Here’s my story on what it’s like to have a photo go totally viral around the world. After accidentally capturing a portrait with the ISS in the background, I sent it to a lot of local news outlets in the Netherlands, along with a lot of big international photo blogs (PetaPixel was one of them).
I started by just contacting them on Facebook with a short message along with the photo, to just try to see if they would be interested in the photo itself. No need to write a long story if they don’t like the photo anyway, I thought.
It’s funny that this actually works. You may not contact the right person directly, but if the person sitting in front of the computer thinks your photo is interesting, they’ll will probably tell their superior, right? Usually, even big Facebook pages send you a reply if you tell them something interesting. A good photo helps to immediately catch their attention.
If you don’t hear anything, it may not have been attention-grabbing enough. I do believe that more than 50% of the brands on Facebook read the messages they are getting directly on their Facebook.
None of the local news outlets I contacted responded to me. PetaPixel was one of the first to reply me, directly on Facebook. They asked me a couple of questions about the photo and said they would indeed be interested in featuring it in their blog. I then wrote a guest post about how I took the shot and the whole experience that came with it. When I finished my story and sent it over, it got published on PetaPixel.
That was August 10, 2015, a Monday. That week, the photo went completely viral. It started with PetaPixel picking it up, and then it snowballed from there. It got picked up by a lot of blogs first. From there it spread to mainly international media and finally, through the international media, the local Dutch media caught wind the story and all wanted me to be on their website, magazine, newspaper and even on television.
My phone rang the whole day on Wednesday, along with me trying to catch up on emails. I was literally getting more new emails about requests than I could handle. Here’s a look at what it’s like for a photo to go viral…
Some other (big) photoblogs also published the story. That was when everything started rolling.
All the international media picked up the stories. I got a lot of emails but I was still in control. I could handle the media attention and was carefully replying to each of the emails. Examples of media that contacted me were: Huffington Post, TIME Magazine, Daily Mail UK, National Geographic and a lot of blogs and smaller news websites.
It seems like PetaPixel has a lot of influence on news channels. The snowball started to roll slowly and kept going at decent speed during the Tuesday. It was a pleasant day and an interesting experience. I think I’m a fairly down-to-Earth guy, and I don’t get emails from Time and the Huffington Post every day. At first I didn’t really think it was that big of a deal.
I thought they just wanted to write a small article on their website, stuffed behind the big news. That’s what happened, but it didn’t stop other media from noticing it. From the international media it started to come back to my own country, the Netherlands. I was asked for a radio interview appointment on Wednesday, which was one of the first Dutch coverage I was getting. I was enjoying it as I was still in control of everything. I went to sleep with the thought of having to wake up early for the 8:30am interview.
All hell broke loose. Apparently the local (Dutch) media all saw the story. They all started calling and mailing me. Funny, because it was them who I contacted in the first place, but none of them responded. The story turned into ‘Dutch photo is conquering the world’ and everyone wanted a piece of me. Some wanted radio interviews, some wanted the photo for on their website, and I was even asked to be on television on prime time shows!
It was insane.
During that day, I was extremely stressed. I like to be in control, and I wasn’t anymore. Basically every single news channel or blog I saw on Facebook shared my photo. I like to be active on Facebook and reply to people, but things were overwhelming. I couldn’t handle the amount of attention this photo was getting everywhere. Along with that came the hundreds of emails, the phone calls, the radio interviews, and even the television requests.
I started giving priorities to certain emails/phone calls, labeling them and trying to get through every one of them.
I learned a lot that day. I granted requests from all the blogs, websites, news outlets etc for posting the article on their website. Lots of them emailed me to ask for my permission. Others just copied and pasted it, sometimes with wrong information or words twisted to make it look more popular. As it was out of my control, I stopped caring at a certain point. It snowballed so fast.
After all the Internet hype, the newspapers started contacting me. This was later on the Wednesday. The photo was from Saturday, so it wasn’t even very recent. Still, everyone wanted the story now. The newspapers all wanted it for the next day. Print costs money, so I started to put a rate on the image. For big (local) newspaper I would ask the same rate (about $200), as I thought it was unfair to treat them differently. For very small newspapers, I asked less. I just did what I thought was right, and what felt good for me. Some papers accepted, some didn’t even reply when I told them the rate. I guess it was too high for some of them, but I felt my photo was special so I held onto it.
Along with all of this, agencies started contacted me. One of them interested me: it had a good portfolio and was big. I talked to them on the phone and went for it. I figured I just had to make moves quickly because in a few days this would all be over.
A lot of people might think it’s an amazing experience to get so much attention, but this experience hit me hard. I was totally unprepared and didn’t expect any of this. When it was 6pm everything got quiet because people work till 6 here. So when the clock hit 6, it felt like the bell at a boxing match. Finally some time to relax.
Thursday and Friday
The snowball slowed down. Most of the news channels that wanted the story got it, so I didn’t get that many emails/phone calls anymore, but I was still extremely busy. I still had some media calling me for some quotes or a full story — mainly print publications. These days were similar to the Tuesday.
It’s quiet. Where are my emails? No phone calls? No more Facebook messages? No more extra followers? The media attention was so enormous, but now its gone. Well, almost gone. I just saw a local newspaper with my photo, and on the front page too!
Other than that, there isn’t much going on anymore. Do I like this? I wished for this moment on Wednesday, when there were moments I was having a hard time keeping everything together. Now that moment came. I could relax and look back on this extremely hectic week in my life. Things I never experienced before. Will I experience something like this ever again? Maybe.
It opened up opportunities. For example, ways to make myself known, to contact brands, maybe get a great job (I’m a freelancer now, working in animation, video, design and photography, but I would love to be a full time landscape photographer). Also, next time I know where to send my photos regarding local and international. I don’t have to send them to ‘general’ email addresses anymore, as I have a personal email address for what seems like every media outlet now. It will probably come in handy someday.
The Next Week
The following week, everything calmed down but I still got a lot of requests, mainly from magazines who want to publish the story along with the photos. It feels like I have made a name for myself. Some people recognize my name from the Internet, especially in certain photography communities. “Albert Dros, the guy from the ISS photo right?” I heard that multiple times last week.
It’s great that people actually know your work and that you can get recognition for your work. I feel like I have other great photos that are now getting noticed too. I’ve had magazines contact me, not only for my ISS photo, but also about my other work. I hope this snowball will keep rolling at a slow pace so that I can enjoy the things that came from this moment.
I’ll end this blog post with some advice to photographers who are trying hard to go ‘VIRAL’:
– Capture a unique moment: Try to be innovative. Sometimes it can happen by accident, like with my photo. The image was already spectacular without the ISS, but the ISS was the finishing touch.
– Have a story: Media loves stories. If you back your photo up with a good story, the likeliness of blogs/channels wanting to feature/publish you, will be much more likely.
– Timing: Someone asked me how this whole media hype actually started. I thought about it, and realized that timing played a huge part in the success of this image. I took this image on that Saturday, when the perseids storms were already predicted. It was the perfect image/story to go as an introduction for the actual news of the perseids, which would be at the strongest point on Wednesday and Thursday.
If I had shot this image a few days later, it wouldn’t have been a success, as you would have seen dozens of great images with perseids popping up everywhere that week.
– Be prepared: So you made that great photo and you think it has what it takes to go viral? Prepare yourself! I didn’t. Once the media storm hits you it will be too late. They have no mercy. Make sure you’ve got an agent ready to handle requests. That way, you can make time for other important things, like actual media appearances (You can’t be on TV and answering emails at the same time).
– Keep trying!
I hope you enjoyed reading all of this, please check out my images if you haven’t already. If you like my images, feel free to drop me a comment. I always aim to reply to every question on my Facebook page.