Unintended Unsplash: The surprising journeys of animal photographs

A few years ago, I was standing alongside Bear Creek, a small waterway in Southern Oregon, camera in hand, when a river otter approached. I captured the photo, thrilled to have not only seen a river otter so close but one that apparently was not so afraid of me. The otter quickly disappeared underwater and, days later, I uploaded the photograph to the website Unsplash.

If you’ve not heard of it, Unsplash is a photo sharing site born of a utopian vision — a place where photographers and creatives can easily post and share photographs. Unlike stock photo marketplaces, like Getty or Adobe, that charge by the photograph, at Unsplash anyone can visit and download one or more high-resolution photos for editorial or even commercial uses. All for free. 

For an amateur photographer such as myself, Unsplash is a fun way to share your work and also note that you are “Available to hire.” While I’ve not yet been hired as a photographer, Unsplash statistics tell me that the photographs I’ve uploaded over the years have been downloaded nearly 24,000 times. And these numbers give me a sort of thrill, knowing that the photos I love have found others who share that feeling.

Or so I told myself.

What I have learned is that you can’t control how your photos are used, and, as I recently discovered, you might be better off not knowing how they are used or where they end up. 

As a vegan, I take a lot of photographs of animals — birds, cats, deer. I had imagined they might find homes on, say, the websites of a conservation organizations, nonprofit rescues, or travel websites. One day I uploaded a handful of my Unsplash photos to Google Images to see if I could find a match online. The first match I found was not what I expected. 

In The Sacramento Bee, my friendly otter became a stand-in for a number of otters who had apparently attacked  a Hollywood actor, among others. And did the readers of the Sacramento Bee know this? I’m not confident they did. 

This cute otter that I had shared a peaceful moment with now was associated with a not-so-peaceful narrative around otters, a view I do not share.

Granted, I should have known better. Unsplash is photo-sharing site. My control over this photo ended when I uploaded it. And I should not be surprised to find it in a news story, as so many media outlets make use of stock photographs. Still, this was not the outcome I had expected for the photo, which was taken in support of otters.

The next photograph I searched on was of a local starling, a common bird not only in Oregon but much of the United States. Here, my neighborhood starling ended up in an article about the intentional poisoning of starlings in Grand Island, Michigan. 

European starlings were introduced to the United States sometime in the late 1800s and are now considered  an “invasive” species by many scientists. But that doesn’t take away from the beauty and intelligence of this bird, one with parrot-like linguistic skills ( Mozart kept a starling as a pet). 

My search took an even darker turn when this starling photograph also found its way to a Lansing Michigan news site article titled: “10 Animals That You Can Hunt Year Round in Michigan.”

As someone who does not hunt or even eat animals, I was not happy seeing my photo used in this context. When I found a deer photo of mine also used on a hunting website, I quickly removed that photo from Unsplash — and in fact considered removing all of my animal photographs.

Until I discovered my wood duck photograph on the Holden Forests & Gardens website, one of the largest public gardens in the United States, and that a number of my deer photographs made it into various Oregon travel articles.

A picture is worth a thousand points of view

When you share your work freely, you have no control over where it ends up and how it is used. I know this, now more than ever. What was perhaps more surprising to me is how so many people can see a photograph and read so many different experiences and expectations into it. One person’s picture of a lovely deer is another person’s picture of a trophy on the wall. My loquacious starlings are another person’s invasive pests. 

And we can see in how photos are shared and used just how complex and conflicted the animal protection movement is in the United States, and the world. A wonderful example of photography for animals is We Animals Media, founded by photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, which offers 25,000+ photos and video clips of animal issues around the globe to be used for the purpose of animal welfare and animal rights (the licensing agreement reads, in part, “Work(s) cannot be used for any purpose that promotes or advocates for any industry, initiative, person or practice that engages in animal use or mistreatment, in each case as determined in We Animals’ sole discretion.” 

Amateur photographers like myself on Unsplash may have the same worldview but not the same ability to negotiate terms. Which means we all need to consider both the good and the harm our photos can do.

While I’d like to think my photos of animals will open not only eyes and hearts, I now think twice before uploading photos, and I’ve learned that adding context goes a long way.

I edited the description of my otter photo to include: “While there have been reports of otters attacking humans, this is the exception. Otters generally keep their distance from us humans and should not be feared, but protected, along with their creeks and rivers.”

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