Donating the shirt off your back!

I read with considerable interest, if not bewilderment, a letter in the latest edition of Scottish Wildlife, the magazine of the Scottish Wildlife Trust. A well-established photographer had written to all 47 Wildlife Trusts offering them free and unlimited use of his entire British wildlife archive – hundreds, if not thousands, of free images. The premise was that he couldn’t afford a financial contribution so this was his way of supporting the Trusts.

Let me first of all say that it’s a free country and individual photographers are at liberty to do as they wish with their own images. Let me also say that I’m not criticising the photographer personally, simply exploring the motivations for giving away such a valuable resource. To be fair, the conservationist in me applauds his gesture but I can’t help thinking this sets a very dangerous precedent, apart from undermining the livelihood of both hard-working freelancers and profit-stricken picture libraries.

I would like to think I do as much as most to support the conservation community and as a business, we donate significant sums to a variety of initiatives. Giving our hard-earned product away however, invalidates not only my own imagery but that of the community as a whole. Payment for imagery might not be necessary or even desirable for some, but gifting it for free devalues the product and debilitates the hard work of many professionals over the years to convince the conservation community that compelling imagery is something worth paying for.

I don’t know the photographer in question very well and there may be mitigating circumstances that I’m not aware of but in my view, giving away a whole library of images is not just another nail in the coffin, it’s the coffin being lowered into the ground. And just for the record, this isn’t about the money for me, it’s about dismantling the value of imagery, something that this community has fought hard to preserve.

We are undoubtedly at a crossroads in this industry and as much as anyone, I’m groping in the dark a wee bit. We live in tough times when tough decisions are necessary and everyone has different coping mechanisms. I’m not sure however, this is a step in the right direction but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

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7 thoughts on “Donating the shirt off your back!

  1. Hello Pete

    My feeling is that this move, far from altruistic, is ill-considered and selfish.
    • Ill-considered because it further undermines the ability of other professional photographers to produce the diversity of work that has hitherto been essential to conservation NGO’s. They can get any number of pictures of a few popular species from recreational photographers but those of us with broader and deeper coverage have only been able to create it because we were recompensed for our work in years gone by- often for those popular species that are now available free. They subsidized the production of more obscure, less commercial work. This will only lead to further homogenisation and patchy coverage.
    • Like it or not, it is professional photography that as always lead the way in terms of providing inspiration for recreational photographers and even in today’s networked world that allows lots of new imaginative work to be seen, it is not sustainable if there isn’t an income stream,. Talent needs time and resources to flourish. Keep undermining professional photography with give-aways and those sources of inspiration will disappear.



    1. Hi Niall (+Pete)

      I’m not sure I can agree with point 1 (though I freely admit that I am not in the situation) – professional photographers are in a competitive, commercial environment which will grow year on year and which will see increasing business and inventiveness. I don’t see why that threat isn’t also an opportunity as it is in any other business – it’s a motivating factor.

      Point 2 does ring true though, and “Talent needs time and resources to flourish. […remove time and resources…] and those sources of inspiration will disappear” I can agree with fully. There will always be a place for high-end commissioned work (NatGeo, BBC Wildlife et al) and I can’t see the death of mid-range commissions just yet – conservation groups that are on the ball know what they’re doing and know the benefit of a shot that perfectly fits their message, their species or their environment, and so will still allocate funding – but for the rest of the industry then there indeed is a torrent of images available at cheap/no cost via Flickr or via donation.

      My question is: as an innovative photographer who seeks out unusual scenarios or species, what is the threat from everyone else not doing this? Another picture of a badger is another picture of a badger is another picture of a badger – once one photo exists, a thousand do, and so any future relying on stock wildlife shots is precarious unless they are truly exceptional (and some really can be). For the rest of the world though, unexceptional is often good enough and that’s always frustrating for the leading edge.


  2. Hello Pete

    I became aware that the photographer in question had made this offer to the Wildlife Trusts a few months ago when he made reference to it in a post on Facebook. What I found interesting was the timing of this announcement as it took place at the same time as the photographer was aggressively marketing his tour business on Facebook. The cynic in me saw this as a marketing ploy to generate income through tours without any thought for the wider consequences.

    Earlier this morning, I read a comment by the same photographer on another photographer’s Facebook page bemoaning the fact that one of the agencies that represented him had sold posters of his images for knock down prices, resulting in his receiving “a pound a print or something!” The photographer then went on to say: “Talk about devaluing a hard-earned career!”.

    The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts operates an internal image library, called Wildnet, for the use of all Trusts. Whilst the Society does not pay full commercial rates for images, it nonetheless pays a fee. Picking up on earlier comments by John MacPherson about valuation and discounting, by supplying images at a discount, it allows for recognition that images have a value. Perhaps it would have been wiser for the photographer in question to offer his images to Wildnet?

    Best wishes


  3. I’ve not read ‘the letter’ Pete alludes to, nor do I have any idea who the individual concerned is, nor have I spoken to anyone about the issue, so the following comments are based only on what I see written above.

    If its accurate, there’s some peculiar logic being displayed, and only one conclusion it leads me to:

    A photographer claims he/she cant afford a financial contribution so instead offers access to their image collection.


    As we’ve all been hearing, images are ten a penny and unless exceptional are virtually valueless in today’s market, and presumably the photographer knows that. We’ll have to assume these images are not ‘exceptional’ ones, after all they’re not earning the photog much money, otherwise the individual WOULD certainly be selling them and have the cash to gift to the Wildlife Trusts, and be well able to do so on an ongoing basis.

    So, what WAS being offered? It’s apparently NOT something of any real value and may therefore comprise images that presumably the Trusts can easily obtain by other means, so in that sense it’s a hollow gesture. Which means it might be….

    A stunt designed and carefully implemented to enable the photographer to become a ‘name’ with a reputation for altruism and a philanthropic bent, and get their name plastered over as many magazines and websites as possible, thus quickly gaining a ‘presence’.

    As many of us know only too well, being successful in the world of imaging means cultivating that ‘presence’ – the brand that is ‘you’. And that takes time, integrity, connections, reach, reputation etc etc The quicker you can build all that (or the illusion of all that) the more ‘clout’ your brand/business will have.

    So far from being a generous offer, at best this is a ‘loss leader’ or at worst it’s rather more like the equivalent of going down the Save The Children shop with a pile of outgrown and out-of-fashion clothing, mostly pants, that you’ll never wear and not miss and then loudly proclaiming to the world that you’re actively tackling the pressing problems of infant malnutrition.

    Whatever. One wonders, has it worked?

  4. There has been a wide spectrum of opinion expressed on this issue both here and via the photographer’s Facebook page, and I have to say I see logical arguments across that spectrum. I don’t consider the action ‘wrong’ – I never did, I just think it does nothing to serve the interests of the wider photographic community.

    A parting question (or 3) : Whilst the (salaried) staff member from Anywhere Wildlife Trust was writing the letter of thanks to the photographer, was the tea he/she was drinking free from Tesco? Is the office he/she is sitting in free of rent or mortgage? Is the electricity powering his/her computer free? I’m perhaps being unnecessarily picky and cynical but so often, so VERY often, nature photographers come at the bottom of the pile and such actions ensure we’re likely to stay there.
    A worthwhile discussion but enough said (at least by me).

  5. Were there a professional body for outdoor photographers, this one would surely have been struck off for malpractice. It just shows how unprofessional as a body we are in the world’s eyes.


  6. Hello Alistair

    I’m afraid that the evidence of 2020Vision and other projects I’ve been involved with is that conservation NGO’s certainly DO NOT (with the exception of the Woodland Trust and Greenpeace) now value photography enough to commission it. The belief now is that they can get away with the stuf they can get for nothing. BBC W very rarely commissions work.



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