Life As a Stock Photo

Social media makes it seem natural and validating that one could consider selling one's snapshots to marketers and publishers so that they could be used for some commercial purpose.

I reblogged this bad stock photo on tumblr and was set to be content to leave it at that, but I continued to think about it.

As you can see, it's a picture of fake patrons at a bookstore pretending to shop. The Economist's blog picked it up to illustrate a post about Borders' bankruptcy and the loss of book stores as quasi-public space. I assume the photographer used fake people because you would possibly need to get permission clearances from genuine shoppers if the photo was not documentary? (Somebody out there who knows how this works, please let me know. Comment or email at horning at

One of my many suspicions is that stock photos such as these will be easily replaceable with far more genuine looking photos from social media pages. This seems like a SEO-generated page, but it gets at another question I have:

Stock Photography companies have lost some of their market share in the digital age, but Flickr is not the biggest cause. The creation of digital cameras has resulted in more people taking and sharing pictures as opposed to the old days of film when there were only a select few in the photography business. Also, non-commercial licenses means that businesses can not use those free photos.

So digital cameras make it easy for aspiring photographers to try to enter the business of selling photos; indeed Getty has a partnership with Flickr to try to help amateurs commercialize what they share (and drive labor prices down).

But wouldn't it be just as easy for publications to search a Facebook database for a photo and pay them a nominal fee for the rights to it (and drive the photographer's wages to zero)? Is there anything in Facebook's terms of service that explicitly prevents the company from doing that, given that it asserts ownership rights over the stuff people upload there? Or is there a non-commercial licensing regime that protects you from having your photos appear in contexts where you don't want them? Must users rely on Facebook's good will to keep that from happening?

I already felt that simply by sharing anything on Facebook, it ended up recontextualized in ways I couldn't control or understand and this made me feel inordinately and perpetually defensive. When he quit Facebook, Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber noted that "one of the things I like about the Internets is that I can present myself in different ways. This isn’t the result of a lack of integrity – you need to present different ‘selves’ if you want to engage in different kinds of dialogue." That makes perfect sense to me; I think my lack of context control was making me opt out of many potential dialogues altogether. I also feared that all the decontextualized communication was collapsing the boundaries that need to be in place for friendship to thrive. If you start seeing what friends do in their alternate contexts, they can seem less likable, or deceptive, or just not as focused on me as I narcissistically prefer them to be and can pretend they are without any evidence to the contrary. Facebook lets you see your friends consistently at their most preening, posturing, needy, and self-exploiting -- not generally their best sides, but in a Zuckerberg world, their only true side with "integrity."

It would be terrible if Facebook resold images you shared without telling you. But it would be even worse if they offered to cut you in, I think. Social media makes it seem natural and validating that one could consider selling one's snapshots to marketers and publishers so that they could be used for some commercial purpose. Social media invites you to turn your own life into a series of stock photos.

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