When I found out about the website unsplash my blood pressure spiked. Unsplash is a community where anyone can download quality highres images FOR FREE to do anything they want without even crediting the photographer who uploaded the work.
Instead of just bitching and moaning on the Internet I decided to reach out to one of the founders of unsplash, Mikael Cho. Mikael graciously agreed to talk and we spent nearly an hour discussing the platform and what it means to the photography industry as a whole.
I will be uploading my final thoughts about all of this in a few days.
Below is the email I sent to Mikael, and some links to posts I mentioned during the interview.
If you have thoughts on all of this, hit me up in the comments below!
Thank you for taking the time to read this email.
My name is Zack Arias and I am full time commercial and editorial photographer based in Atlanta. I have been pursuing photography for twenty years. I love what I do for a living and I deeply care about my industry. For the past ten years I have been fortunate enough to teach and speak to photographers all over the world.
I first learned of unsplash a few weeks ago and I might need to get some blood pressure medicine. I have had many expletive filled exchanges with peers of mine in this industry. I’ve read everything you have posted about Crew and Unsplash. I know the history. I know how it started. I went so far as to contact Patient Zero, Alegandro Escamilla. I assembled a team of fellow creatives and we have dived deep into the unsplash community and have talked to people who are pro and con.
I’m working on a video / blog post about my thoughts on the platform and I want you to know something. While I am very opinionated and I am holding to a pretty strong conviction about how unsplash is hurting our industry I want you to personally know that I’m not speaking about you or your team in a personal way. I have talked to people who know you. They have all expressed that you are a bright, young, talented man. The feeling I get from reading your posts online is similar. I think you and your team are all lovely people.
I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my thoughts about unsplash and similar free photography platforms. I have experienced two massive sea changes in my industry in the past twenty years. The first was the move from film to digital. That was a massive change that effected the lives of many people. Both for the better and for the worse. I used to be a studio manager for a large commercial studio and we went from spending $10,000 a month on film and Polaroid to zero dollars a month on film and Polaroid once we went digital. The retailer we used eventually went under.
The lab we used eventually closed as well. The change happened so fast many were not able to adapt quickly enough. When you have millions of dollars tied up in film processing equipment that no one is using any more there’s only so much you can do before you succumb to the change.
The other huge sea change was after the professionals moved to digital, photography also became more accessible to the hobbyist. Gone were the days someone would take a few photos every now and then and everyone seemed to become a photographer over night. Professionals were now competing with hobbyists. Hobbyists had a day job and enjoyed making a few dollars on the side with their new camera. A good friend of mine was in business for 15 years as a photographer. He is now the produce manager at his local grocery store. He wasn’t able to adapt.
I have asked myself many times, “Am I not seeing the good from this platform?” Am I being the crusty old man yelling at kids to get off my lawn? God knows I confronted some of those old folks when I was coming up through the ranks of the industry. I gladly welcomed the switch to digital. I embraced the web very early on. Social media has been great for my business. From myspace (remember that site?) to Facebook to Twitter to Instagram.
Here’s my old man rant, Mikael. You have no skin in this game. You have not worked as a photographer. You yourself are not a photographer. Armed with other people’s money you have stepped into this industry to create something that has HUGE value to YOUR industry, namely designers, tech companies, etc.
Pardon my use of metaphor. I mean, I’ve never met a phor I didn’t like! 😛 #dadjoke
I liken the photography industry is an ecosystem like a forest. The forest has taken a long time to grow and has weathered many storms. It’s the home to a lot of people. It’s my home. It gives me shelter and provides for me and my family. Unsplash is like a foreign timber company coming to the edge of the forest and says “Look at these trees that no one is using. Let’s take them and help our other company make a profit with them.”
For what I do in photography, unsplash doesn’t directly effect me. I’m pretty deep in these woods but I’m starting to hear the chainsaws. People I know who live at the edge of the woods are calling me saying “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?”. Defenders of the logging company hand them a copy of “Who moved my cheese” and simply tell them they need to adapt or die. The logging company says words like community, inspiration, giving back, views, downloads, relationships while they chip away at the trees.
I spend a lot of time educating my clients and other photographers about the value of photography. Why they are paying me the rates I am asking for and under what terms those rates cover. I understand the long term licensing model is confusing and antiquated. While I would like to find a better way to speak about usage and still get the rate I need to pay my bills, feed my kids, and employ the freelancers I use… Licensing is still important.
This email and the blog / video that I’m working on is me coming to the edge of the forest to confront unsplash… who I see as the foreign logging company coming in and eroding our ecosystem. It will also be my statement to photographers who support unsplash.
As I said. I speak no ill of you personally Mikael. Or of your team. My ultimate goal in all of this is that maybe… just maybe…. you and your team will step back for a moment after reading and hearing my full thoughts on this… and maybe. Possibly. Take a breath and say to yourselves…
“Yes we are disrupting and changing the photography industry but MAYBE not for the better. Maybe our actions are causing harm where we don’t mean to cause harm. Maybe there is more we can do to support our photographers. More we can do to educate them so they can become sustainable. Maybe we can build resources for them that aren’t just empty views and download numbers. We’re feeding their ego. What can we do to actually help them eat?”
I take it that you are a smart and creative person surrounded by other smart and creative people. I also think you are blind to issues you are creating in this industry and, at worse, naive.
I’m working on this video this week. If for any reason you’d like to do a Skype interview and we have a professional and respectful debate on this issue, I would love that. I will put my studio manager on guard and as soon as I start pounding the desk or screaming expletives, I’ll let her zap me with a cattle prod. 🙂
I know you have gotten critique. I know that you’ve probably received a lot of hate mail, vulgar tweets, and so forth. I get it. I’m going to get hateful messages once I release my thoughts on all of this. I just want you to know that I’m not personally after you. I wish you no ill will. You’re a business man in a free market. I get it. I’ve sat here thinking…. “Damn. That’s a lot of traffic. Maybe I should upload some photos. God knows I have a shit ton of them laying around.”
Thank you again for taking time to read this. I appreciate it. Let me know if you’d be up for talking about it more. I’m sure you get tired of defending it to people like me. I get that. I would too.
A full time commercial and editorial photographer, Zack shoots everything from bands to CEOs to ad campaigns. A gifted teacher and communicator, he has an uncanny ability to meet and connect with all types of people.