There is a popular saying that says there is no such thing as a free lunch. Likewise, there is no such thing as a free photograph. Here is why. Photography could be divided into two actions, taking and sharing. The first act of taking a picture is an act of voluntary selection, one by which an individual consciously decides to extract a piece of reality out of its flow. This decision of what to photograph is triggered by a need to communicate. Whether its a wedding, a cute cat, a news event, or just a beautiful sunset, it is always a conscious decision to purposely take something we see and make it noticeable to others. We pick and choose what we photograph based on an intention to use it to communicate to a preselected audience. Thus, there is a definite intention behind each and every photograph we take.
We then select to share it. Who we decide to share it with is also part of the message. Very often we know while taking the image who our target audience is.
Social media has made the selection easier by allowing us to select groups within our network, be it friends, family , acquaintances, colleagues or everyone in the world. We want and expect to affect our target audience with our images. The purpose of the photograph taken has as many variations as any human interaction : convincing, seducing, affirming, proving, declaring, we take and share photographs with a defined intent. The same way as when we talk. We want to convince our listeners. There is a power play involved.
If photographs are shared on Flickr, Facebook, twitter, Instagram and offered for free- that is, no license fee required to view them- they are only free of a monetary constraint. However, they are not free of intent. They carry the will to convince from their authors. They are in fact heavily loaded with intent, purpose and agendas. When we, in turn, repost, share, reTweet, right click and otherwise promote the image, we become, willingly or not, the messengers of those messages.
Marketers know this very well and the most savvy ones use ‘free’ photography to get their brand messaging as widely accepted as possible. They hire top photographers to create stunning images who’s intent is to make you buy into the products or services they offer.
The belief that an image is free, just because it is denuded of any financial obligation, is a false impression that is unfortunately traveling widely . It is almost like believing that a highly contagious virus is harmless because it has no immediate visible effect. Photography, and history has proven it many times, can be an extremely strong catalyst for opinion changes. It doesn’t matter if it is associated with a cost or not. So, next time you see something advertise with “free images” or that someone talks or writes about free images, you will know better than not to sit at the table before you truly pay attention to what is served.