Making useful photographs

What does it mean when hundreds of thousands of one’s photos appear in articles, essays and posts all over the Web—and one hasn’t been paid for them?

In my case, it means they’ve all proven useful. That’s why I posted the originals in the first place, licensing them to require only attribution.

For an example of how this works, take Lithium, a metal in the periodic table. Lithium is making news these days, because it’s both scarce and required for the batteries of electric and hybrid vehicles. At issue especially is how and where lithium is extracted from the Earth. As Ivan Penn and Eric Lipton put it in The Lithium Gold Rush: Inside the Race to Power Electric Vehicles (6 May in The New York Times), extraction “might not be very green.”

But it is blue. Or turquoise. Or aqua. Or whatever colors you see in the photo above.

I took that shot on a 2010 flight over Nevada. Looking out the window (which I always do, camera in hand), it’s hard to miss lakes of bright colors on the desert floor, looking like stained glass windows into the Earth. I didn’t know at the time that the puddles were lithium, but I did know they’d be useful when I published them, along with whatever information a little bit of research would reveal about them. After I did that research, I put 17 photos in an album on Flickr titled Lithium Mines in Nevada and added the same set to another album called Mines and Mining, which is now 329 photos long.

Also on that flight, which produced 130 photos now in an album called 2010_08_06 rno-phx-bos, other topics of interest I captioned and tagged aggressively, were the Shoshone Mountains, Yucca Flat (with “subsidence craters” over underground nuclear bomb explosions), the Nevada Test Site, (where hundreds of atomic bomb tests took place, among other interesting things), “Doom Town” on Frenchman Lake, Broom Lake in Area 51, Creech Air Force Base (from which military drones are remotely controlled), Grand Canyon, and Buffalo at night.

All those links go to photos of mine that in Wikipedia entries, and none are especially artistic. In fact most of them make me cringe today, because I hadn’t mastered Photoshop when I posted them in the first place. Worse, back then I shot only .jpgs, rather than RAW photos, which means I can’t go back do much to improve them. But all are useful, especially to writers and publications covering the topic of lithium mining. For example, my photos of those lithium lakes appear in—

And get this: those are just the first six among 23,200 results in a search for my name + lithium. Those results are also just from pubs that have bothered to obey my license. Countless others don’t.

Google also finds 57,400 results for my name + mining. On top of those, there are also thousands of results for my name + potash, river, geology, mining, mountains, dunes, desert, beach, ocean, hebrides, glacier, and other landforms I’ve photographed from above.

That’s on top of more than 1500 photos of mine parked in Wikimedia Commons, of which many (perhaps most) are already in Wikipedia (sometimes in multiple places) or on their way there.

And those are just a few of the many subjects I’ve shot, posted and annotated to make them useful to the world. That’s why I’m guessing the number of my photos that are actually being used is in the hundreds of thousands by now.

This is key: I have placed none of those photos in any of those places. I just put them where they can easily be found and put to use. For example, when I shot Thedford, Nebraska, I knew somebody would find the photo and put it in Wikipedia.

It’s interesting to me that most of my photographs are of people, and that these photos donated to the world are actually a small percentage of all the shooting I’ve done over many decades.

But apparently my main calling as a photographer is to push useful photos to the edge of the public domain, and to describe and tag them in ways that make them easy for researchers and journalists to find and use. And so far that has been a very successful strategy.

I recommend that other photographers do the same. It’ll do the world some good.

An earlier version of this was published at https://blogs.harvard.edu on May 19, 2021.

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.