When Zack Arias first discovered Unsplash, the popular copyright-free photography sharing website, his “blood pressure spiked.” A practicing photographer for twenty years, he felt a “knife” being plunged into his most vital organs. In the weeks following, he would have “many expletive filled exchanges with peers” regarding the platform’s merits.

Zack Arias in what I assume is a self-portrait. From his site’s “About” tab.

Instead of blindly raging at the machine, acting as the “crusty old man yelling at kids to get off my lawn,” Arias decided to reach out to one of Unsplash’s founders, Mikael Cho, and sent him an email.

“I’m going to go down speaking for my craft.”

His letter was long, forceful, and included autobiographical bits from Arias’ career. The latter served up a healthy dose of pathos as we, the reader, can feel Arias’ sense of loss as the industry he loves goes through yet another “huge sea change” (the last one being the move from film to digital).

However it is also at turns measured, thoughtful and frequently bittersweet. Rather than purely bemoaning the current state of affairs (Arias continually undersells himself as a crotchety “old man” when he is really anything but) he highlights the anxieties it brings forth, while conceding its advantages. “Social media has been great for my business,” he says, adding that he was one of the few who “gladly welcomed the switch to digital.” Yet it has had its fair share of casualties, like the “good friend” of his who practiced photography professionally for 15 years, only to find himself “the produce manager at his local grocery store” as hobbyists entered the marketplace.

“That is the Black Mirror episode of the photography industry”-Arias considering the possibility of one day paying to have his photos share for free.

His most resonant argument, which I will post below in full, comes as he confronts the relationship between the tech side of Unsplash–people like Mr.Cho and his cofounders–and the creative side. Arias describes his fear, something he elsewhere refers to as “negative asymmetry,” that what’s good for the platform may come at the cost of its contributors’ well-being. Unsplash, in other words, “may win more than it can lose.”

Mikael Cho [Image Courtesy sweattheproduct.com]

He writes:


“Here’s my old man rant, Mikael. You have no skin in this game. You have not worked as a photographer. You yourself are not a photographer. Armed with other people’s money you have stepped into this industry to create something that has HUGE value to YOUR industry, namely designers, tech companies, etc.”


Likening the photography industry to an ecosystem like a forest, he continues, “Unsplash is like a foreign timber company coming to the edge of the forest and say[ing] ‘Look at these trees that no one is using. Let’s take them and help our other company make a profit with them.'”

In response to his comments, Mr. Cho was kind enough to arrange a Skype interview with Mr. Arias, which is posted below. It begins awkwardly, as expected, with an exasperated Arias explaining “I don’t even know where to begin.” However, they ultimately find their groove, going back and forth with Arias expressing his concerns, Cho defending his methods, and both leaving with lots of food for thought. Despite concerns beforehand, they manage to remain civil, and [*spoiler alert*] Arias ends with an offer to host an Unsplash “meetup” in his Atlanta studio (super cute).

The two parted ways with mutual respect, hopefully paving the way for future interactions between photographers and the techies who provide their platforms. Unsplash may have even (though probably not) found its latest member. And “whatever happens,” Arias states at one point–in a statement that also seems to encapsulate his role as the concerned photographer’s spokesman through these trying times–“I’m going to go down speaking for my craft.” 

Feature Image Courtesy Daniel Pascoa