Flickr and You, Part 1: Rebekka's Experience

EDITOR'S NOTE: We are taking a little field trip from flash for a few days to talk about something that will be of interest to many who read this site. What follows is the first of a four-part series on the blurring lines between professional and amateur photographers, and how your presence on Flickr automatically puts you in the game.



When They Come for You, Will You Be Ready?

A couple of years ago, photographer Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir, a first-year visual arts student, began posting her stark, evocative photographs on Flickr. Soon they were gaining a large following among the site's other users.

Unbeknownst to her, one of her fans worked in the marketing department for Toyota's headquarters in her native Iceland. He contacted Rebekka, 28, to ask if she might be interested in shooting an ad campaign for the company's hybrid model, the Prius. He did not yet have the go-ahead from his higher-ups. That, hopefully, would come later.

He wanted her to shoot in her usual style, but to include the Prius in the photos. Many of her images combined elements from more than one photo. The concept seemed like a good fit for the hybrid car, which uses both gas and electric power.

'It was incredibly intimidating," she said, of the thought of creating photos to help sell the hottest car being offered by the world's most successful car manufacturer.

"The photos were only going to be used in Iceland," said Rebekka, who is prone to attacks of modesty. The images were to be used large, and without branding, in the city as posters for bus stops.

She went into creative overdrive and set out to produce the same types of photographs for Toyota that had made her such a sensation on Flickr. Soon, she had her first set of photographs ready to be reviewed by the marketing department for Toyota of Iceland.

"They just flipped through them, with a deadpan expression," she said of the gut-wrenching experience. She remembers sitting beside them in silence. Then they turned to her.

"They looked at me and said, 'They're horrible,'" she recalls.

(Pause button: Put yourself in her shoes: Amateur. Student. Single mother of two. Internet sensation. How would you have felt at that moment?)

Then they smiled and said, "Just kidding!"

On a personal note, I would have probably been tempted to do the same thing. But dang, that's cold.

They went on to tell her what they thought worked - and to try to develop those themes. She went back out several more times before the campaign was completed. Soon her photos were seemingly everywhere, setting the scene for the trendy, gas-sipping car.

While Rebekka's experience is certainly the most famous Cinderella Story of the Flickr world to date, it is by no means unique. The explosion of digital photography - and legions of talented new photographers - is combining with the leveled playing field of ubiquitous access to photographs via sites like Flickr. Professional photo buyers are combing through thousands of photos in search of new photographers like you.

Why? Several reasons.

First, you are new blood. Fresh meat, as it were. And that is always a draw in the creative world.

Second, the economic model of searching out a talented amateur is wonderfully beneficial to the buyer. With luck, the photographer might accept very little money - or none at all - for photography that has significant value.

How do you present yourself in such as way as to maximize your chances of being discovered? What do you do if you get discovered?

These are some of the issues that will be addressed in this series.

The Flickr movement has exploded onto the photo scene, and is certainly influencing photography, and the people who hire photographers. Some of the readers of this site - both professional and amateur - are producing stunning photographs, and will be right in the crosshairs as the Flickr economic model continues to develop.

Flickr offers you the ability to craft your professional image as you learn to better craft your photographic images. Careers will be launched. But opportunities certainly will be lost, too.

A Life-Changing Experience

With page views counting in the millions, Rebekka's opportunities now far outstrip those of the average visual arts student. Assignments, print sales, commissions, workshops - many choices await her as she works to bring her education level up to her present level of success.

She is slightly uncomfortable with her new-found fame.

"What is fame?" She asked by phone from her home in Iceland as her two sock-clad boys ran around outside, past their bedtime. "Who is famous? What does that mean?"

She is aware that she is a little off-beat, which she wears as a badge of honor. She thinks it is important to establish herself early as a "little bit of an eccentric," which she thinks plays an important role in the artistic process.

She considers herself somewhat of a loner, and prefers to go out shooting by herself. She said that a friend teases her by threatening to follow her around with a video camera as she shoots.

Her success isn't going to her head. It hasn't left her swimming in new gear, either. She feels it is important to grow her creative and photographic tools slowly, to better understand each technique she adds to her repertoire. She believes this approach is far more valuable than getting a full bag of photo gear at once and just diving in.

But hers is not the path of the typical Flickr amateur, either.

Imagine what it must feel like, as a student, to see your photographs displayed as part of a national ad campaign. How would that change the way you create photographs? What would your future hold? How would you plan to capitalize on your early success?

Right now, every day, people with the power to pluck you out of obscurity are cruising Flickr. They are looking at photographs and at photographers.

And beyond that, Flickr will not always be the happy-go-lucky, no-money-involved place that it is today. There is too much at stake. The archive - your archive - has grown far too valuable for them to to ignore the commercial potential. Especially given that it is owned by a public company. Rumors about Flickr's future are already rumbling through the industry.

What can you do to improve your chances of being noticed? If you are noticed, what can you do to decrease the chances that they will take advantage of you? And how can you start now to build a portfolio and a reputation that could lead to your success?

Next: Part 2 - The World's Window on You

Related links:

Rebekka's Flickr Stream
Rebekka's website
Multiplicity Series (Includes several Prius campaign photos.)


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Blogger Patrick Smith said...

Wow, excellent article.

Makes you think... a lot. As a student, leaves me with a lot to chew, digest, and spit back up (if need be).

Dammit, this article is making my brain hurt… in a good way.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

Back to studying.

April 19, 2007 11:31 PM  
Anonymous John Dohrn said...

As a student, this says that there's hope for the future. Lately my outlook has been a tad bleak, my lack of jobs (can somebody explain to me how i'm supposed to have a portfolio for the kind of work they want if i'm doing it to build my portfolio!?)is starting to get to me. Oh well, I'm glad to hear she got noticed

April 19, 2007 11:48 PM  
Blogger David said...

John, I am absolutely sure that you will find part four of this series to be extremely relevant to your situation.

April 19, 2007 11:52 PM  
Anonymous Christian James said...

Great article! Breaking from flash-related articles is fine w me if their all going to be this good :-)

April 20, 2007 12:57 AM  
Blogger SentrosiProductions said...

i find its much easier to find work as a designer doing things like posters/flyers for events or even menus etc. Approach local clubs, small restaurants and cafes and offer to help them design something or offer your photos as ad material. You get paid (a little) and you get a portfolio in the process.

April 20, 2007 1:25 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

I think Flickr is an amazing service, and Rebekka is one of my favorite photographers. I can only hope Flickr doesn't change on an attempt to capitalize even more on its growing popularity.

April 20, 2007 1:39 AM  
Blogger Ei Katsumata said...

The internet and Web 2.0 is leveling the playing field for creatives. But this phenomenon has also allowed large corporations to exploit talented amateurs. Enter Crowdsourcing. Many amateurs would love the opportunity to have their work published, but it's also important that amateurs charge an appropriate price for their work. Photographers spend time and money on their craft, and it only makes sense that they are compensated fairly to recoupe those costs.

Competition in this industry is increasing, so the lowering of prices is inevitable. Let those with lesser work lower their prices. If you value your work and believe it is good, there is absolutely no reason to feel the need to low-ball the competition. Good work is still valued by those who require it.

Some relevant reading here:

April 20, 2007 1:40 AM  
Anonymous Christopher the Photographer said...

Exceptional topic and you are such an engaging writer. I anxoiusly look forward to the rest of the series.

April 20, 2007 2:54 AM  
Blogger Roy said...

What a terrific story and a timely series. Great that Rebecca has not let it go to her head. After all its about the network - the network that a site like flickr is - and what you put into it, and how one cultivates, repsects, acknowledges and enjoys its varied benefits.

As a corporate type who chucked it all up to become a photographer I was introduced to strobist in December 2006 and have kept coming back for more to learn how to play with light. Am glad you are doing something off your beaten path in terms of the series - to help hundreds out there understand the power of the network.

As a corporate type who quit to become a storyteller through photos, I look forward to the series.

April 20, 2007 3:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent Subtitle = "When They Come for You, Will You Be Ready?"
I like it because i use Flickr to post photos from my hobby (Photography of course!) and always wondered (and dreamed) if i could ever make some money from it... one day a person e-mailed me on the flickr system asking if i could shoot some real estate for her? Turns out, she was a real estate agent that saw my photos and liked it very much. I was thrilled. Was i ready? No...but now i am! Be prepared! Use flickr as a launching pad for you! Have your rates ready! Do write something on your profile in readers like to connect with the face behind the photo. Put your best work in one set and name it your portfolio! :-)

April 20, 2007 5:24 AM  
Blogger adi said...

i have had one guy from the UK, one from Japan, a teacher from D.C, and an independent production firm asking me to use my photos.

the only ones that paid were the independent production firm. i was too early in my photographic journey to consider asking payment from the first two, and i didn't think of charging the teacher because of a familial link to education.

flickr has already paid for itself (in my case)many times over.

there have been occasional mumblings across the tubes that flickr is gonna introduce a stock photography type thing, except totally Web 2.0

April 20, 2007 5:27 AM  
Blogger nydiastonecat said...

Certainly makes one think... thank you for the article! I look forward to the rest of the series!

April 20, 2007 7:52 AM  
Blogger Carlton said...

All the more reason to read John Harrington's blog about the business of photography. What will YOU charge when THEY come for you?

April 20, 2007 7:54 AM  
Blogger Jesse said...

What a coincidence -- last night I was at a design store in Brooklyn, for the opening night of a friend's photography show there. His name's Mo Riza:

There were a dozen of his photos hung on the walls of the store, expertly printed at about 4 x 3 feet, and dozens of people drinking free beer and complimenting him.

I asked Mo how the show had happened. He said the design store and TimeOut magazine had simply found him on Flickr -- by the time they contacted him they'd already faved the set of photos they wanted to print. Mo didn't get any money, I think, but he gets a) the prints, which are worth a lot, and b) a gallery show!! How cool is that?

So this "Hand of God" phenomenon might not be uncommon -- someone with money and prestige to spend on you appears from nowhere and showers you with gifts. =) I'm curious to hear DH's advice for how to make it more likely.

April 20, 2007 7:58 AM  
Blogger Eli said...

Could you please edit the article to make the following change:

Replace 'Guoleifsdottir' with 'Rebekka' in the text when it is used alone. It's not proper to refer to Icelandic people by their patronym/matronym.

April 20, 2007 9:11 AM  
Blogger Haskins said...

...I cant wait until they find me!

April 20, 2007 9:28 AM  
Blogger David said...


Thanks for the heads-up. In most parts of the west, including the US, surnames are used throughout editorial text after a full name is used on first reference.

Rather than change the article right now, I will ask Rebekka to FLickrmail me after she reads this if she would like the references changed to her first name. Which I will gladly do if she wishes.

Thanks again,

April 20, 2007 10:15 AM  
Blogger Adam Buteux said...

Prompted me to update my flickr account.

April 20, 2007 10:18 AM  
Anonymous aj said...

the surname should be "Guðleifsdóttir"
or at least "Gudleifsdottir"
as Eli stated above, just call her Rebekka.

April 20, 2007 10:36 AM  
Blogger Arch said...

Great article, again. I'm looking forward to the other parts in the series.

April 20, 2007 10:39 AM  
Blogger David said...


The last name, I can fix right away. Thanks. But I will need to get Rebekka's choice on the first-name thing.


April 20, 2007 11:08 AM  
Anonymous spriteyr said...

Thanks for sharing. Her photographs are astounding! Also try looking at if you have time
check out:

His name is Antimethod on flickr--his textured photographs are astounding!!

btw, being placed as one of strobist fave made my day!! (I know such a dork) :P

April 20, 2007 11:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also worth plugging: -- which IMHO is doing more than Flickr in blurring the lines. JPG is an outstanding quality print magazine produced using user submitted articles and photos, voted on by users, and also does gallery shows and the like.

April 20, 2007 11:49 AM  
Anonymous hughalison said...

It's time to rethink the whole website idea.

The strobist blog must be one of the most successful photography websites of the last year because it was the right thing at the right time, and so was adding the Flickr strobist group.

Life is a bit like surfing - if you miss the big wave the next big one doesn't always arrive when you want it to.

I had fine art black and white prints on a website for a year without a single sale. They were fairly good too. I've killed it off instead of renewing the webhosting. I'm using Flickr and Istockphoto instead.

I think of Istockphoto as another free web portfolio, and it has the added benefit that the returns so far have far exceeded the 1 dollar per photo per year quoted for traditional stock agencies. I realise that this may possibly be a controversial view!

I am also thinking about adding Myspace!

What matters is putting your work where people who will use it are looking.

April 20, 2007 11:57 AM  
Anonymous colby said...

David, Thanks for taking the time to write a blog everyday. This site has taught me a lot about photography and I appreciate it. I am an amateur photographer with an interest in becoming better someday. I have noticed a lot of photographers don't like the idea of micro stock and think it is ruining the industry. Selling images for change. If you think about it flikr is a microstock site! You just are not making money when your photos get published....yet. I think in the not so distant future flikr will offer photographers the option to sell photos royalty free. A good example of what I am talking about it the use of Rebekka's photo in this blog. If she had her photo's on a micro stock website you would have to pay to use the photo. I'm sure she doesn't mind the use of her photo on blogs but it would be nice if every time one did get used she made a buck. Yeah there are a lot more photographers today due to technology ...also a lot more photos being used too.

April 20, 2007 12:11 PM  
Anonymous Mike Perrault, Eugene Oregon said...

As a student at the U. of Oregon J-school, that was a really good article for me to read. Much like John said earlier it is a difficult thing to build a portfolio, without having a portfolio. Your article has given me a little kick in the butt and got me started on some photostory ideas.
You are a great writer, the Sun is lucky to have such a talented shooter/writer working for them. Thanks for putting Strobist together, it has been an essential part of my "book learnin".

April 20, 2007 1:35 PM  
Blogger Joe Brown said...

OK, as a fulltime professional photographer, I am really having trouble with this.

Are you truly endorsing this concept:
"Second, the economic model of searching out a talented amateur is wonderfully beneficial to the buyer. With luck, the photographer might accept very little money - or none at all - for photography that has significant value."

And, are you also telling me, that this woman went out on her own time, made photographs, and then went out and made more photographs without any contract or agreement with as you stated "the world's most successful car manufacturer."????

So just where does that leave those of us who have 3 kids and a monthly mortgage to pay?

Am I supposed to hope that Toyota says, well she was a just a begginer, so we didn't pay her anything significant, but if we hire you we will negotiate a contract that will compensate you fairly.

It is my hope that parts 2, 3 and 4 of this will tell us how she was paid a fair rate for the photos, and she signed a contract for licensing, and that it defined a complete and fair set of terms that put at least some gold in her pockets.

Because with out that, I don't care how many people are discovered through Flicker or any other blog/website/public archive etc., not getting paid for your work is bad for the industry as a whole.

joe b

April 20, 2007 7:06 PM  
Blogger David said...


It is a compelling model for the assignmer/photo buyer. Troll for photos and see if you can get something great for next to nothing. If not, some wasted time is all you are out.

And FWIW, I would never be so forward as to ask Rebekka what she was paid. And I doubt she would tell anyone who did. That is between her and Toyota.


April 20, 2007 7:25 PM  
Blogger Joe Brown said...

David -

I certainly agree with NOT asking her HOW MUCH she got paid, but I would think it reasonable to ask her IF she got paid, and if that answer is no (and I certainly hope it is NOT no), that maybe you encourage her to seek compensation for the next time.


April 20, 2007 9:57 PM  
Anonymous Italy photographer said...

Excellent article. Rebecca is one in 100 millions.
Her photos are powerful, she has a lot of talent.
For professional photographers is getting harder and harder, you have to stay tuned and learn, tech and style.

April 20, 2007 11:32 PM  
Blogger bmillios said...

These comments about getting paid remind me of a story I read about Frank Klaus, a famous woodworker/craftsman. He was talking about the difference between Americans and Europeans.

"In Europe, they'll tell you how much they got paid for something, but not how they did it. In America, they'll tell you how they did it, but not how much they got paid for it."

I have to admit, the European viewpoint seemed to make more sense.

I am looking forward to the rest of this series.

April 21, 2007 12:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a compelling model for the assignmer/photo buyer. Troll for photos and see if you can get something great for next to nothing. If not, some wasted time is all you are out.

A compelling model indeed, but I personally feel it's kind of sad when companies who historically had huge art budgets troll for free or micropayment photos.

OTOH, it's a great way to find unique artists and images that otherwise would have been off the radar, Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir being a great example of this.

Looking forward to Part 2.

April 21, 2007 3:46 AM  
Anonymous Rebekka said...

ill just settle this quickly and painlessly . Of COURSE i got paid! :)
David's right that im not going to disclose in detail how much i made from the deal, but it was more than adequate.

i mean, why on earth would i, a single mom of two kids, and full time art student, take on a commissioned project from a large company for free??

that would strike me as more than a little counterproductive, downright stupid even. Beginner or not, i would never give my hard work away. and it was HARD work. I was working on the project every day for over a month, doing what normally is done by a team of several people..not to mention the psychological side, the pressure of knowing that everyone would see these pictures and be able to judge them, and me because of them, the fear that the toyota guys would actually hate them.. because it was such a nonconventional approach, and i was paranoid that they'd end up changing their mind and trashing the whole idea when they saw my photos.. i was completely exhausted when it was over, tho it was of course a very rewarding experience as well as being intimidating.

April 21, 2007 4:56 AM  
Blogger Medina Photography said...

David- great message. I took it to heart and realized my own shortcommings. Thanks for bringing them to light.

April 21, 2007 6:20 AM  
Blogger efrudd said...

John Dohrn said...
(can somebody explain to me how i'm supposed to have a portfolio for the kind of work they want if i'm doing it to build my portfolio!?)

I think the key here is that she was doing her own thing before she was discovered.

Trying to adjust your creative craft to suit what people are looking for is a sure path to "same-ness."

Or is that the point your making?


April 21, 2007 9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if John Harrington reads strobist :)

April 21, 2007 11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i mean, why on earth would i, a single mom of two kids, and full time art student, take on a commissioned project from a large company for free??

Many others in a similar situation might do just that. Aside from money, there is the value of experience, exposure, and portfolio material that one gains from doing such a project. Unfortunately, these externalities don't pay the bills.

Great work, by the way!

April 21, 2007 4:30 PM  
Anonymous Embrownny said...

Great article and very inspiring.

April 21, 2007 11:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

good article

Despite i like the story, i wouldn't want Flickr becoming the new Getty, sort off. I think Flickr is interesting because its not specialized and melting amateurs shooting with pro, art and commercial etc.

Advertising can polute everything… like money…

April 22, 2007 1:41 PM  
Blogger mike said...

You say that "Her success isn't going to her head. It hasn't left her swimming in new gear, either."

Given that she shoots with a 5D, I'm not sure what in terms of new gear she would need, besides better glass perhaps (and more speedlights --there's never enough).

April 22, 2007 4:24 PM  
Blogger Martha said...

David --
I'm sure you knew she's spent a lot of her life in Gainesville, FL.

You Gator fan.... ;)

April 23, 2007 11:49 AM  
Anonymous tpuerzer said...


Thanks for this excellent article.

Your talent as a writer is second only to your talent as a photographer.

It's interesting that these "two threads" have come together in my experience, since I have been following both you and Rebekka for some time now on Flickr.

Perhaps even more impressive than the Totoya project is the fact that Rebekka has even been the subject of a "spoof" - a sure sign that you are famous - or at leas a former president. Check out the _rebekka_w_cats posts on Flickr to see what I mean... Her work is so good that it even survives the application of cats!

Another Flickr photographer that has become quite well known as a result of her self-portrait and multi-image work is Miss Aniela. And, I see that her work has just been exhibited at a gallery... if she is one of your future article topics that would be even stranger...

What an interesting world in which we live!

April 23, 2007 12:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like there has been some type of miscommunication between Rebekka and Totota as others have mentioned seeing her Prius images in countries other than Iceland, which from her comment was not part of the deal.

April 26, 2007 9:23 PM  
Anonymous joe holmes said...

I can testify to the power of Flickr. The recent Nikon D80 campaign was put together with photographers chosen from their Flickr photos.

I was one of the original four photographers used in the campaign, which debuted last October. One day in August I got a call from Nikon's ad agency, McCann Erikson, and the next (or so it seemed) my photo was 1/4 page in People, Newsweek, Pop Photo, National Geographic, etc. You can see the latest version of the campaign (with new photographers) on the back cover of the latest American Photographer.

The McCann folks told me they picked the candidates for the campaign by browsing (thousands of) photos on Flickr.

And yes, we were all paid in addition to keeping those early-off-the-assemblyline D80s.

(Yikes, my third time trying to post this -- I hate these Spam screening systems...)

April 29, 2007 8:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another part of the Flickr story?

May 14, 2007 8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guess that it didn't work out in the end - after getting her images ripped off and flickr being less than helpful (to start with) she left flickr...

May 24, 2007 11:04 AM  
Blogger DaveMcGrath said...

Just another update on the story, the downside of flickr ?


May 30, 2007 7:12 AM  

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