Kalyan Varma: Free art is profitable

(Applause) In my previous life, I used to work in the technology industry, and I specifically worked in Linux and open source technologies. But somewhere along the way, my true passion took over. I used to love wildlife. I used to love photography. So I just quit my job and one day, I decided to follow my passion, which is wildlife photography. One of the things I really experienced with doing this, was actually being in the jungle, and having those amazing moments. I don’t know how many of you have spent time in the jungle, but it’s a spiritual experience, to be in the jungle with the wildlife, the environment that is just really beautiful. And as a photographer, I was trying my best to share that experience with the rest of the world. For me, the photography was the medium, to share this experience with the rest of the world. So, I was sharing this through online media, and things like that. But then I was hit with a dilemma. A very difficult dilemma. Conventional wisdom told me – that I shouldn’t give away my pictures free. Conventional wisdom told me that I should charge for every picture I put out. But I thought to myself, If I’m going to ask, [if] I’m going to make people pay for my pictures, how will I get my work out to people? As an artist, it’s a very difficult dilemma. The primary intention is to get your work out. But if you’re going to hold it back with copyrights and payments, it’s never going to reach the larger audience. So I made it free. From day 1, I [had] no idea how I was going to make money out of photography. I was out there in the jungle, and I just said, “I don’t care. I want to share my experiences. and I want to give freedom to share this.” So, all my pictures, from day 1, were free. Online, high resolution. And people loved it ! And an amazing thing to see was – when you give freedom to people, people respect freedom. Just the way you share your books, share your things, people are sharing pictures. And, my friends were horrified. “Aren’t you scared that people [are] taking your pictures off your website, and sharing with others?” I said, “No, it’s a good thing ! And I’m glad they’re taking my pictures.” In fact I told my friend, ” I’ll be very worried if they stop taking pictures from my website” – that means they don’t like my pictures anymore. (Laughter) But eventually I made a full-time career out of it, just by keeping my pictures free. But how did I do that? It’s making these connections. You don’t know – when you’re starting out, you really don’t know how these dots connect to each other. So, for example, when I made my pictures free, lots of interesting things happened. For example, you see the picture of this snake. Universal Studios made this movie, ‘Snakes on a Plane’. And they searched for it, they loved the picture. They took the picture, and the movie’s official CD, the DVD cover, has this picture. They never told me about it, because it was under Creative Commons. But I was very happy when they sent me the cheque home, saying that here’s the money, we know we don’t have to pay you, but well, the fact that you kept it online, and we love your picture, we’re going to pay you for it. It’s a very ugly-looking frog, isn’t it? It’s a frog called ‘Purple Frog’. which was discovered a few years ago, just in the last decade. It’s a very strange frog. Lots of people have photographed it. It’s really pretty rare to find. But I was one of the first photographers, to take a picture, and put it up free for the world. So I put it on Wikipedia, Wikicommons, so that people could share it and all that. And guess what? People picked it up. This is shared all over the internet, and to a point where my server crashed, because I was getting so much traffic. Because a lot of sites, all over the internet picked it up. But guess what? I’m a professional photographer today, and I work for National Geographic and BBC today, because of that picture. Because BBC was doing a film on frogs, and since I was the only guy, who put the picture up, they contacted me and said, “Hey, you know how to, where to find this frog, we like your picture, and we want you to work for us. So, even by keeping your content free, it pays off in other ways. (Applause) But it gets even more interesting. And this is the beauty of… giving your work out, giving freedom. People respect freedom, and people make interesting things with freedom. There were artists in the other part [of the world], in Europe and US, who’d take my pictures, and draw paintings with those pictures. I didn’t know this again till the day I got home and there’s a cheque waiting for me. And this lady says, “You know, I’ve painted with your pictures, I’ve made a lot of money out of it. Here’s well – you know – it’s your pictures, here’s 30% share.” And she sent me two big frames home, so I could keep it in my house. I love it. I hate seeing my own pictures everyday, but I love seeing these paintings. It got even more interesting. There’s this band in UK called ‘Shikan’, I’m sure some of you might have heard [of] it. They’ve loved the pictures. I don’t know how they came across my pictures. They just loved it. And they’ve made a complete music video, which gets aired on MTV and all that, just using my pictures as a slide show. (Music) I want to leave you with this picture. It’s Mona Lisa, the costliest painting on Earth. It’s valued at 700 million dollars. It’s not for sale, but it’s valued at that much. [It’s] a picture that, maybe 3 to 4 billion people on this Earth recognise. In fact we see it on the streets, we just walk past it without even looking at it. But why is this picture so valuable? It’s because it grows on you. We’ve consumed this picture so many times in our lives, that people value this picture a lot. So, I just want to end this talk with this small realisation I’ve had, as an artist. People respect freedom. People pay for freedom. If you’re an artist, there’s no better way to get your work out, than keeping it free. And trust me, people will eventually pay, for the freedom that you give them. Thank you. (Applause)

14 Replies to “Kalyan Varma: Free art is profitable”

  1. A dynamic presentation that comes straight from the heart, from the conviction and strength derived from Nature. Very focused, very determined, very honest!

  2. Amazing presentation well said DO IT FOR FREE
    i will follow your advice and share my short wild life films in this way
    great man keep going…

  3. that is indeed profitable to keep it for free coz when you dont put a price tag people are ready to pay for its true value

  4. Great speech sir….iam inspired by your thoughts and your passion towards wildlife….iam also follow your thought of freedom in a wildlife photography….thank you kalyan verma sir…and thank you ink talks….

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