This article also appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Don’t miss the comments — a full-scale debate has broken out over the role of free in what has traditionally been a paid craft.
If you’ve spent much time scouring the Internet for news about the Republican presidential campaign, you’ve probably run across the work of Gage Skidmore.
Skidmore’s high-quality photographs of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and their compadres have appeared on hundreds if not thousands of sites, including those of The Atlantic, “The World,” Tech President, and MSNBC.
It’s not just the quality of his work that has made Skidmore so popular. It’s that he posts all of his photos to Flickr under a Creative Commons license, making them available free of charge as long as he’s credited. The license he chose even allows for commercial use, although he has sometimes been paid for the use of his photos. I discovered him when searching for free photos for Media Nation, and have used his pictures on a number of occasions.
As it turns out, Skidmore is a 19-year-old student at Glendale Community College in Phoenix and a freelance graphic designer. A Ron Paul supporter, he began photographing politicians when he was living in Terre Haute, Ind., attending events held by Rand Paul during his successful 2010 Senate run in Kentucky. Skidmore also showed up at stops on the presidential campaign trail in order to see Ron Paul and took photos of other prominent Republicans while he was there.
Click here to visit Gage Skidmore’s Flickr page
Skidmore doesn’t know how many times his photos have been used. Some version of a Gage Skidmore photo credit appears more than 1 million times online, and looking up his name on Google Blogsearch yields about 40,000 results. That makes him the political equivalent of David Shankbone, the nom de photo of a Wall Street lawyer whose free celebrity photos have appeared in venues such as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Skidmore told me his Flickr account has been viewed nearly 1.2 million times.
(He also photographs comic-book conventions, and has attended Comic-Con the past six years.)
Skidmore is a paradigmatic example of the pro-am media ecosystem fostered by the Internet — a professional-level photographer without the means or the interest to become part of the traditional journalistic system, but who is nevertheless making a name for himself through the quality and quantity of his work.
I interviewed him by email last week, and have lightly edited our conversation.
Q: How did you get started shooting politicians?
A: I first began photographing then-Senate candidate Rand Paul in Kentucky when I still lived in Indiana. I followed him to various events throughout the state over the course of a year and attended close to 40 events. I had become interested in his campaign very early on due to my support for his father in his presidential campaign in 2008.
I have only photographed a majority of the presidential candidates because Ron Paul was attending the conference that I was attending, whether it be CPAC [the Conservative Political Action Conference] or the Values Voters Summit. And it really helped to have photographed them before the presidential race began. For example, at CPAC in February 2011, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and the like were still mostly unknown, and thus there was a lack of very many free-to-use photos.
Q: Your work has been a real boon to bloggers. Why did you decide to take the Creative Commons route rather than focus on selling your work?
A: My interest has always been to see my photos used as widely as possible. If someone wants to pay me to use my work, that is really only a bonus. But I find that attribution is sometimes more rewarding in getting your name out there among the crowd, which will continue to use your photos.
Q: Have you given any thought to the effect of unpaid photographers like you on the market for professional photojournalists? Is it all right with you if you may be hastening their demise, or do you think society may be losing something?
A: I don’t really think I’ve had an effect on professional photojournalists, as I still see their photos widely used by many of the mainstream publishers. A lot of the sites that do use my photos would probably find another source of free photos regardless, so it might as well be me.
Q: Do you charge for some of your work?
A: I usually only charge for my work if it is going to used in a for-profit publication. I’ve been paid in the past by publications like Reason magazine, which have found use for some of my libertarian-related photography. I also got paid for a photo that appears in Senator Rand Paul’s book, “The Tea Party Goes to Washington.”
Q: A lot of bloggers, including me, are probably at odds with you politically. Does it bother you that people may be using your work for free in order to criticize political figures you admire?
A: I don’t agree politically with hardly anyone that I photograph. My only allegiance is to Congressman Ron Paul and a few other liberty-minded politicians, whom I admire greatly. I don’t mind that my photos are used by some not-so-nice publications. The only thing I really care about is whether or not I was attributed.
Q: What are your photography plans for the remainder of the 2012 presidential campaign? Have you started thinking about 2016?
A: The only plans I have currently is a trip to attend the 2012 Liberty Political Action Conference, organized by the Campaign for Liberty. If Mitt Romney or Barack Obama visit Arizona, I’ll probably make an attempt to photograph them as well.
My focus has never really been to cover the presidential race, but really only what I would enjoy seeing photos of, and enjoy attending events to take the photos, and what was convenient for me to attend.