Beware the Contests You Enter

This post isn’t on anything new. If you are already familiar with so called “image grab contests” and they piss you off, feel free to skip everything I write below. Or read it if you feel like being infuriated today.

If you don’t know about image grab contests and why photographers hate them, read on.

Today, a user in a Facebook Group I am a part of called “Outdoor Women – New England” posted the following link to a photo contest by the Green Mountain Club, a Vermont based non-profit conservation group.

On the contest website it says:

By entering the contest, entrants grant GMC a royalty-free, non-exclusive license to display, distribute, and reproduce the entries, in whole or in part, for any GMC purpose, including, but not limited to, GMC publications, merchandise, and website. Any photograph reproduced in GMC publications will include a photographer credit. GMC will not be required to pay any additional consideration or seek any additional approval in connection with such uses.

Photographers hate these type of contests, because its essentially a legal way for contest organizers to sneakily get a bunch of photographs to use however they want without paying a single cent for any of them. If you have ever taken a stab at being a professional photographer and trying to earn a living off of your work, you have probably figured out that its really challenging to sell what other people are willing to give away for free. Organizations like the Green Mountain Club absolutely 100% depend on photography to do what they do. Without photographs, they can’t effectively advertise their programs, appeal to donors, or make guidebooks, interpretive displays, or decorate their buildings and lodges. Access to photography isn’t a human right, like the right to clean water and air. So if photographs are so important to the work this non-profit does, shouldn’t they be willing to pay for them?

The answer is YES they should, but too often, non-profits play the “we are poor” card. It’s bull.

When I said something, the woman who posted the contest tried to use the same excuse I’ve heard many of times before, by strangers in emails asking to use my photographs for free or “for exposure” – as have literally tens of thousands of other photographers. I’m calling her and the GMC out.

“I’ve literally heard that same excuse dozens if not hundreds of times and heard at least as many photographers complain about these contests. I’ve also worked for dozens of environmental and outdoor non-profits, and worked as a professional photographer, so I am very familiar with both the budgetary constraints and limitations of non-profit work, particularly in the environmental conservation field, as well as how hard it can be to survive off of photography alone.

By paying nothing for photos, contests like this and the organizations that back them make it harder and harder for professional photographers to earn a living. Contests like this devalue the work of professionals, the same people who are vital to helping conservation groups gain support for their work by capturing compelling images and video of places and species needing protection. Stealing photos, which a contest like this essentially does, is saying that those photos have no value. $0. If that is true, try not using photos on a website, in brochures, for campaigns, on interpretive displays, etc and see how well that goes. Photographs are vital for the work that GMC and other organizations do. If you relied solely on printed words, word-of-mouth, and NPR, you wouldn’t get half of the donations or attention you do. Why should photographers not be able to pay their bills or feed their families because your organization is too cheap to pay them?

It’s one thing to use the winning images in this way because the photographers of those images get some form of compensation, but just using any of the entries however you like without any further compensation is wrong. I like to believe that organizations like the GMC and other trail and land use groups have people behind them with strong ethics and a moral compass, but trying to justify image grab contests like these because “we are poor” really makes me question that assumption. Contests like this are exploitation. As a photographer and outdoors woman with a strong belief in both social and environmental justice, I strongly urge the organizers of this contest to revise the the language of this contest so that only winning images can be used and reproduced without further compensation. It would show that the GMC not only cares about the land, but the people that use it and it values the partnership between the non-profit and all who make the work that non-profit does possible.”

Please, if you are not an a-hole, boycott these contests. Even if you are not a professional photographer, and don’t care if you make money from your images, and you generally support the organization running the contest, boycott them. Call out the contest organizers for being cheap. Demand they change the language of their contests so that entrants retain the rights to their photograph, including the right to fair compensation. It’s possible for organizations to sponsor photo contests and drum up publicity for their work in ways that are equitable and respect the hard work and talent of the photographers who enter. Stand with photographers.