Creative Controversy

So, one of my photographs was the lead image on MotherJones.com today. Cool, right? Except they didn’t pay me, ask me, or even notify me. I just followed the incoming link from my flickr account and saw it up there. Screenshot of MotherJones.com

Legally, they were well within their rights. Mother Jones is a non-profit news organization and I had the picture up under a creative commons license that allows for non-commercial use.

But it still feels juuuust this side of shady. Mother Jones, last time I checked, was still in the habit of paying for content.

This is not the first time something like this has happened, and it makes me really aware of the uncomfortable divide I’m straddling by being someone who believes in the transformative potential of web2.0 and someone who has bills to pay, no day job and few other marketable skills.

I put a lot of my images out under a creative commons license, and some of them get around quite a bit. These three, in particular, mostly on various blogs and NGO reports (that I know about, at least!): Waterboarding Demonstration Waterboarding Demonstration, Berkeley, Calif. Deforestation, near Mong La Deforestation near the Burmese-Chinese border Illegal Wildlife Trade Illegal Wildlife Trade, Mong La, Burma

Waterboarding, deforestation, and the illegal wildlife trade. All significant issues, and I’m genuinely happy that these pictures can play a role in keeping public discussion moving. I keep them out there, available for people to use, and most people are really considerate about it, writing to let me know when they’re using them, checking to see how I want the work attributed. It makes me feel like a contributing member of some sort of global community. When other people are laboring purely out of love, I’m happy to do the same.

I’m resigned to a certain amount of unpaid work while I’m in graduate school. It’s kind of the nature of the exercise. And really, I don’t have much to complain about. I’m here in sunny California on a full ride, with everything from my gear to my rent to my plane tickets to Asia coming out of taxpayers’ pockets. At bare minimum, I think that leaves me with the obligation to be a little bit socially useful.

On the other hand, those pictures represent effort, skill, and risk – particularly the two from Burma. That third picture was shot from the hip in one of the sketchiest border towns on earth, and I very easily could’ve gotten my camera smashed – if not my teeth – for my trouble.

There’s a real reason people expect to be paid for that kind of work. And the minute I feel like somebody else is making a profit at my expense, it puts me on edge. Particularly because of the larger context this is happening in. Publications are popping up left and right, and – fear-mongering aside – there’s still plenty of money being made on the internet. The problem is very little of it is going to the people who are actually out there, boots on the ground, producing content. And by letting people who could afford to pay for photographs use my work for free, I feel like I’m becoming part of the problem. Not only am I not getting paid, but some other photographer also didn’t get an assignment because the art editor just went and pulled something off the internet.

I’m worried that people like me are keeping people like me from making a decent living. But I don’t know what to do about this problem that wouldn’t suck too much life out of the vital people-to-people conversation of the social web.

Thoughts?

p.s. Delicious irony: got this link sent to me while writing this post: Someone Bids $13,000 for Huffington Post Internship