EyeEm photo-sharing app aims to enable photographers to sell their images

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“Your photos will always remain yours and nothing will ever be done with them without your consent. Being photographers ourselves, there’s nothing we value more than our community’s rights and privacy. If a platform makes benefits, it must be through an opt-in program and revenue-sharing with the creators. Period.”

This statement, published by EyeEm on 18 December 2012, was released a few hours after the photo-sharing, Facebook-owned application Instagram found itself in a controversy when it announced that it would start using its contributors’ images in advertisements.


EyeEm had been around for more than a year when this controversy erupted. Until then, it had failed to make major inroads in the bitterly contested mobile photo-sharing scene. But this statement, and Instagram’s users’ anger, would put the small Berlin-based company on the map.

“The idea for EyeEm goes back to 2010, when a few friends came together after they realised the potential of mobile photography,” says Severin Matusek, EyeEm’s head of content and community. “One of our founders, Florian Meissner, was working for a photography magazine in New York and, during his first week, he lost his camera and had to borrow a friend’s iPhone to continue shooting. That’s when he realised that the photos he was taking with it weren’t that bad.”

Back then, the iPhoneography movement was still in its early stages. “There wasn’t much out there,” says Matusek. “There were small groups on the internet that were talking about it, but that’s it. So Florian thought it would be nice to give this community a platform they would use.”

Initially, EyeEm was just a blog, set up to help organise the world’s first mobile photography exhibition in Berlin. “We received more than 500 images, and the exhibition opened on 22 June 2010. Right away, we heard from another gallery in New York City that wanted to bring the exhibition to the US. From this success, the founders, who also include Lorenz Aschoff, Gen Sadakane, Ramzi Rizk and Christophe Maire, decided to do more.” Their first idea was to create an iPhone application to give a home to these mobile photographers.

“It took around a year to create the concept and find the investors,” says Matusek. “And while the app was being developed, Instagram came on the market and was a runaway success.” Instagram’s luck didn’t deter EyeEm’s developers.

“We launched the app in August 2011. By that time, there were already a few competitors out there in the mobile photography-sharing sphere. But our approach from the beginning was to connect people through the photos they take. Instagram is more about taking photos, applying a filter and uploading them. We believe the EyeEm experience starts after you share the photo, because we connect your photo to other photos and other people. We believe in the community aspect of EyeEm.” Yet EyeEm still struggled against Instagram – until December last year.

“Even if our concepts are different, Instagram has always been our main competitor. But when the whole Instagram disaster happened, it took us by surprise,” Matusek explains. “That Tuesday morning, I came to the office, logged into Twitter and saw hundreds of tweets about the Instagram controversy, with people recommending EyeEm as an alternate platform. We hadn’t planned for an event such as this. We weren’t prepared for it.”

EyeEm’s founders had a strategy meeting that day. “We were wondering if we should be communicating about it or not. Our terms of service had always been on the side of photographers. All the rights remain with the users, and we would never do anything with their photos without their agreement.

Our community is made up of photographers and artists who care about their rights. We thought people might be afraid about what might happen to their images on Instagram, so we decided to write a blog post and a statement to our users. Our promise was that we would never do anything with their content – and that led to a lot of people considering EyeEm as an alternative to Instagram.”

Right away, EyeEm saw its number of users skyrocket. “Our activity grew by a factor of 10,” says Matusek. “That meant that during the entire Christmas period our developers slept in the office. We needed to keep our servers running and keep our service stable. It was a crazy period for us.”

Now that this initial enthusiasm for EyeEm has calmed down, the founders continue to work to attract new users and keep existing ones. “Our community is growing organically, with friends recommending the app to their friends,” says Matusek. “We have a lot of new product features coming up, and we’re constantly improving the app by listening to what our users want. We are to Instagram what Vimeo is to YouTube. If you look at what Vimeo offers, it’s more sophisticated than YouTube.”

But, as with most technology start-ups, EyeEm has yet to make a profit. In 2011 it received funding from investors such as Passion Capital and the pan-European venture capital fund, Wellington Partners. “These investors believe in us. EyeEm doesn’t have any advertising. In fact, we don’t like advertising in any way. Instead, there are a few directions that we could choose to make money.” One possible avenue would be to offer photographers a platform to sell their images to third parties.

“When we talk with photojournalists and photographers, they tell us that they’re using EyeEm or Instagram to promote themselves as brands,” says Matusek. “What we want to offer them is a platform they can use to make money. When you take a photo with EyeEm, your location is automatically tagged. So, for example, when Pope Francis was elected in March this year, maybe The New York Times would have wanted to use a photo taken in St Peter’s Square by someone in the crowd.

“What we would like to offer our users is the possibility for The New York Times, or any other media organisation, to search for an image that they want to print and to be able to automatically contact the photographer. That photographer would then get a notification saying that The New York Times is interested in publishing his or her image, with the terms and the amount they would pay. Then the photographer can choose whether or not to accept that request.”

Matusek adds, “We want to simplify the whole process of selling mobile photos. It’s what stock photography sites are doing right now, but [we want to do it] in a much more dynamic and flexible way that is adapted to the mobile age.”

For more about EyeEm, visit www.eyeem.com.