By Ruth Vitale
Unsplash appears to be a straightforward website – devoted solely to hosting visually striking photos.
So why does this seemingly unassuming website make us want to punch a wall? Unsplash allows users to download and use photographs that took hours to plan, shoot, and edit for free.
We can’t say that we’re surprised… After all, Unsplash epitomizes what we find ourselves thinking all the time:
We live in an age where creativity is constantly and systematically being devalued!
But what does that actually mean in the real world — to the hard-working, professional photographers who make an honest living from their creativity?
Think about it like this: Imagine being a professional photographer — one whose lightest lens weighs at least twice as much as an iPhone (the camera so many others use to call themselves photographers). They didn’t one day walk into Best Buy, purchase a point-and-shoot camera, start pointing and shooting, and begin making a living. It took a lot more practice, devotion, and education than that. They went through years of working below minimum wage, learning the craft, attending shows, and chasing down clients to get paid.
Along the way, they continued to hone their style so that someday it would actually be worth something — and now it’s their livelihood. But all that doesn’t mean much to companies like Unsplash.
Thanks to Unsplash, and websites like it, the value of every professional photographer’s work is in free fall. That’s because these sites lure in thousands of talented individuals to give away their work for free.
The worst part might be that those photographers haven’t done anything wrong – they’ve just been misinformed and misled by a company looking to make a buck. At the end of the day, photographers’ copyrights are theirs to do with what they please. If they want to give away their work for free, then that is up to them. But they are falling for the false promises of promotion, exposure, and networking that Unsplash, and other for-profit websites, use to lure creatives desperate to make a name for themselves.
Let’s get into the weeds – Unsplash claims it offers “a new type of community that stands to make photography a universally accessible art form.” We call bullshit! The only “communities” companies like this wish to create are those that will benefit it financially – especially when it’s off the backbreaking work of others… in this case, photographers.
Don’t see the problem? Let’s substitute photography with a more mainstream career. I’m going to start a website to create “a new type of community that stands to make” sales universally accessible. Sales professionals will be asked to publicly post their clients’ contact information. In return, I promise that participation in my new “community” will provide “members” with “exposure.” Ridiculous enough yet?
It’s clear Unsplash doesn’t care about the little guys – just look at the fine print for their license agreement, described in their FAQ:
“In the Unsplash License we say, ‘this license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.’”
We’re having a really hard time understanding why Unsplash is so worried? We thought this was about community, accessibility, and free photographs? It’s starting to seem more like they’re just afraid of market competition.
Unsplash continues, “The fuel that drives Unsplash is the exceptional images that are generously contributed by people from all over the world. Without them, none of this would work. Unsplash would be nothing.”
We can’t disagree with them there. In fact, we’re willing to bet these same words appear in hieroglyphics inside an Egyptian pyramid, quoting an ancient pharaoh speaking about his slaves.
It gets worse as the FAQ continues: “We owe everyone who’s contributed a photo not only a thank you but support and empowerment for the gifts they’ve given us.”
Here’s the problem: thank yous and empowerment don’t pay medical bills. They don’t cover car payments. Support is great — but unless it’s financial, it won’t pay the rent!
Unsplash isn’t your friend. They’re a business that is asking photographers all over the planet to do free work for them — then unfairly profiting from the fruits of their labor. By patronizing this website, photographers and the leeches who refuse to pay for content are allowing the work of many thousands of creatives to be devalued.
How is the work devalued? The website offers very high-quality work: the photographers that Unsplash exploits are not very business savvy, but they’re certainly artistically gifted.
It’s evident that their photographs – the product “that drives Unsplash” – took time, effort, and a creative mind behind a lens to compose. To make quality art, these photographers needed to attain technical knowledge: experience of how cameras and lighting work, how post-processing is done, and how aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and lens choice join together to create a beautiful image. Their work has value – in the sense that they should be paid for it, with money.
Additionally, because the work is of high quality, we imagine that there are many businesses using Unsplash. If a company that would normally hire a professional photographer uses this website, that means there’s one less job out there. That’s one less source of income for the tens of thousands across the country who rely on photography to make a living.
In short – are you kidding us, Unsplash?! You, and the dozens of other websites that claim to curate these scam communities, are hurting real people whose income is fueled by creativity.
To prove our point, we reached out to Unsplash and asked them to please send over their website code, list of customers, logos, business documents, and investor contacts – we’re interested in starting a business that gives away information like theirs for free.
Still haven’t heard back from them. We’re not surprised.