash after using it for years by downloading other people's photos and I started to put there my own stuff. After few weeks (not years) my photos got almost 200,000 views and thousands downloads. I do not have many comparisons but I consider these big numbers, still infinitely bigger compared to those of Instagram or Flickr. I share my pictures to satisfy my ego and being told that I’m good, sure, but at the same time because I enjoy sharing what I do.
So, without hypocrisy, I did not decide to distribute them for free because it seems a noble gesture. Also. But I did it mostly because I almost got no satisfaction from Instagram (which is a great social but has little or nothing to do with photography), and much less from Flickr. My experience with these socials is that l’m stuck to the same numbers for years. Sure I can get satisfaction but always the same amount of it. I need to have the impression that I’m moving and evolving somehow. I’m really thankful to those who follow me there but my feeling is that I’m always at the same point. I need to move and share my work to a broader audience. And do something bold, like giving it for free.
Unsplash is a train on which I jumped on the fly. I’m travelling right now. I don’t know where it will take me and I don’t care because I have no commercial purpose. I do not want photography to become a job because surely I would end up hating it or at least not loving it as I’ve been loving for decades.
I’m doing this for my ego, the bastard.
Like Samuel did, my entire photographic archive is free to anyone.
Take and use it. My pleasure.