Viral Photographs Bring Instant Success

Photographers used to spend lifetimes building up their portfolios and networks before their work became widely known to a global audience, but with the advent of the Internet, the fact that anything can “go viral” is completely changing the equation for success.

Wired has published a fascinating behind-the-scenes piece on Seth Casteel, whose underwater portraits of dogs became a global phenomenon just last month.

Before the photos spread across the world, Casteel was doing okay as a freelance photographer. He sometimes struggled to pay the bills, but his list of clients was growing.

[…] Now everything has changed. On that fateful February 9th, the photos mysteriously landed on Reddit, Facebook, Google+ and then Warholian, becoming one of the hottest trends amongst viewers on at least five or six continents.

More than 1,000 people all over the world have subsequently asked him to shoot photos of their pets. He’s got a line of publishing houses fighting to get the rights to his forthcoming book of underwater dog photos, and he’s made appearance on, or in, most major American news publications from the The New York Times to Good Morning America.

While PetaPixel wasn’t the first to share Casteel’s dog photographs — we were actually late to the game because we were waiting for permission from Casteel — we did play a huge role in another set of dog photographs. Back in July 2011, we shared Carli Davidson’s photos of dogs shaking off water.

That post was soon shared hundreds of thousands of times, causing Davidson’s photographs to go viral all over the Internet. PhotoShelter researched her story and published an interesting piece on the viral evolution of her images.

It’s a perfect example of a concept called “tastemakers” that YouTube trends manager Kevin Allocca recently spoke about at TED. The talk was about how videos go viral, but the points are quite relevant for photography as well. Here’s talk:

Basically, if you want your photography to go viral, you’ll need three things: tastemakers, communities of participation, and unexpectedness.

First, make sure your photographs are truly unique and unexpected. Photographic cliché are a dime a dozen, and it’s the eye-catching and creative ideas that people feel compelled to share.

Having work that’s unique and share-worthy is a necessary first step, but you’ll probably need a tastemarker to get the ball rolling. This could be a Tweet from a famous individual or a post on a blog or news site. Just like how nuclear bombs need to be detonated to get the nuclear reactions started, this is what causes the “viral” chain reaction to begin. Viral photos, videos, and stories are often published long before tastemakers cause them to go viral.

Finally, community participation encourages sharing. It helps if people can recreate or remix your original idea for their own derivative work. In terms of photographs, having a creative idea that anyone can try their own hand at encourages sharing much more than something that’s inaccessible to the general public (e.g. dogs shaking off water vs. microscopic photography).

If you think you have all these ingredients in your photography already but have yet to see your photos go viral, don’t be discouraged — there’s also a huge element of luck involved. The tried and true ingredients of hard work and perseverance will also go a long way!

Image credits: Photographs by Seth Casteel and Carli Davidson

  • Chandler Hummell

    That’s not a fair equation. What if all the material that spreads easily has already been used up? :/
    I realize I could be creative, but how far would it take me?!

  • Andrew9909

    “I realize I could be creative, but how far would it take me?”

    I think you might be in the wrong profession…

  • Michael

    I don’t know, what I mean is, just like any business you need a lot of luck being at right time and at the right place.  Internet does help out but at the same time if you are not ready for it, you won’t catch that kind luck.  Overall I think it’s a fair equation if the person knows how to handle the situation and take full advantage of it.

  • Vince M Camiolo

    I think it’s also worth noting that Seth had the infrastructure set up to capitalize, professionally, on his images going viral. He licenses his images through Tandem Stills + Motion, a stock agency, and they were there to support the abundance of requests.

    While it may be fun and/or rewarding to simply “go viral,” it’s nice to be able to make a couple bucks along the way, and leverage that for the future.

  • Richard

    Gladwell talked about “tastemakers” in The Tipping Point. He called them “connectors.” Both sets act as filters and as they gain credibility and following, are even more influential. Michael, if you’ve not read The Tipping Point it’s a must read. Not really about digital social networking but it applies quite well.

  • Michael

    Ordered, thanks for the good read recommendation :-)

  • Chandler Hummell

    The statement was referring to creative marketing, which is not the field I specialize in. Please re-read and think before you speak. I’m a photographer, I study photography. I do not study marketing. 

    The point I was trying to make is that I’d like to know how much effort different people put into going viral. If they had prior knowledge in marketing… If they bombarded tons of websites, etc. Etc.. 

  • Selina

    What seems to be missing here is the lack of discussion around the ingredient of GREAT IMAGERY!
    None of the 3 ingredients discussed matter without that. 
    These images are great images and put that together with the 3 steps outlined, in todays world and viral can happen. 

  • Richard

    I think you’ll enjoy it as well as his other writing. He became controversial during the green revolution in Iran with his piece The Revolution will not be tweeted and while I don’t fully agree with him on this he makes many valid points worth considering.

  • Geoffrey Froment

    Proud to be one of those who made him famous ^^ with the first picture of the dog underwater.
    And to answer to the first question … unfortunately viral success is not about talent but idea and this idea was perfect for the average person … cause everyone love animals,pets.

    But nobody care about a good reportage with nice black&white portrait about a dying family in third world.

    Its all about the audience : how much people will buy a photo about a dog ? about a kid ? about a dying man ? a homeless ?

    Just ask on facebook or yahoo question, and you will see that dog photo make more money.

  • MD

    My thoughts exactly. Viral success, as outlined in this column, often ends up being more about novel (and repeatable) technique combined with some sort of popular standard photographic subject (animals, pretty girls, celebrities, etc). 

    I have no reason to think that the photographers mentioned here are not talented, but these images do nothing to illustrate one way or the other. As Chandler says above, this kind of success has become dependent on clever marketing and good timing rather than photographic skill. As photographers, we have every right to be frustrated by this shift away from what we all spent years trying to perfect.

    Then again, Justin Bieber will always be more popular on the radio than Beethoven and “Transformers” will always take the box office over “The Artist”.

  • Ken Gilbert

    actually, if you’re talking about general virulence, great imagery isn’t a prerequisite.

  • Ken Gilbert

     why be frustrated?  it is a game.

  • Geoffrey Froment

     lol Ken : ” Life is a game : XBOX ”

  • harumph

    Put a picture of a dog on anything and it will sell. Cynical ad execs probably have a sliding scale chart of subject matter that most effectively moves product, with dogs on one end of the scale and black models on the other. Look at the amount of books out right now (fiction and non-fiction) with dogs on the cover, look at the insane amount of ads for products that have nothing to do with dogs but feature dogs anyway (why are there dogs in the Kaiser-Permantente billboard campaign?), and on and on.

    These pictures are cool, but they caught fire because they were cool pictures of dogs. If somebody used the exact same techniques to take shots of a black model underwater, then nobody would care. Except me, I guess.

  • MD

    That’s a nice idea, but some of us are playing for slightly higher stakes than that. There are thousands of very talented photographers out there who have invested considerable time and money honing their aesthetic and conceptual skills in an effort to become the best photographer they can be. Making a career out of photography is not a game to those who seek to recoup these loses. 

    The frustration comes from seeing this classic set of skills suddenly prioritized well behind arguably more superficial ones. I’m happy to concede that selling yourself has and will always be an important part of art, but it would be nice if we could avoid having it be the primary focus.