Dear Getty: My Photographs Have Value, So Do Yours.

Getty Images has bought Unsplash. This is disappointing, but it shouldn’t be surprising news.

In the race to the bottom, Getty Images always seems to be first. They bought Photo Disc in 1998, one of the first royalty-free photo stock agencies. Then in 2006, they bought iStock, one of the first microstock agencies. If someone is distributing photos for less money, Getty seems to want to buy them. Now, unfortunately, they have an even larger platform, and the only way Unsplash could be cheaper is if photographers paid people to use their photos.

My photographs have value and so do yours. We may not all agree on what that value is, and they may not have value to everyone, but that value exists. A pair of size nine shoes have very little value to me, and I would never buy them. But a pair in size 11.5 that fit have more value to me. If they are a pair I like in that size, I would even spend money on them. Things have a different value for each of us. Some photographs have a value that’s sentimental and difficult to put a dollar amount on. Other photographs have a more easily defined value that directly correlates with increased awareness or sales for a brand or product. Perhaps the value is the joy of hanging it on the wall or understanding another place’s story in the world. 

As a photographer, you decide who can use your photos and how they can use them. The pictures you create are yours. Over time, various companies and organizations have been trying to convince us that our photographs’ primary value should be the excitement and ego-boost, knowing that someone else likes those photos and wants to use them. They may argue that the exposure is enough, but as the old joke goes – you can die from exposure. Plus, while they say attribution is encouraged, they don’t require it. Millions of people could see your amazing photo but have no way of knowing it was yours.

It is awesome when someone wants to use one of my photos. It is even more awesome when they pay for that use, especially when using it to make money. I have given people photos at no charge and made photos for no money. But I also actively made each of those choices specific to the use case and my desire to create the photo or help the person or organization using the photo directly. We are creatives, and we want to create. Making photos is wonderful, and sometimes no one makes any money, which can be fine. However, when someone is making money off our photos, we should make money too. 

Unsplash came on the scene several years ago as an easy way to upload photos that you (hopefully) own. I have heard stories of people being surprised to find their work on Unsplash. Once uploaded, anyone can download and use that photo for whatever they like – from a new background on their phone to a major international ad. 

Unsplash has made and now sold a business that profits off photographers offering their work to people and organizations for free. Not only can these organizations afford to pay for the images, but they also stand to make substantial amounts of money selling goods and services, with those photographs directly helping their bottom line. It does seem easy to make money when you don’t have to pay your suppliers.

This acquisition by Getty is predictable based on the way they have run the business since they started. Over time, Getty has reduced the royalty rate they pay most photographers, and they have eliminated rights-managed images from their catalog. Steps like these have contributed to the slow, sad decline of the stock photo industry. 

The people at Getty are in the business to make money, and doubtless, they believe they can make money off the photographs on Unsplash somehow. Perhaps the profit won’t come in by selling the images, but potentially there is a plan that encourages upselling to the other (under-priced) collections. Maybe they will make money with the data they gain from how and what is downloaded. Whatever they have in mind, I am confident profit is the motivating factor. The people creating the work seem to be the only people not making any money.

Potentially worse for the creator, uploading to Unsplash could make it difficult to make money on that photo in the future. If a potential client calls to see about licensing a photo uploaded to Unsplash, they may not like the idea that anyone could have used it – especially a competitor. One of the selling points of rights-managed stock images has always been the ability to offer exclusivity and understand how a photo was used and who used it. Royalty-free has its inherent issues, and with Unsplash, there is no way to know. 

You may have situations where you are okay with someone using your photos with no compensation. That is entirely up to you as the maker and creator. But that decision should be made by you and not driven by an organization that can afford to pay and just doesn’t want to. 

The more we allow others to devalue our work, the more we have only ourselves to blame when we can’t pay the rent. All of the entities using our photos recognize they have value. That is why they use them. We, as image creators, need to recognize that value too.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog post from photographer Tony Gale. Many folks approached me wondering about my response to the Unsplash purchase. Other editors for this site and I have all spoken before. I felt it appropriate to ask Tony to do so. The Phoblographer has a hard policy on not working with and compensating brand ambassadors. We’ve done this as we see this as a possible risk to our integrity. But this is a very rare exception. The lead image is from our own library of photos we’ve shot.

Tony Gale

Tony Gale is an award winning portrait photographer shooting for a range of advertising, editorial and corporate clients. Tony was raised in Bellingham, Washington (90 miles north of Seattle) and spent most of his time as a child exploring the woods behind his parents house. At 19 after visiting Bruce Lee's grave in Seattle, and taking his first photo with a disposable camera, he bought his first camera. He promptly broke it and bought his first SLR. At 21 he moved to Seattle to pursue photography and in fall of 2000 moved to NYC, the center of the world. Tony has taught photographic lighting at FIT in NYC and Parsons the New School for Design, judged photo contests, and has traveled the country leading workshops for American Photographic Artists, and is the current APA National President