I am not the first photographer to write about this. Nor will I be the last. Many call it an 'issue'. I'm not sure what to call it. But it is a growing event happening more and more frequently. Photographers are being asked if they will donate their work for free. Should they? There are widely varying opinions on this subject. Here's mine.
Several years ago, I left a very good paying career to purse photography. I did so willingly. I did so feeling confident I could find my niche. I truly felt my life would be enriched, more fulfilling and more meaningful if I focused my efforts on wildlife and conservation. And it has been. I live in one of the most amazing places in the country, Point Reyes National Seashore. I spend my days searching for and photographing the wonderful animals and scenery that surround my home.
But it isn't easy to earn a living doing so. I'll spare you the long list. Let's just say, diapers are a large percentage of my bottom line.
When I started this new career, it was immediate. As soon as I began capturing unique moments in the park, the requests started coming in. As I established myself in this profession and in this area, I was asked by many, many organizations, companies and individuals if I would donate images to their causes. The most common sentence to follow was, "We'll totally give you credit for your image." I was torn. I was torn between trying to 'do good', and trying to earn money to even BE IN this profession.
I learned rather quickly that a decent income from taking pictures and selling them was not it. I started Point Reyes Safaris, a wildlife viewing and photographic safari company which takes small groups of people into the National Park to view and photograph wildlife. Within weeks of launching, I was being asked if I would donate safaris to various organizations for their fund raising efforts.
Many photographers are very insulted at the request to donate images or services. I don't get too upset by it. But I agree with many of them on their reasons why. Images are not free to us. We invest a significant amount of time, money and energy into a skill that allows us to create that image. Just because an image was taken a year ago and is backed up in the cloud, doesn't all of the sudden make it a free item. And giving credit for the use of an image is NEVER compensation for the work that went into creating it. Would it seem funny if I had an amazing set of pictures and asked an author to write a book surrounding the images for which I'd give him credit? Is it appropriate to ask a painter to paint me a picture for free and I'll tell everyone who comes in my home they painted it? Of course not.
Here is a great live case study. This is likely my most 'successful' image to date. I took this image in Alaska a couple years ago on a trip with my brother. I paid for a plane ticket to Anchorage, then another plane ticket to Lake Clark. Then accommodations, food, rental car, the list goes on. Combine this with the thousands and thousands of dollars I've spent on my equipment. I returned home with this amazing image, "Waving Bear". It has gone viral since posting it. 150K likes in one day on Instagram. It was on Yahoo's homepage. Yet I have been asked to donate the image more times than the number of sales it has produced, all parties saying they would provide me with 'exposure' as my compensation. As it sits now, there are 35 PAGES (not 35 sites) on Google that are illegally using my and my brother's image of this bear. This image doesn't need exposure. It needs sales (and a good lawyer).
Perhaps it doesn't bother me as much as it may be hypocritical. I recently asked an optics company if they were interested in sponsoring my safari company. I have many photographers and birders join me on safari and ask me which binocular brand I use and like best. Hypocritical? I've purchased several of their products for my existing business. So I don't feel it is necessarily a freebie ask. Perhaps it is an opportunity for a company to gain exposure. Maybe not. But I did ask. And those that ask me may feel the same.
So I struggle with this topic. I want to support good organizations. And I do. I've shared 1000s of images with organizations I feel very connected to. I've donated my time to photograph events for organizations I feel fight worthy causes. But there has to be a limit. When I do receive a request from an organization I have no relationship with, no contacts at, have had no prior conversations with, it does feel funny that the initial conversations has them asking for a free $500 safari. My suggestion to these organizations is to establish some relationship with the photographer. Find a mutually beneficial foundation to put your ask upon. Maybe you can offer access to a place this photographer wouldn't get otherwise. Maybe you can pay to publish some of their work in your magazine. If there is a budget for a project, perhaps you can offer some monetary compensation no matter how small.
I want to make this my final career. I want to help organizations raise visibility for their causes. And I want organizations to use the images they feel best advances them. You will always have access to free photos. You can always license very cheap photos from stock websites. But if you find an image from a photographer that you find exceptional, that you find moving, that you find would benefit your organization, consider purchasing it. Consider some offer that the photographer will find as rewarding as you find the value of that image for your organization. Most importantly, consider 'photo credit' as a very bad place to start.