Hey Photographers - When You Give it Away You Diminish All of Our Work

Published: October 3, 2018
I don’t think I’m a particularly brilliant photographer. Sure, I’ve carved out a little niche here in a small part of the world and my landscape photography is relatively well known amongst the local community, but I’m no big-shot Instagram influencer, I haven't got a nationally or internationally recognisable name and I sure as shit do not earn a living from photography.

I only started selling my photographs because there was a demand for them. Some local businesses contacted me and wanted to use my images and then my Facebook page grew popular and there was some demand for prints. So I set up an online store with Zenfolio and that pays for a new lens every now and then. I’m not going to get rich doing photography but that was never my intention when I started going out into the landscape and photographing it. However none of that means that I do not place a value - a personal or a monetary value - on my photographs.

Like many photographers I am approached - fairly regularly - by organisations of one kind or another with a view to using my photographs for free. The communication always follows a similar pattern. They start by buttering me up, telling me how much they love my photography. Then they move on to this incredible opportunity that exists. Then they suggest a coming together of their opportunity and my photograph and, in return, they will give me a credit and perhaps the promise of 'exposure'. Or sometimes they will just talk about the opportunity and ask for the use of my photograph and when I say - sure thing, that’ll be $myveryreasonablefee - they say - oh sorry, we have no budget - but think of all of that 'free' 'exposure'.

Now the kicker, from my point of view, is that the organisations that ask to use photographs for free are nearly always businesses of one kind or another. I’ve been contacted by various non-profit groups or charities over the years and they have always offered to pay for my photographs. And in many of those cases, having looked at their organisations, I have thanked them for offering to pay and then given them the image for free. Compare and contrast these two situations.

I was emailed by a local non-profit Aboriginal Child and Family Centre. They reached out to me with a view to purchasing a high resolution digital image from me. They didn't quibble about it - they just offered to pay. So I had a look at their website and immediately offered them the image for nothing - they're doing a great job and I'd rather they spent their money on their mission.

Then there's the massive real estate company. They produce a glossy magazine every quarter and they like to stick a photograph of a local scene on the cover. They emailed me and said how much they liked my photographs and asked to use an image for 'credit' on the cover. Just to qualify this - we're not talking about a lifestyle magazine or a regional guide - this is a commercial brochure full of nothing but real estate listings. So I declined the offer.

An organisation with a $26.4bn turnover asked a bloke with a beat-up three year old Canon camera and one decent lens to give up a photograph for free.

It's all very depressing. And while, in my example above, it's a successful regional real estate franchise that thinks it's perfectly acceptable to use people's property for nothing, all sorts of commercial entities try it on. Perhaps the most staggering example I've personally experienced was from KPMG - a company that employs 189,000 people and had a turnover of US$26.40 billion last year. One of their employees emailed me from an address with a Sydney 2000 postcode asking "if you would be happy for me to use some of these images provided that I credit you." What, the actual, fuck? An organisation with a $26.4bn turnover asked a bloke with a beat-up three year old Canon camera and one decent lens to give up a photograph for free. Fuck you, KPMG. Fuck you very much.

Of course the reason that companies try it on, is because they keep getting away with it. For every photographer that makes a stand there are twenty more who don't. In the case of the real estate company I mentioned above, I was intrigued to find their quarterly brochure bundled in amongst the supermarket flyers that came in my post this week and wondered what would be on the cover. Turns out they had secured an image by a young local lad who takes landscape photographs round here and he had given up his image for the sake of a tiny credit in about 8 point text on the bottom of the cover that nobody (save his family - and me) will ever read.

One of the reasons this problem persists is that people like having smoke blown up their arse. If someone emails you and tells you how awesome you are and how excellent your photographs are - it feels great. This after all is what sits at the very core of social media - strangers telling you how great you are. And if someone pays you a compliment you're going to be open to the idea of reciprocating in some way. They also tell you that you'll get great exposure from the opportunity, which is of course a complete lie. The zero sum outcome of you giving your photograph away to a company is that they save money at your expense. That's it.

The other reason that 'for a credit' situations persist is that photographers do not value their own work. They might be a hobby photographer, an amateur, or someone who just goes out occasionally with a camera and takes photos. And if some swanky company approaches them and flatters them and offers them 'exposure' and 'a credit' then of course they're going to say yes. Even if they did want paying for their photograph they might be too embarrassed to ask for payment and they would almost certainly have no idea what to charge. If they ask for payment then this amazing opportunity might go away and they'd miss out on all that amazing exposure and a microfiche sized credit line. As far as the hobby photographer is concerned they're doing nobody any harm and, besides, it's their photograph and they can do what they want with it.

So here's my plea - photographers, please stop giving it away. When you let a company use your photograph free of charge you devalue everyone else's photography along with your own. Just because photography is not how you pay the bills, does not mean that your photograph does not have a monetary value. The only winners in the 'for a credit' scam are the companies, who get a nice photograph that they don't have to spend a single cent on. So don't be a dummy, ask for some money.

For the last 16 years I’ve been photographing, blogging (and more recently vlogging) about everything I find, see and enjoy here in South Coast, New South Wales. This is my blogging site focused on my hobby (and part-time job) of photography. Please enjoy my little writing and my photography and I’d love to hear your feedback.
© 2021 Andy Hutchinson