I take a trip to White Castle once a year, against my better judgment usually. This time, I tried (and Instagrammed) their new “Impossible Slider” which is a burger that isn’t made from animals, but tastes and looks like it came from something that mooed.
White Castle noticed the post pretty quick, giving me an emoji high-five. But then it came: they asked for free photography.
In the cheery, corporate way that companies ask, someone from White Castle wrote: "Hey there! We love this picture so much. We would like to repost it to our social pages for advertising purposes, but need you permission to do so. Just reply to us with a simple “yes” or even a “👍” to give us your approval! Thanks a bun! (Plz excuse the puns)"
Some misspellings were thrown in there to make it look genuine, even. But clearly, they don’t love the photo enough to pay for it. I replied with (and messaged): “@whitecastle I am a photographer, and so much like selling these tasty burgers are your livelihood, photography is mine - I’m happy to discuss purchasing the photo at a reasonable rate for advertising, would you let me know if you are interested in that! Thank you!”
The response was less than cheery: “Hey there! Unfortunately we are no longer interested. Thank you!”
The company didn't even bother to ask me about a price. They know that if I say no, the next Instagrammer will say yes. Just take a look at their Instagram feed, where plenty of people who don’t make their livelihood off of photography have obliged.
Confusing Usage Rights
I'm singling out White Castle as it's the most recent example of this happening to me, but this scenario is far from uncommon on social media. In the last few years, I've had Mazda, Newsday, Krispy Kreme, Canon, and Syracuse University all approach me for photos, and they're not always clear about how they will be used.
Sometimes I've said yes, and sometimes I said no. If it was a cute photograph of my son, or a photograph that showed pride in my alma mater, I agreed to the request. But if the requester treated me poorly, as did White Castle and Newsday, I said that they couldn't use my photo without paying me. At that point, the interest in the photos disappeared.
At times, the companies really overreach - Newsday wanted to use my photo on their social media and print editions of the newspaper. I've been paid for photos that have appeared in their newspaper in the past. I've been paid for words I've written for them. Why should I be treated any differently if the photo came from social media? Oh, right, because they got plenty of other folks to give them free photos with their #dayinthelifeli hashtag.
With Mazda, what seemed to be an agreement to only feature my photo on the official Mazda USA social pages spiraled out of control as many regional and international Mazda dealers started using my photo. They all apologized and took the photos down whenever I asked, though.
I was OK with Syracuse using my photo for social media, but I should have been more careful when their request added the "various media" bit - my son ended up on the school's alumni calendar and I didn't know until I got one!
The biggest problem demonstrated here is that there is no uniform way companies are requesting and using photos on social media. They all make the request that appears as if it's only to repost on social media, but in reality, some companies are looking to get a lot more mileage out of these photos, and in my case, my inattention to detail led to it happening unexpectedly.
In all of these cases, I'm always taken aback at how brusque the conversation quickly turns when I suggest any form of compensation. While I allowed Krispy Kreme to use my photo on their social media, I did ask for a small token, even a coupon for free doughnuts which could easily be emailed. The answer was no.
Many of the people taking these photos aren't photographers, and so perhaps it doesn't make sense to compensate people monetarily. But wouldn't it be a nice gesture if Canon offered a voucher for 20 percent off a purchase at their online store for every photo they used on their Instagram page? How about a digital coupon from White Castle for a free Impossible Slider? It's only $2, and it would at least make me feel like I didn't pay to be featured on their Instagram page. I didn't get my Impossible Slider for free, so it's only breaking even.
It's not even about the money here. It's about giving a small bit back to your customers who are loyal enough to create a social media post to promote your brand, rather than pushing them away with a negative response. It's still not a freelance photography rate or anything, but anything is always better than nothing.
I let White Castle know that I was going to write about this response. I'm still hoping they, or their Impossible Burger partner, will perhaps make it right, but that's probably wishful thinking.
What's abundantly clear though from the whole experience, is that the system of compensation on social media is broken. Many, many companies mine social media for their promotional materials, and every photo they get free further breaks the system for photographers trying to make an honest living.
Share Your Strategies
Do you have your own strategies when dealing with requests for photos from your social media? Share them in the comments below!