Let me first be clear. Anyone who knows me well would tell you I’m not a materialist and money is not my primary aspiration. I have food on my plate, a shirt on my back and a photographic imaging device around my neck; believe me, I’m happy. But if I had a pound (British Sterling) for every time someone asked to use one of my images for the reward of ‘exposure’ I could probably make a decent living as a photographer. Well, no, probably not. But often enough I get such a request from some organisation or company to use one of my images with the promise of ‘great exposure’ for my generosity. Presumably in the same way that a lottery ticket would expose one to the possibility of winning?
It seems many photographers have seen and heard this too. Maybe some of you have experienced it. I’m sure plenty has been written about it so you will forgive me for airing my thoughts here.
In some cases, the exposure is significant and worth the donation. Many professional photographers will strategically offer their work free of charge to gain interest and exposure for the rest of their portfolio or services. They probably need to do so to market themselves. Social networks are teeming with examples of beautiful professional portfolios all vying for attention. It’s a saturated market and arguably any exposure, while difficult, is worthwhile. Some photographers even donate large prints to their local cafes, restaurants or shops with the hope of generating interest. More power and success to them, I say.
There’s nothing wrong with sharing one’s images and even generously bequeathing them to a magazine or organisation. I exhibit images on my blog and Facebook page, and also on Photography Life to illustrate my articles. I’ve donated images to companies and charities to use for their promotion, and a few of them have very graciously sent me tokens of their appreciation from overseas. I’m not trying to sell or promote anything other than my enjoyment of photography and an encouragement to others to do the same.
But what seems to bother many photographers, professionals and amateurs alike, is the assumption many other people or companies have that our images have no value at all and they should expect to acquire them free of charge. It’s only a photo, after all, right? They could go out and shoot it themselves if they wanted to, couldn’t they? It is true that the sheer volume of ‘ordinary’ images out there fuels that perception and drives the value of our art south for the winter. Or they could get it from stock? There are plenty of stock image options out there but not all of us use them, and why pay a fee when you can acquire something for free from a photographer with the promise of exposure?
Furthermore, the assumption that we’re all so desperate for exposure in a saturated ocean of imagery that we’ll readily agree to these requests is arguably also a little insulting. Does anyone really believe that they’ll somehow reap a windfall of exposure by giving an image to a company or organisation? Do these companies really think our self-esteem is dependent on their attention? Is that enough reward for us and are we that willing to short-change ourselves?
I’m sure most of us have heard the arguments expressed on our behalf that our images did in fact incur a great deal of cost to produce, and not just the gear we used but the time and travel too. I don’t make a living from photography and I’m not actively trying to sell my images anywhere, but I still believe my work has some value. At least it does to me. I found one company using some of my images (screen captures of the images on my blog) without my permission. I promptly sent them an invoice and the images were promptly removed.
Another (multi-billion dollar) corporation wanted one of my images of London for use on their twitter feed, promising me ‘exposure’ for the privilege. I politely explained that I really didn’t care about or need exposure and that the image incurred a cost to make. After initially offering to pay me a licensing fee (lunch money, really) I naturally never heard from them again.
Another potential exploitation may come from competitions. There are countless photography competitions out there promising prizes ranging from money to a slot in a magazine to a new filter for our lens. But read the small print and you’ll see some of them ask for a high-resolution submission while expecting the right to use our image in any and all of their promotional material. And this is often after you pay a fee to enter. This is normal for a competition, you might say, and I’m simply being overly cynical and paranoid. But while our image joins the other also-rans, we’ve effectively paid them to print and publish it everywhere. We may get a credit for it, sure, but how much do we really gain from that credit? (I don’t just mean financially.)
Of course I’m not suggesting we don’t enter competitions. I’ve entered a few myself. But maybe we should be careful. A genuine competition will let you retain all copyright and control of the image and won’t care about too much the size of the image (providing it’s not too small) until you’ve won, after which they’ll understandably ask you for a larger size.
Perhaps I’m being a little too narrow-minded. Perhaps I’m wildly over-estimating the value of my work. Maybe it’s so mediocre I should be grateful to give it away to anyone who wants it. While I don’t care about the money per se I do care about the principle of acknowledging the value and effort I put into it, and perhaps the only way to get others to do so is to restrict that work to paid use only. Of course, it’s easy for me to have such principles when I’m not making a living from photography.
I don’t know what the best answer is and many readers will have their own valid viewpoints at each end of the spectrum. But maybe if we stood on principle and insisted that the value in our efforts was recognised our photography would gain higher esteem in the eyes of those who prey on our perceived naiveté and assume that we’ll relinquish our worth for the illusion of exposure. (Or maybe they’ll simply move on to someone else…?)
All the images in this article were donated, requested or entered into competitions. I realise there’s no accounting for taste. Heard that one already.