An open letter To Kevin Systrom co-founder of Instagram

Since there isn’t a good way to email Instagram I posted this message to their facebook page. It stayed there about 30 seconds…

To Kevin Systrom

co-founder of Instagram

Dear Kevin,

I am a long time National Geographic Photographer and let me start by saying how much I like Instagram. I like the service, I like the community, I like the feedback from followers. I like watching my photojournalist colleagues work in the field in real time.

Instagram or a similar service will redefine publishing and journalism.

Like most of my colleagues from @Natgeo I have suspended publishing on Instagram in protest of your proposed Terms of Service.

The issue for me is not so much about IG “selling” my photos. Without model and property releases the images are worthless for advertising. I have a little more concern about editorial use. Could IG hypothetically license Michael Christopher Brown’s photos from Goma to an online magazine? How about Ben Lowy’s photos from Newtown? Without their consent, without their knowledge?

My real concern is IG’s seeming intent to use its user’s names and information to sell products. A lot of established photographers have existing relationships with companies in the business.

This is a real threat to an established professional particularly when margins in the editorial business are so thin that more and more of us are relying on corporate sponsorships to make living.

Here is an example, right now Adobe Lightroom is helping sponsor ThePhotoSociety. It is a great relationship. Adobe give us some money to help run the site, we provide a subtle endorsement and they also provide a software discount for our subscribers. Most of us use lightroom at some point in our workflows so this is a win-win. If IG can simply aggregate our meta data (which includes what software we used) and then sell us to Adobe that win-win scenario no longer includes ThePhotoSociety. The examples go down hill from there. Canon sponsored shooters selling Nikons, Nokia photographers selling iPhones, VII agency photographers selling Magnum workshops…

This is a rapidly evolving landscape. IG’s ability to reach people is fantastic. I am gratified that tens of thousands of people enjoy and are moved by my photos. I am happy that thousands of people follow @salvarezphoto and hundreds of thousands follow @Natgeo. However, I’d like more control over my information than IG is giving.

Professional photographers are business people and we understand that IG is a business first and foremost. However, there have to be economic underpinnings for all our businesses. I don’t think that asking for a tiered system –one where you can sign up for free and have your info used any way IG sees fit on one side and a paid service where your information is your own on the other- is too much to ask for.

Perhaps Instagram cannot support such a system. Maybe it is not a place for people who rely on their images and their reputations for their living. If that is the case just let us know so we can close our accounts and move on.

No I don’t want to give up 72,000 “likes” on my last @natgeo photo but if the TOS don’t change I might have to.


Stephen Alvarez


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  1. Henning Wust says:

    Amen! Thanks for posting this open letter!

  2. yogesh says:

    Perfect! This the problem with most online communities! My top reason for not having any social network accounts apart from linkedin, which I use only for professional connections.

    I love the way you have approached IG through this letter.

  3. I find Steven’s comments interesting considering the Washington Post article “National Geographic returns to Instagram” and the quote from NGM: “National Geographic announced it will begin posting photographs to Instagram again, after the photo-sharing site said it will keep some of the language in its current terms of use … @NatGeo applauds all who raised their voices as well as Instagram for listening and acting on its community’s concerns,” the message said. “We are happy to be back, and National Geographic photographers all over the world look forward to continuing to share their images with each of you.”


    But look at the Terms of Service for the National Geographic website:

    “… 5. You retain all of your ownership rights in material you upload, comments you post, or other content you provide to the Site (“User Content”). By uploading User Content, however, you grant National Geographic (which includes its subsidiaries, affiliates, joint venturers, and licensees) the following rights: a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual license to display, distribute, reproduce, and create derivatives of the User Content, in whole or in part, without further review or participation from you, in any medium now existing or subsequently developed, in editorial, commercial, promotional, and trade uses in connection with NG Products. National Geographic may license or sublicense, in whole or in part, to third parties rights in User Content as appropriate to distribute, market, or promote such NG Products. To enable National Geographic to use the User Content in NG Products, NG may request you to provide the User Content in other formats, and if technically possible, you agree to provide the User Content in such other formats so long as National Geographic pays you the reasonable costs of providing the User Content in such other formats. A NG Product is defined as “a product of National Geographic, a subsidiary, affiliate, joint venturer, or licensee of National Geographic, in any language, over which National Geographic has Editorial Control.” For the purposes of this Agreement, “Editorial Control” means the right to review, consult regarding, formulate standards for, or to exercise a veto over the appearance, text, use, or promotion of the NG Product. You also agree that National Geographic may make User Content available to users of the Site who may display and redistribute it in the same way that National Geographic makes all other Content available.”

    Perhaps a discussion at the annual Sales Meeting?


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