Toxic, Exploitative, and Predatory – Unsplash Continues Their Race to the Bottom

Integrity. Do you remember when that meant something within the photography industry? It seems like a lifetime ago. We live in a world of consumption powered by greed and exploitation. We are in the midst of an all-out sprint to the bottom with our beloved industry at stake under the guise of community. Unsplash is at the helm of this ship and continues to devalue photography. The Unsplash Awards just finished their fifth installment and the company continued their exploitative quest for license grabs in exchange for exposure. Oh, and they promise to get your work seen by major brands, which is true. But, we have yet to see that pay off.

This exposure hasn’t launched any notable careers, and it certainly hasn’t paid the rent or utility bills. However, multi-billion dollar companies have profited handsomely, using the free stock images for ad campaigns. Their platform is comprised of many new photographers who don’t realize that exposure isn’t the best way to get their work out there. Many of these greener photographers are unaware that their quality imagery has value. It’s not that these companies don’t see the value of your art; they don’t respect you enough to credit you or pay for it. And they don’t have to thanks to their questionable license. It’s predatory.

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.

– Unsplash

2021 Unsplash Awards Partners

Our Phoblographer team hasn’t been shy in speaking out against the unethical and exploitative travesty that is Unsplash. We’ve called out brands (or partners as Unsplash likes to call them) who do not value photographers. Companies like Nike, Airbnb, Etsy, Netflix, Vice, and Conde Naste continue to support the decimation of our industry. Oddly enough, companies like Moment, Medium, Squarespace, Peak Design, Polaroid, and Brevite, who depend on photographers to stay afloat, are also stabbing those photographers in the back.

We were very concerned when we saw Leica UK and National Geographic among the supporters as judges for the 2021 Unsplash Awards. Editor-in-Chief Chris Gampat reached out to Leica USA to relay his concerns, and they were very clear that this isn’t representative of the USA branch nor Germany. In fact, Jason Heward is from Leica UK. Even so, the Leica stamp reflects on the company globally. We were saddened to see two giants who have seen the industry crumble sign on to exacerbate the wound. It’s telling and heartbreaking to see how far we have fallen.

Unsplash preys on the vulnerabilities of photographers in the name of community. They tout monolithic brands as their month-long license grab and falsely advertise it as a celebration. Meanwhile, their downloads have reached over 3.7billion and continue to soar. That is 3.7billion free downloads, many of which are downloaded by company giants and used commercially without any attribution or compensation to the photographer. The company recently added limited paid opportunities that very few benefit from on their platform. They also added a donation option to support the creatives who provide the free work that fuels the engine. It’s comical, really. If these people and corporate giants wanted to support the artist, they would properly commission them to begin with. Wouldn’t they?

How Does Unsplash Make Money?

Until recently, there were no visible sponsored ads on the site. The future of the platform is an ad business with branded content at the front of the wheel. Unsplash is capitalizing on the traffic of their free images for targeted placement ads. They turn around and ask brands to pay more for a prominent ranking within the search results. The monetization model focuses on distribution of the branded content. Their free images found everywhere will bring potential clients back to the site. In return, photographers have a stab at compensation if, and only if, a brand commissions them for branded work within the platform. That’s right, they’re playing both sides, and it’s photographers who are losing out.

The finality of the blow to our industry in uncertain. This will most likely continue to depress the value of ad photography. We will most likely see other brands follow suit. What is certain is Getty has acquired them. We would hope that this would indicate more briefs and appropriately paid opportunities. Unfortunately, it most likely means they just put the cylinder block on the gas pedal for their race to the bottom.

This is not one of those tech acquisitions where the company is bought to be shut down. Unsplash will continue to operate as a standalone brand and division of Getty Images. The entire Unsplash team will be staying and building Unsplash in the direction we have been. The main difference now is we have access to the resources and experience of Getty Images to help accelerate our plans to create the world’s most useful visual asset library.


What Can You Do?

First and foremost, realize that there is value in your work. There wouldn’t be such a push for free imagery in the name of a contest if the photos had no value. Brands also wouldn’t be looking to Unsplash to commission unknown photographers at a much lower rate than those working in the industry. If you’re curious as to the potential value, check out Getty’s licensing calculator. Contribute to reputable stock agencies such as Alamy. Check out companies like Cherrydeck, Clickasnap, and Wonderful Machine. They often have creative briefs and work with proper licensing. And they’re nowhere as predatory as the Unsplash Awards.

Exercise your buying power by not supporting the partners who are unapologetic in undermining and devaluing photographers. If you feel strongly about donating your images, find a charity or organization that would greatly benefit from your generosity. They would probably go out of their way to provide proper attribution.

The chance to have your work seen by significant editors or brands isn’t worth the sacrifice of what we love and are trying to maintain. Pay attention to the brands who disrespect photographers. Go out of your way to not support them. You would honestly be better off investing in a quality promo and mailing it to these photo editors. They would spend more than half a second scrolling through your digital work.

We need to work together to make sure our industry not only survives but thrives. That starts by taking a stand and creating a call to action. We need to call out the Unsplash Awards for what they indeed are. It’s theft without proper credit to the creator. Say no to Unsplash. We implore you to delete any and all content from their platform. It’s time to bring integrity back to the industry and demand better. It’s an incredibly steep uphill battle out of this, but it’s not impossible.

Brittany Smith

Brittany is a commercial fashion and portrait photographer working in Montana and NYC. When not behind a camera she can usually be found at a local artisan coffeeshop, writing for photography education sites and publications, teaching fitness classes, or baking something fabulous.