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The Increasingly Open World of Photography: A Conversation With Exposure’s Luke Beard

Licenses & Tools, Open Culture

Over 300 million images are uploaded to Facebook a day. Yes, just Facebook. Once other social media and photo-sharing platforms like Flickr, Unsplash, Instagram, etc. are taken into account, that number quickly grows into the billions. 

A lot has changed since the dawn of photography in the 19th century—when Nicéphore Niépce (a.k.a. the “Father of Photography”) peered through his camera obscura from his upstairs window in France and created the oldest surviving photographic image in 1826. At that time, and for over a century, photography was restricted to (primarily white and Western) wealthy hobbyists and career professionals. However, photography has become more democratized, digitized, and open over time. This process began in the 1940s with Kodak’s “Brownie” camera, then quickened with the invention of the digital camera in the late 1980s, and finally culminated with the smartphone in the early 2000s. In 2019, the Pew Research Center estimated that 1/3rd of the world’s population has a smartphone. This means that billions of people have access to a camera! 

Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras (1826 or 1827)

Niépce’s “View from the Window at Le Gras” (1826 or 1827), the world’s oldest surviving photographic image, made using a camera obscura. Original plate (left) by Niépce; colorized reoriented enhancement (right) by Nguyen. Licensed CC BY-SA.

Along with the democratization and digitization of photography came the rise of open licensing (the CC License Suite was first released in 2002) and “free” photo-sharing and stock photography websites (Flickr was founded in 2004). Although these trends have many benefits, they’ve generally made professional photographers feel uneasy. As photographer and filmmaker Erin Jennings wrote in a 2019 essay, “Not only has accessible digital photography threatened the commercial photography industry, it has also thrown into question the very self-worth of many photographers whose identities were mired in the exclusivity of the analog process.” As a photographer, I understand this uneasiness as well as the apprehension that comes with publishing images under open licenses. I’ve certainly wondered: Is it OK that I’m willingly handing organizations and companies the ability to use my work for “free”? Will this lead to the expectation that photography should always be free? Does this devalue professional photography?

Along with the democratization and digitization of photography came the rise of open licensing and “free” photo-sharing and stock photography websites; although these trends have many benefits, they’ve also made professional photographers feel uneasy.

Luke Beard

Luke Beard, Photographer and Designer; CEO and Founder of Exposure.

Over time, I’ve learned more about the purpose of open licenses and the rights photographers are guaranteed under them. For instance, the attribution requirement under CC licenses can actually help maintain the connection between photograph and photographer because the photographer’s name must be attributed if their work is reused. In the age of image theft and image overload, that’s significant. The range of licenses available also gives photographers more freedom to determine how their photography can be used beyond “all rights reserved,” and clarify that to potential users. For up-and-coming photographers, this can be especially useful for building a personal brand and an audience of potential clients.  Personally, I try to always openly license my work—something I recently learned was possible on Exposure, a storytelling platform for photographers and visual storytellers. After using the platform for years, it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the company had enabled CC BY-ND as a licensing option. It also made me curious: Why did a platform that serves as a creative outlet for professional photographers and storytellers decide to allow open licensing as an option?

To find out, I contacted Exposure Founder and CEO Luke Beard via email. A photographer himself, I also wanted to know his personal thoughts about open licensing and the democratization of photography. Our conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

VH: The growing democratization of photography has led to a plethora of images online, primarily through free photo-sharing and stock photography websites. Has this trend impacted your identity as a professional photographer? Do you think it’s harming the industry? 

LB: I’d argue that Instagram has done more to change photography in the last decade than legacy and fledgling photo communities built around free sharing or stock [photography]. Instagram has a fairly large conversion rate. Its scale, reach, and impact on photography still feels unprecedented. It’s effectively one of the biggest stewards of the medium the world has ever seen.

The “professional photographer” part of my identity has a strong feeling around giving anything away for “free.” There are both potentially good and potentially negative outcomes, but it also depends on the context. You certainly learn a lot about what feels right or worth it by exploring free avenues. The communities that grow around services like Flickr can be incredible, and I’m sure many working photographers today got their start there. The proliferation of ways to discover photography though free, stock, or sharing [platforms] has certainly raised the bar both competition-wise and creativity-wise, and I’d say it has been a net positive.  

VH: There’s an ongoing debate within photography circles about open licensing and whether or not it harms professional photographers. What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks?

LB: The value of photography has simultaneously been raised and lowered as the internet economy has grown. As a visual medium—with amazing screens in the hands of ~3.5 billion people—photography has so much to offer for the foreseeable future.  

Exposure's Homepage

Exposure houses creative works from individual photographers, non-profit organizations, governments, and more.

Open licensing also has a lot to offer photographers who are looking for new and interesting ways to share their craft and earn work. On the one hand, you have platforms with a huge reach that take on the hard work of distributing and hosting your photos in exchange for an open license (e.g. Unsplash). The long-tail upside might be that someone thinks your style of photography is perfect and hires you for a shoot. The flip side is that free and openly licensed photos may lose all concept that there is a photographer behind the photo. This devalues both the photographer and the photo. I personally struggle with the idea of normalizing good photography as something that has no cost or doesn’t require credit—although, it’s important to point out that CC licenses do require attribution. A comparison would be this one: it’s hard to make good software, but free applications normalize the idea that software should cost nothing. 

There is still lots of work to be done to reap the benefits of open licensing, and the majority of this work falls to the stewards of the platforms and tools.

Without openly licensed photos, however, we wouldn’t have visually rich Wikipedia pages or great collections like NASA’s image gallery. For individual photographers, I think there still has to be a better way. Maybe the answer is a blockchain solution through micropayments or maybe just a better marketplace platform. There is still lots of work to be done to reap the benefits of open licensing, and the majority of this work falls to the stewards of the platforms and tools. I’m hopeful the benefits will greatly outweigh the negatives. 

VH: Can you explain why Exposure decided to offer an open licensing option and if there were any specific challenges when making and implementing that decision?

We have taken baby steps into offering an open license as a feature. For context, it’s a toggle you can switch “on” or “off” for specific stories. As the creator, you agree to a CC BY-ND license for your photography within that story. This idea initially came about because we wanted to give Exposure members the ability to allow their family, friends, or clients to download their photos. Since the launch, however, we have seen it used for academic and non-profit purposes too, so we plan on expanding it this year by adding more licenses and the ability to license entire stories (including written content) and not just the individual photos. Our non-profit customers have expressed how helpful this would be to share their cause.

VH: Does Exposure educate users on this open licensing option or advertise it in any way?

The photo downloads feature is advertised as a paid feature because there is an infrastructure cost associated with allowing photos to be downloaded. When the feature is enabled by the member, we give a full legal description of how the license works and also a “basic” description in simpler terms. When a visitor downloads any photo that is under the open license they also see a similar dialog and download agreement that indicates the requirements of the license, including attribution to the photographer/source. This way, they know how and where they can use the photo before they actually download it.

Exposure Screenshot of Download Agreement

An example of Exposure’s Download Agreement and use of CC BY-ND. Source: “The Space People” by Victoria Heath (CC BY-ND).

VH: Taking a step back from open licensing, can you share with us one or two of the most impactful stories that have been shared on your platform?

That’s a tough one, as there have been thousands over the years, but right now I’m extra proud to host and share stories on climate change, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, this story from Doctors without Borders (MSF) which shares the struggle to get the supplies needed to fight COVID-19 in Yemen; this piece by the United Nations Development Programme’s Climate Office telling the story of climate-resilient farming and food security in the outer islands of Kiribati; and this story of Black Lives Matter protests in Cobb County, Georgia by a local photographer.  

VH: The goal of the open movement is to build a more equitable, inclusive, and innovative world through sharing—do you believe sharing photography, and creative content more broadly, has a role in achieving that goal?

Openly sharing information has always happened within communities. I strongly believe the open movement has achieved great things since the first few days of ARPANET and the birth of the modern internet. Creative content still has room to mature to be a truly accessible, inclusive, and equitable medium as more people get access to the internet. But as a whole, visual content has had a huge impact by engaging most of the world—now more than any other time in history. There are things that worry me about our ability to achieve any sort of “open web” goal, these include the consolidated power of “Big Tech,” eroding net neutrality, and the disparity of access to reliable and affordable (if not free) internet connections—as recently seen with the impact of COVID-19 on students without a reliable internet connection at home.

VH: Photography as a profession has suffered from a lack of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity which has led to a mirrored lack of diversity in the images created (e.g. stock photos). What actions do you think individual photographers like yourself, and platforms like Exposure, can take to help increase diversity in the industry?

A quote mentioned in Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist has recently been very impactful in my thinking about just this. The quote is credited to Harry A. Blackmun from the 1978 Supreme Court case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Blackmun wrote, “…in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”

There is no progress without change and the status quo of taking a neutral stance does not allow for oppressed voices to be heard.

When I think about how this could be implemented in photography and the platforms that support it, I see several paths to a more equitable community: actively raising, promoting, and empowering the work of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and gender diverse photographers; giving resources to those same communities to enhance their ability to work, and; public platforms taking a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech and racism of any kind. There is no progress without change and the status quo of taking a neutral stance does not allow for oppressed voices to be heard. Exposure, as a platform, can do more on all these fronts, but the future looks bright for more giving and more empowering initiatives. Our Black Lives Matter support statement outlines what we are doing right now, and there is more to come in the future. 

VH: Luke, thank you for speaking with me! By the way, there are a growing number of openly licensed collections that are working to increase diversity in stock photography. These include Nappy, the Gender Spectrum Collection, Disabled and Here Collection, and Women in Tech. Check them out!

?: Featured image by Kollage Kid, titled “Lighthouse” and licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Posted 13 July 2020