Tag Archives: Stock photography

Saving stock photography: 90% payouts & democratic capitalism driving 25% monthly growth for Stocksy

Saving stock photography: 90% payouts & democratic capitalism driving 25% monthly growth for Stocksy

A sample Stocksy photo

In a former life, Stocksy CEO Bruce Livingston’s job was replaced by software. Today the former iStockphoto founder and CEO and former Getty Images VP could be replaced by photographers — the very people he’s enticing onto his new stock photography platform.

Call it democratic capitalism … and that’s just one of Stocksy’s unique points of craziness.

“The inherent problem with the stock photography industry is that companies care about companies … and they care about keeping their margins high — 70 percent plus,” Livingstone told me recently. “I thought: Why don’t we try and do things completely backwards? Let’s invert that revenue pyramid so that photographers are on the top.”


Livingstone should know. He started iStockPhoto and sold it to Getty Images for $50 million.

iStockPhoto was born just after his first pay-for-university job went up in smoke. He was a clerk at Image Club Graphics, a clip-art vendor, and his role was to transfer credit card numbers from one company system to another in the dark ages of technology. Once software solved that problem, he was out of work.

black man leaningBut the CEO liked him and asked Livingstone to invent a new job and pitch the company on it. He came up with a system where clients could dial up on a BBS or the nascent Internet, buy a photo online, pay via credit card, and not have to talk to anyone at all.

“This is the future of your business,” Livingstone told the leadership of the company. “They all thought I was smoking crack.”

ImagePub’s failure of vision led to Livingstone actually smoking crack. He quit university, raised about $50,000 as a 20-something kid, and started both a web-hosting company and an advertising firm to pay the bills for what he actually wanted to do: build iStockphoto. It began life as a photo-swapping site, then evolved to sell credits that could be redeemed for photos for $0.25 each — thereby inventing the notion of the credit pack and implementing, essentially, a virtual currency for micro-transactions.

Necessity was, of course, the mother of invention, as $0.25 was far too little to charge to credit cards.

In 2006, after iStockphoto hit $12 in revenue, Getty offered $50 million for the site, and Livingstone, thinking “how much money does one person need,” accepted. He moved to L.A., took on a role as a senior VP with Getty, and stayed there for three years.

Then he tried to retire.

“A lot of photographers kept visiting us, and they kept saying the same thing: Competition is getting too fierce, there’s a whole ocean of images to compete with, Getty and other stock photography sites were changing their royalty structures … and they weren’t getting the same revenue anymore,” Livingstone says. “A lot of people gave up … it was really hard for me.”

white manLivingstone quit the job and moved back to his native Victoria, B.C.

It’s the place on Vancouver Island that all tourists to Western Canada visit for a taste of English life, complete with double-decker buses, red phone booths, quaint shops, and old-ish architecture … plus some whale-watching, fishing, and hiking.

But he didn’t quit the mission: help stock photographers.

Stock photography is a hard gig in the modern world. No longer is it prohibitively expensive to buy significantly good equipment. And, where once shooting a roll of film meant paying out $10-20 in development fees, now there’s no incentive to economize. With digital photography, everyone became a photographer. Or at least, so it seemed to the pros, who saw amateurs inundate the stock photography portals with cheap images.

So Livingstone decided to upend the model, and he started Stocksy — a new kind of stock photography company.

“Let’s share equity, let’s pay as much as possible, and let’s give the control to the community,” he told me. “I’m the CEO and president right now, but if there is an election and the majority of people decide I’m not fit for the job anymore, they can elect someone else. It’s a really true democratic system.”

The key to Stocksy is that the number of photographers is kept low.

black manNew members must be invited by existing members. And then, only photographers who pass an extensive screening process — including portfolio review and Google Hangout interviews — can join. Once they do join, they become shareholders in the company. In addition, Stocksy can never add more than 500 photographers in a year, by rule, differentiating it from competitors with 100,000 photographers.

The result is high quality uniformly across the site, and less competition. The first is good for customers, including Apple, and the second is good for photographers.

“We don’t try to flood our collection with thousands and thousands of photographs,” Livingstone told me. “We have only 60,000 images right now … but every single image is really special. There’s no filler, none of the types of stock photography that has become a parody.”

It seems to be working.

Photographers who join have started dropping exclusive deals with Corbis and Getty. Those who have “risked it all,” Livingstone says, are “making a living.” One, Sean Locke, is pulling in close to six figures annually. Stocksy is growing at 20-25 percent every single month, and January was the community’s strongest month ever, with 41 percent growth and $85,000 paid out in royalties.

As far as royalties are concerned, Livingstone said they are as high as possible.

“90 percent of profits are shared with photographers,” he says. “We’re not a nonprofit — we try to make as much money as possible to pay as much as we can to photographers, but the company itself keeps no cash.”

Time on site is almost 12 minutes, and cart conversion is over 50 percent, Livingstone told me — both of which are significantly higher than competitors.

“It is really photographer and shareholder controlled,” he says. “That may be daring and silly, but so far, it’s really working. We’ve been up for 10 months, and we’re in the black.”

“That’s also pretty unheard of for any startup.”


Ghost Stories – Do we know where our images end up online?

The photographs we take of ourselves, or have taken of us, are the visual record of our existence in the world. However, we are finding that occasionally they will go on to live lives without us, in darker, or more abstracted places than we ever imagined. Our images become involuntary nomads, displaced across the internet to places we don’t predict, permit, or have knowledge of.

I remember last year the proposed change to Instagram’s terms and services, where the images that you took would automatically become the company’s property, apparently allowing them to sell them on to third-parties for use in advertising. The public backlash was enormous, with many leaving the service to rival image-sharing websites, justifiably upset at this alleged abuse of their images. The main fear, aside from the breach of intellectual property rights, was that our faces, our friends, our memories, would be associated with something that we hadn’t consented to. They would be displaced from our own, mediated context, into another world with its own environment, all out of our control.

We don’t really know where our images are going when we take them, often we don’t think that far. We don’t see the extent to which our image can be abstracted until we find them in the wrong place. When we take photographs of ourselves, or allow for a photograph of ourselves to be taken, we don’t imagine it will be transferred into a place it doesn’t belong, seen by those we never imagined to see it. If we live online, and openly so, then this is where the others live — the replicated ghosts of ourselves, with new meanings, new territories, and new troubles.

An example of the stock image people, Bridle’s ‘Render Ghosts’, used in architectural presentations.

James Bridle recently wrote on the phenomena of ‘Render Ghosts’ for Electronic Voice Phenomena, the people that exist on the giant, glossy billboards encasing development sites. These stock image renderings are the pixellated humans used by architects to explain how the spaces will look when there are people in them. As James explains, Render Ghosts ‘live inside our imaginations, in the liminal space between the present and the future, the real and the virtual, the physical and the digital.’ They are living the lives that are predicted for us by the plans of the buildings we construct, permanently maintaining pixellated grins.

As Bridle says, we do not know who these people are, where and when they surrendered their image, or why. Did they know they would become part of an idealised city? We can only guess that they were once part of a stock image or brochure, eventually taken out of context for this purpose and transplanted across the world into buildings, plazas, parks. In the summer of 2013, James went hunting for these ghosts, to find out what it feels like to be part of a network, ‘endlessly reproduced, endlessly pixelated.’ He found nothing except an empty house, and ended up in the desert of Albuquerque. Only the images remain, out of context, and out of mind.

SLR — Elliot (Liam Cunningham) talks to Verma (Richard Dormer), photo by Aidan Monaghan

We may never be sure where the photographs we upload end up, but we certainly don’t anticipate images we didn’t know existed in the first place. In our work at Lighthouse, we have acted as executive producer for the latest round of BFI shorts, a scheme supporting the production of new work by emerging talent. One of these shorts has become particularly relevant to our work exploring the world post-PRISM, looking at the hidden networks that exist just below the surface. In Stephen Fingleton’s short film SLR (to be released online in January 2014), we encounter the world of voyeur pornography, an online community orchestrated by those who take explicit photographs of women when they least expect it. The protagonist is seen to harvest hundreds of images from a forum, lurking on the periphery, until he is forced to confront the network head on when a particular set of images are uploaded. I won’t spoil it for you, but the fast acceleration between passively, and actively participating in a network of exploitation is chilling, and timely.

Similar to the images obtained through RAT (Remote Access Tools) networks, the digital ghosts present in SLR are completely ignorant of any image existing until it is exposed, as evident in the case of Miss Teen USA. This is where the hidden network they belong to becomes visible. These women aren’t looking for images of themselves, and most image search algorithms aren’t sophisticated enough to identify a person from various angles without a pre-existing, similar image to work from. When we don’t think we’re being watched, we turn to a different public performativity, one we aren’t used to identifying in the images we self-curate and place online. Here we are vulnerable, particularly as women, without the tools or means to protect ourselves.

Earlier this year, we learned of one of the unseen, or at least most unprepared, problems of sharing images of ourselves online. Student Retaeh Parsons, after months of bullying on and offline, after being the victim of rape, eventually took her own life. Her image was circulated across media channels, blogs, and social media sites, where it was eventually collected into the data banks of an image scraping algorithm. Her photos appeared months later in a Canadian dating advert on Facebook. Her family and those that recognised her, were horrified, and rightly so. When things like this happen, we imagine there is something, or someone, to prevent this behaviour, we don’t anticipate that this decision was governed by an algorithm operating blindly, instructed to gather images of women from a certain, specific demographic.

Tweet from Andrew Ennals, drawing attention to Retaeh’s appearance on the dating advert.

We’re already feeling the impact of the thousands of ‘ghost’ profiles that exist online, unable to be taken down by anyone other than the user. Every year I am reminded of a friend’s death by Facebook’s cheery, unknowing, suggestion to wish them a Happy Birthday. Many of our friends still do. We collectively experience the ghost in the machine language; indirectly encountering and interacting with the social network activity of the dead. ‘X also likes this’, when in fact the statement belongs firmly in the past tense.

Interestingly, Andrew Ennals, the man that discovered the ads, blamed a flaw in the algorithm for Retaeh’s appearance in the Canadian dating ads, rather than the exploitative motivations behind its use. As you may, or may not know, Facebook actively use profile pictures ‘”in connection with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us.”’ The company responsible for the ad featuring Retaeh, ionechat.com, are yet to comment, and seem to have ceased to exist.

Algorithms do not know the context of a photograph, they don’t understand, or pre-empt the consequences of their own function. They do not have our faulty methodology, the algorithm is blameless; it is us as creators who are essentially at fault. As Andrew Sliwinski said, ‘Algorithms are not created without a point of view. They carry the perspectives and motivations of their authors.’ This isn’t to say that the creators of this algorithm planned for, or knew that one day their code would throw up the image of a dead girl, however it’s probably fair to say that they didn’t predict this, or look that far ahead.

We also can’t tell where the code originated, or how innocently it was created. At best, we can guess that the code for pulling the profile pictures of women and repurposing them was once the solution for a unknown, local problem by a developer. The fact that it has gained a darker, exploitative purpose was unpredicted, but inevitable. The algorithm is quickly becoming an appropriated technology, reaching a point where solutionist thinking in programming is failing. This is not an excuse to stop creating new things, however, we are now more sure than ever that our bodies leave ghosts.

Written by

Storyteller & Technologist at Lighthouse, Brighton.

Updated December 18, 2013
Thanks to: Frank Swain


Facebook, stay connected.

By just a ‘simple’ step.


facebook (Photo credit: sitmonkeysupreme)


My 14 year old sister and I were talking about Facebook when I was changing my dads profile picture on the site with awkward photos from his photo library (yes I know his password). When my sister started using Facebook when she was 12 years old, she simply thought it was fun. She had no idea how brilliant it was to be able to sign in and be connected with people from all over the world, in just a matter of a split second. While talking on why she created it, and more importantly, why she quit using it, she told me that the site became boring really quickly and there wasn’t any relevant information.


read more -> https://medium.com/i-m-h-o/bf2c5634daf0