When I started out in photography the career path was well-defined, thanks to the business counsel of ASMP and quite a few years of tradition. You developed your best possible work, created a portfolio, showed it around and little by little you’d get assignments, building a reputation and a body of published work. Contacts were editors, designers, art directors who produced printed material for ultimate distribution to readers, subscribers, shareholders and consumers. Aside from the occasional fine art print sale, or workshop, I rarely knew the people who finally enjoyed my work (and paid for it when all was said and done).
Today, with the internet, everything has changed. Everything.
Ordinary users still read stories, news and features, and books, but they do so online. Yet, with smartphones, their experience of photography is no longer mainly passive. They share everyday experiences, images shot on the fly, holiday scenes, parties and baby portraits using the same internet that also distributes carefully crafted images by pro shooters.
The practice of sharing images is not new. When I was in college we cut photos out of magazines and pinned them to dorm-room walls along with postcards and our own snapshots and polaroids. Today’s dorm-room wall is social media, the function is identical. We show things we like to our friends, both personal images and things we have seen and heard online.
It is the basic technology of the internet that underlies this profound change, not any conscious decision or moral failure.
Pro photographers are often distressed by this public sharing. They view everyday users in the same light as the editors and art directors they are used to working with, as people who need to license their images before they publish them. But the public isn’t interested in commercial publishing, just sharing with friends. Even if the theoretical audience is millions, the practical audience is often just a handful of friends, especially in social media where new posts sink quickly.
To make sense of this new regime I think it’s best for photographers to see user sharing of their work not as a threat but as an opportunity. One could do worse than have thousands of people like your images. The challenge is to find ways to build their audience, leverage their popularity and invent business models for direct photographer-consumer interaction.
Traditional photographer-editor licensing will continue in commercial publishing and advertising. And to be sure there will be cases where a line must be drawn. But sharing is here to stay. We must adapt.