ImageBrief announced last week that it would be shutting down. The stock-image market founded in 2011 by Simon Moss allowed advertisers to send in “briefs” of stock images they were looking for but hadn’t found yet. In response, photographers would scour their own portfolios and see if they had such an image “lying around” in storage. Yadda yadda yadda, the two sides agree to a deal and boom, everyone’s happy.

Strangely enough, ImageBrief provided no explanation of what had gone wrong in their letter announcing the closing. In fact, they paint a picture that is quite the opposite: according to their own accounting, they say, the site had connected over 70,000 creators with clients in 169 countries, earning them “millions of dollars.” Further, they tout that “there has never been a better time for creators.” Nonetheless, they will be “closing down,” later in the email employing the beautiful doublespeak of calling this a “transition.”

It’s always sad to see a business go under (except Monsanto, they should definitely go bankrupt) and this is particularly disconcerting considering the race-to-the-bottom that is the stock image market. Even a novel idea, a sleek website, and a dedicated group of photogs, it seems, can’t save the trade.

However, ImageBrief itself hasn’t been immune to criticism from the community. Resource, for example, published a piece back in 2015 about Reebok’s manipulation of the site’s purpose. While ImageBrief offered companies cheap labor because the images being acquired were ostensibly already “in the person’s hard drive,” many brands, such as Reebok, specified in their “briefs” shots that simply wouldn’t be in ANYONE’S hard drive due to their specificity. Nonetheless, they offered payment in line with an-already captured image. The difference? Reebok was offering $1,500 while two photographers, asked to bid without knowing the circumstances, put in bids of $50,000 to $90,000. For their part, ImageBrief “was woefully unhelpful when we brought this to their attention.”

While the announcement of their closing came as a surprise to many—in no small part because ImageBrief had sent out an email to members on February 26th with the topic “Looking forward”—the writing had been on the wall for some time now. A quick Google search will bring a up host of comment threads in which a similar opine, “I still have not sold anything,” is repeated over and over.

“Three months ago i started in the IB, some images are shortlisted, but not any sells”

“So I’m still on ImageBrief. I have not sold anything.”

“I just did one last week, shot exactly what they sketched, with all the requirements listed. Didn’t even make the shortlist. Reminds me why I don’t waste my time there.”

Though the reasons for its shuttering may remain vague, one user offered plausible insight into the site’s difficulties. Prefacing that he worked at a company with an “almost identical model,” he explained why it failed to generate revenue:

Buyers would mainly use the system to get prices and then use that to go beat up their trusted suppliers during negotiations. Or just use it as a price check. Buyers rarely moved forward with accepting bids and when they did it was normally offline and not through the system. We had to regularly call buyers and ask them why they were placing bids and not moving forward. The business model was flawed and the company eventually went away when investors dryed up.

The problem with the model was that buyers had no vested interest or incentive in the system and already had contractual relationships with other suppliers. They didn’t pay anything for the service so they didn’t care. And there was no incentive to buy other than on price. And why would they buy from a new seller when they could just use the bid to negotiate with a trusted supplier.

This accords with many complaints of the site that brands would simply stop responding without explaining why they had chosen to do so. As one user writes:  “I had photos that were exactly what the buyer wanted. I mean perfect,” and yet they were never viewed by the client. If the above explanation is correct—buyers were simply using the site as a negotiation tool with their original suppliers—then this sort of behavior makes sense.

Founder Simon Moss

Still, the site lasted for a full six years and apparently until VERY recently (Feb. 26th, at the earliest) thought it was moving ahead into the future. Why it would be forced to make this abrupt about-face is anyone’s guess at the moment. I just hope for the sake of future stock image sellers, and the viability of the market as a whole, that we find out sooner rather than later.