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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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