The Race to the Bottom - My Unsplash Experiment Netted Me Nothing But Goodwill

Published: January 14, 2019
Several months ago I wrote an article called Hey Photographers - When you Give it Away You Diminsh All of Our Work and it went a bit viral, picking up a lot of traffic thanks to a Reddit share and a couple of re-blogs on sites like PetaPixel. Amongst the many comments I received in response to that article (the overwhelming majority of which were in agreement with me) were several suggesting that I was a a bit of a hypocrite because some of images could be found on Unsplash. This was of course a perfectly valid complaint if it wasn't for just one thing - my uploads to Unsplash were part of an experiment and now - six months on I can come clean.

I read several articles by people on sites like Medium who suggested that giving away your photos was a brilliant way generating interest in yourself and your work. Those articles made some interesting arguments, suggesting that giving your photos away was a great way of picking up new clients, of increasing your 'visibility', of promoting your personal brand, and most weirdly, of leaving your mark behind before you die. So, as much as I thought that the whole argument smelt like week-old roadkill in the midday sun, I thought fuck it, let's dip a toe in the water and see if any good comes from it.

Give a little piece of my heart

So in July last year, I uploaded a batch of 18 photos to Unsplash. I chose photographs which I thought would have limited commercial value to me as stock photography because the locations were generic. I do make a bit of money selling my images to local companies and tourism agencies but they generally want photos that clearly show a specific location. The images I picked from my Lightroom library could have been any beach, any road, any waterfall, any sunset. By way of a theme, I chose images which looked like they'd be right at home on the cover of some trendy paperback New Testament bible or the latest edition of the Watchtower. You can see them all here.

Let's take a look at the licence that I was agreeing to when I lubed up the old back passage and uploaded my photos to Unsplash:

All photos published on Unsplash can be used for free. You can use them for commercial and noncommercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, although it is appreciated when possible. More precisely, Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash. This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.

As you can see, uploading your photo to Unsplash really is giving everything away. The photographer still owns it, but everyone on planet Earth has the right to do anything they want with it whether it's commercial or non-commercial. You will note that the only major caveat, apart from the word 'nonexclusive' is that the owners of Unsplash are covering their own arses in that last sentence in case you were thinking of writing a spider script to download every photo on the site and set up FunSplash or SpunLash and fill it with those photos.

Now the Unsplash guys are canny enough to butter up potential contributors like myself. On the homepage it says, "Beautiful, free photos. Gifted by the world’s most generous community of photographers". They also encourage people who use the photos to include a photo credit when the image is used, but as they themselves point out - there's no actual need to do this. So the first question I had was - had anyone actually credited me for any of the 17,530 downloads (at time of writing) of my photos.

Finding this out is actually pretty easy to track. Since Unsplash include some copy/paste text every time you download a photo, all you need to do is search for a specific string - in my case that was Photo by Andy Hutchinson on Unsplash. So I put that string into Google (in double quotes so Google searched for the exact phrase) and it turned out that there were five pages of results amounting to a grand total of 154 hits. So of the 17,530 people who got to use my photos, only 154 of them could be bothered to credit me and that's not even accounting for the duplicated search returns and other gobbledegook that Google throws up. Not the most impressive attribution is it - about 0.7% by my reckoning. Of course this doesn't account for those people who used my photo but used their own attribution string, so I did some more general searching for my name and turned up nothing but my own blog posts, my own social media accounts and my own (legitimate) stock photos.

Money for Nothing

My conclusions from this investigation would suggest that you probably shouldn't pin your hopes on getting publicity from the cheapskates that are downloading your photographs for free. They clearly couldn't give two shits about you - they're just happy that they've got your amazing image for free and that they didn't even have to pay the few cents it might have cost from someone like iStock or Dreamstime.

Let's consider then, the other claim that has been touted by Unsplash's cheerleaders - that you might get actual paid-for work as a knock-on effect of giving away your photos for free. Now admittedly my Unsplash portfolio is small and admittedly it has only been six months - but I can report that I have received not one single piece of correspondence with regard my photos. Nobody has thanked me, nobody has reached out to me, nobody has contacted me and said, "Andy, you fucking rock, we're a swimsuit company and we'd like you to photograph busty chicks on a beach at sunset." I should add that I never expected anyone to big me up - I'm in my 50s now and by this point in my life have a fairly solid understanding of human behaviour. My point is that while there might be a couple of people (out of the hundreds of thousands of contributors) that have done well out of their Unsplash portfolio the vast and overwhelmingly majority will gain nothing - worse, their work will be used by multinational companies who could easily afford to pay for their photography but choose not to.

I found the entire experience of giving away my photos on Unsplash to be one big depressing exercise in self-hate. And I wasn't just depressed about my photos - I felt genuinely sorry for all the poor bastards whose photos were being used commercially and for which they will not receive one lousy cent of monetary compensation. I've visited some fairly soul-destroying web pages over the years, but I don't think many come as deeply dispiriting as this page on Unsplash, which showcases hundreds of commercial uses of photographs. All those high quality photos, all those photographers whose skills were applied to produce those photos, all that expensive equipment they used to take it, all the time they gave up in taking their images, all that money they will never see. You know, even crack whores get paid.

The Big Rip-Off

As someone once said, "If you can't tell what the product is - then the product is probably you." Unsplash seems to be the ultimate incarnation of this philosophy. What makes me even madder about the entire set-up is that Unsplash Inc, the company, is making boat-loads of money on the back of the generosity of photographers worldwide. They've been funded to the tune of $8m and they've done deals with Apple (using photos both in-store and on Apple devices), Medium, Squarespace, Trello, FiftyThree, Product Hunt, Adobe, Google, Ghost, and Tencent. Everyone is profiting from all of these photographs with the single exception of the poor bastards that took them in the first place. Unsplash is not altruistic bastion of freedom - it is a business. They are not a philanthropic organisation, they are not a charity, they are not in any sense public-spirited.

Photographers, I urge you, stop giving away your hard work for nothing to these parasites. Learn to value the photographs you take. If you want people to look at your images then share watermarked low resolution versions on social media where you can build your own brand, sell your services and funnel traffic towards your own website. Understand this - the only person that benefits from an image shared on Unsplash is the person that downloads it for free.

Oh and by way of a foot-note I have decided to leave my 18 photographs up on Unsplash to remind me every day to value my own work. I look forward to the regular updates on the number of downloads I've got but will be manfully resisting any precocious requests from Unsplash to add to my portfolio. Oh and should Apple, Volkswagen, Vogue, Smirnoff or Nike come knocking on my door I'll be sure to update this article.

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