Why I let people use my photos, even for free.
My Unsplash story and how I became the guy with the most famous back in the world, that nobody knows.
By now, you’ve probably heard of Unsplash. If you search in google for ‘beautiful free photos' it’s the first thing you’ll see that’s not an ad. It’s not an ad because they’ve never spent a single dollar on advertisement. Yet, in the last four years they’ve racked up over 400,000 high resolution images, given by 65,000 generous photographers. Every photo is available to download and use for free, even commercially.
Following a conversation with a digital artist on Instagram, who regularly uses my photos, and some inspiration from my friend Samuel Zeller, I decided I would share why I’m one of those 65,000 photographers.
This is why I decided to give my work away for free.
Let’s start at the beginning.
In 2014 I uploaded my first photo to Unsplash. It was a simple shot of me, with my back to the camera, looking out over Lake Geneva. I clicked submit, sat back and waited to see what happened next. The following day it popped up on their home page. The day after that it had been downloaded thousands of times and was appearing all over the internet, from Buzz Feed articles to American mega churches. Today, it’s been viewed millions of times and used all around the world in some pretty inspirational ways.
I have since uploaded another 40 photos in the same style and recently hit a million downloads between them.
If I was looking for stats, I got them.
But, to be honest, it felt strange at first. I hadn’t realised quite how much it would take off. I saw my work everywhere, but rarely saw my name next to it. I’m the guy with the most famous back in the world that nobody knows.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked, why? If I just sold the photos for £1 I would be a millionaire! I should have put them on a stock website! I should have put my watermark on them! I should never work for free!
But, then something special started to happen…
Messages of thanks started pouring in. I was blown away by the gratitude of the people that were using the photos. From pretty much every digital artist on Instagram, to countless churches around the world. All the way to the 76 year old grandmother who shared with me that she didn’t have any money to pay for expensive stock images, but was able to complete her self published book with one of my photos on the cover. She ended her message with, “You are so special and it gives this old Grandmother a warm spot in my heart to see young people accomplishing and doing things that honour God in these troubled times.”
Without realising it, I was making real and meaningful connections all over the world. I was helping change the way people interacted with photography and provided resources to those that didn’t have access to any before.
But, then it went further...
I started to receive substantial monetary gifts from people showing their appreciation for letting them use my work. They didn’t need to do that. Just like I didn’t need to give my photos away for free. But we did. I started to receive bookings and made partnerships that would help support new travel and adventures. I licensed other photos from my portfolio that weren’t on Unsplash. I featured on book covers, magazine covers and even billboards, all around the world.
No, it’s not full time. No, I’m still not a millionaire! And no, exposure doesn’t directly pay the bills. But I believe that these relationships based on generosity and gratitude will go a lot further and last a lot longer than any partnerships based on money will take me.
I have become part of something bigger. In such a crowded and difficult industry to break out in I have found a special community of people. Not just a few, but a community of millions that have a need that I can meet. People that use, love and appreciate what I’m doing. Many that use it for free but also many that will support my efforts in doing something different.
I’m honoured to have been part of such a game changing platform and I’m excited to see what the next chapter is. Of course, I hope in time that more people will recognise me for my work. That they’ll know the face behind that famous back. But, however the story goes, I will continue to find ways to make a lasting and significant difference with my photos. I will continue to impact the industry in ways that no other platform has made possible, even if it means missing out my name in the credits.
So for you, the digital artists, authors, bloggers or even Fortune 500 companies, here are my photos. Enjoy them!
If you would like to support me on this adventure, I built a website that makes the rest of my photography available from just £1 and called it More Than Just Photos. You’ll also be helping me make a difference as I donate 10% of every sale to charity.
Let’s create something beautiful together.
You can find me on instagram @explorewithjoshua. Come and say hi in the comments below. I’d love to know your thoughts.