Photos you can use

One of the first topics that JPROF.com tackled (which is coming up on its second birthday in less than a week) was that of how a news web site that didn’t have access to syndicated photos could stay visually current. There are a few sites that provide free photos, such as DefenseLink, that we pointed to at the time that could help in this regard.

Today, two years later, the situation is much different. Photo editors can use this simple formula to help illustrate their site with news photos:

Flickr + Creative Commons = Photos you can use

Flickr is the photo web site owned by Yahoo.com. Anyone can get space on Flickr, and uploading photos — lots and lots of photos — is relatively easy. Many people have taken advantage of Flickr to store their photos and share them with friends.

And a lot of those people have placed their photos under a Creative Commons agreement. Creative Commons is the idea that the creator or originator of a copyrightable work can automatically license that work for non-commercial use.

How can you find these photos on Flickr that have been licensed under a Creative Commons agreement? That is the easy part. You simply go to the advanced search function of Flickr and along with your search terms, click on the box next to Creative Commons. Some topics may not yield much, but if you are creative and expansive, chances are you will find something that you can use.

For instance, on the day that I am writing this (Christmas Day, 2006), the big news story is that James Brown, one of the greats of rock ‘n roll music, has died. As an individual running a news web site — or as a student running a news web site — I probably would not have any pictures of James Brown that I could use if I wanted to post something about him.

When I searched through Flickr for “James Brown” and used the Creative Commons filter, I came up with more than 1,000 that people had decided to share. Not all of those photos were good, or even usable. But my search turned up an excellent set of photos by someone who identifies himself as ShanghaiStreets, who took photos of a concert that Brown gave in Shanghai in February. The content of these photos was excellent, and the photographer has posted technically high quality images, so getting the photo itself and working with it was easy enough.

It’s not a bad idea to get in touch with the photographer to let him or her know that you are using the photograph and to ask how that person wants to be credited (something I did in this case).

Mark Glaser, once a regular contributor to the Online Journalism Review and who now runs the web log MediaShift, has an excellent article about using Flickr for this purpose. Anyone who wants to use this method and understand the ideas behind it should take a close look at this article.

I plan to require this article for my JEM 422 (Managing News Web Sites) class in the spring, and we will be spending some time on the proper way to extract and use photographs obtained by this method. If you think photos are important to the presentation of news and information (and you’re right — they are), this is an excellent resource that, if used carefully, can add immeasurably to your site.

Remember the word “carefully.”

Not everything that everyone puts on Flickr is on the up and up. Photos can be stolen or faked, and a photo editor who is not cautious can be easily fooled. Here are some precautionary steps:

  • Get in touch with the photographer. If there is any doubt,ask about the photograph, where and when it was taken and under what circumstances. People who post photos on Flickr often do not include a lot of information.
  • Look at other work the photographer has put on Flickr.
  • Sometimes photos will contain restricted material. In that case, don’t use them. In looking for the James Brown photo, I found that someone had posted a photograph of James Brown on a television set. That one — besides the fact that it was a bad image — was off limits.
  • And when in doubt, don’t use it. Better to forego the photo than to get into trouble or violate someone else’s right to control their work.

Check out Amy Gahran’s post on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits about protecting yourself when using photos from Flickr. This will also be required reading for my students.

(Posted December 25, 2006)

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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