Disclosure: PhotoShelter builds websites for photographers
Imagine a website that convinces its users to upload free content and builds social signals (e.g. likes and view counts) to make the site addictive. Then imagine the company using the usage data as a referral mechanism to make money without compensating the content producers. It’s not Facebook, it’s Unsplash, and it’s terrible for photographers.
Now imagine a huge website provider partnering with Unsplash to distribute the photography for free, and basically send the message that photography has no value. Stop imagining because Squarespace just did it.
“Now, instead of putting extra time or money into creating your own visuals, now you can simply replace the demo content on your chosen template with ease. Unsplash has an active group of contributing photographers from all around the world who have generously decided to share their work with others in the broader creative community, for free.”
Where “generous” is a euphemism for individual photographers subsidizing businesses because why would a revenue-generating business ever pay for visuals?
To add insult to injury, Squarespace also announced that it is participating in the dubious Unsplash Awards. What are the awards? It’s a cattle call for content in twelve categories – presumably driven by uncompensated demands of companies too cheap to pay for photography – and get this:
“All categories winners will be automatically entered into a draw for a chance to win 1 of 3 free flights from Hopper, valued at $600 each.”
That’s right. The “winners” are entered into a drawing for the possibility of winning a $600 voucher on a travel booking service. Your prize is a lottery ticket – thanks for giving us free content.
The judges include people from companies that rely on free content like Pinterest and Medium, and disappointingly includes partners like Peak Design.
Unsurprisingly, the photo community wasn’t very happy:
What a way to instantly trash your previously good reputation in the professional photography community.
— Daniel Boud (@boudist) November 17, 2018
Did you know: If your website is hosted by @squarespace, you’re funding a company who is now actively working to degrade the business model of photographers—and doing do at scale. https://t.co/AW69MDrJqj
— David Hobby (@strobist) November 17, 2018
The retort to such protests is often that the photo profession no longer exists and that the glut of photography has effectively driven the price of photos to zero. This is a lazy strawman argument. The profession has certainly changed and digital photography and online publishing has caused downward pricing pressure. But wedding photographers charge thousands of dollars per gig, commercial photographers regularly charge 5-figures for creative and licensing fees, and stock photography is still used and paid for by major corporations.
Not all photos have economic value, but good photography does. And in partnering with Unsplash instead of paid services like Adobe Stock, Getty Images or Shutterstock (and yes, they all have their limitations), Squarespace is conspiring against professional photographers and using the mantle of “generosity” to justify the convenience.
Squarespace can’t stop photographers from contributing to Unsplash, but the partnership helps amplify a destructive message: We will build our business off the backs of free content.
And if you’re a photographer with a Squarespace account, their decision has you shooting yourself in the foot while paying for the privilege.
Update: After receiving a number of comments regarding the language of my final sentence, I’ve changed it from “you’re a sucker” to “their decision has you shooting yourself in the foot.” My language was both a rhetorical device as well as a poor choice of words. A prudent course of action for Squarespace customers who are upset with this decision would be to contact them and let them know how it affects the industry.