Motivation in photography through permissive licencing

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If you’re just starting out in photography and you don’t have people around you who share your interest, making yourself to get out there and do it can be hard. There are a plenty ways to motivate yourself but the most effective for me has been sharing. Sharing with friends and family, but also with the rest of the world. I’ve shared most of the photos I’ve ever taken through the Creative Commons licence and because of that my photos have been used, widely.

When I started out in creative photography back in 2006, I set myself up with a Flickr account – primarily as a convenient method of sharing my photos with friends and family members. When I uploaded my first few photos it asked me whether I wanted to use the Creative Commons licence. I had heard of it, but I didn’t really know anything about it so I did a bit of research. It turned out that in a nutshell, Creative Commons is about voluntarily relinquishing some but not all of your automatic rights under copyright law in the spirit of sharing a creative work for re-use. There are a series of licences under the Creative Commons umbrella that provide greater or lesser restrictions on what a third party may do with your creative work (for example, using it commercially, making derivative works etc.) but the one constant is attribution; anyone using your work must make clear that you are the original author.

I loved this idea, and immediately made the Creative Commons licence the default setting for all my uploads. Anyone who has ever designed a website will attest to the stark contrast between the availability of abundant and diverse high quality stock photography on commercial stock websites and the ocean of crap to be found in scattered haphazardly across the Internet when searching for quality content that is available to use for free. Creative Commons is attempting – with considerable success I might add – to bridge that gulf, and I decided I definitely wanted to be a part of that effort.

I don’t purport that photographers aren’t entitled to protect their intellectual property rights – far from it. Most professional photographers are dependent on copyright for their livelihood. I’ve seen many an angry post on a photographer’s forum site from a photographer whose image has been used without permission on some big corporation’s advertising campaign and I have every sympathy with their plight. But I also think it’s great that Creative Commons is leading the charge to give content creators the choice of whether or not they want their work to be used in this way. And I can tell you from my own experience that sharing your work under Creative Commons can be a powerful motivating force and a source of great personal pride.

Almost as soon as I started posting photos to Flickr I started to receive comments from users complimenting me on my work. Within a few months I was getting occasional requests for permission to use my photos in blog posts, articles, and websites, to which I would always agreed. The knowledge that my photography was being used and achieving wider circulation felt great, and inspired me to take more photos which I then posted and received more feedback in an upwards cycle of positive reinforcement. A couple of years later I went on a holiday to New York where I took a photo of the Statue of Liberty. A few months later I was amazed to stumble upon the Wikipedia article for the Statue of Liberty and discover that the photo I had taken was displayed prominently at the top of the page. It was being used as the defining image of the most recognisable monument in the world on the most popular online encyclopaedia, and somebody I didn’t know had put it there. Sadly my photo on that page has since been replaced, but after I made that discovery I dug a bit deeper and found that my photos are all over Wikipedia, in literally hundreds of articles.

In the years since I’ve had a steady increase in a quantity and prestige of requests for permission to use my photos. My work has been used on published book jackets and museum information plaques, in leaflets and corporate brochures, iPhone games, nationally circulated magazines, TV shows and even an upcoming Hollywood movie (The Wolf of Wall Street). When I search for my name today in Google Images there are literally thousands of examples of my photos in use over the Internet. As well as wide exposure in some fairly high profile places, my photography has been used for good: in charity campaigns, environmental conservation initiatives, educational facilities and even a campaign against government corruption and brutality in an impoverished nation. And then of course there’s the shower of praise I receive every time I take a few snapshots of my friends’ babies for circulation to their families.

It’s not all peaches and cream. If you want your photos to be discoverable, you have to do the work and put in the metadata (titles, captions and tags) to make it so. I do this out of habit/compulsion, but it is a considerable amount of work if you don’t already do it as part of your standard workflow. Another consideration is that if you do make your photos available under Creative Commons, despite the fact that users aren’t actually obliged to ask for your permission to use a photo (as long as they provide correct attribution), many of them will do so anyway. This is a pleasant experience at initially, but after you’ve responded to a couple of these emails a week for several years it gets pretty tedious. To combat this problem I’ve taken to using Jeffrey Friedl’s excellent Flickr Export plugin for Adobe Lightroom to attach a standard piece of text to the captions on all my photos explicitly granting permission to use.

I don’t know whether I would still be doing photography if it were not for the encouragement I receive by sharing my work, but I do know that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. Sharing your photos can be good for you as well as for the creative community at large. If you’re an amateur with no particular ambitions to monetise your photography then ask yourself: what do you have to lose by sharing?