There's been oh-so-much discussion about people stealing images online, asking photographers to work for free, adding and removing watermarks, defending your copyright and so on and so forth. I've been influenced by it, too, even right now I'm trying to settle a case where my picture was used without permission by Estonian culture magazine *** (case solved, so I'm hiding the name). Recently Estonian National TV (ERR) called me and wanted to use my images for free and were upset because I refused. It has happened before and will happen again.
I don’t have a magic solution here, digital images just aren’t valued. No amount of explaining the costs involved in getting the image will make random people who stumble upon your image in search results value it.
I have different and encouraging experience lately with another set of customers – the ones who buy prints. It’s not like I’m selling many, I’ve never appealed to masses. It’s that the attitude is different. These people value the story I tell them about the picture, the fact that I’ve personally verified the print, the fact that it’s signed by me. Instead of downloading it from the Internet and deleting my watermark from it.
It comes down to self-esteem. I’m nice to people and I want people to be nice to me. I want my work to be valued. I’ve found that the print buyers do value my work more than the people who just buy files.
And the value itself is based on something else. It seems most of the people who buy digital images value what’s on the picture, the subject – when I photograph a power station, the image is bought because the buyers see the power station in the picture, the technology, the people who run it. Not how it’s made or why it’s made or if it’s beautifully made. I might get hired to shoot it because I’ve done it before and I’ve positioned myself doing this type of work, but it’s not bought because of my vision, the artistic qualities I put into my work.
It is, of course, up to the type of work you do, too. If you shoot photos where the subject is important (see the same power station example above), your images are much more likely to get stolen. If your work is more artistic (and this is where I'm trying to get), it's much less likely to appeal to the people who are into grabbing your image from the Internet.
It’s the opposite when I’m selling prints. You don’t download a picture from the Internet and print it out (OK, maybe somebody does it, some people drink cheap beer in front of the village shop too), there is value in the fact that the print is approved and signed by the author. Seeing your signed print on somebody’s wall is much different from seeing it on the huge billboard and I prefer the former, because people putting it on the wall have made a conscious decision to do so, they’re not just random passer-bies who might or might not notice the billboard. Knowing somebody values your work as much is inherently more satisfying.
And one more small thing - you don't ask physical things for free. People are still much more accustomed paying money for physical things in comparison to bits on the hard drive. As simple as that.
My conclusion – as I’m in this business for the enjoyment of it, I can afford to deal with the people who value my work. My approach is not widely applicable, I don't expect it to be.
PS: I think the ideal situation would be not to be on the Internet - if you had enough direct contacts buying your pictures, it would make sense not to put the images online at all.