The snow photos that went viral

Kitty Viljoen is my aunt. Although I am rather fond of her, there’s no reason at all that this should mean anything at all to you, unless you are an avid follower of weather news. She is the photographer who took the photos of the elephants and giraffe in the snow in the Karoo that have gone viral this week.

The minute I saw those photos, I knew. I remembered how many people shared the photos of the camels in the Sahara snows in 2016. People are fascinated by animals and scenery in surprising weather – snow in particular. We do not expect snow on sand dunes, and we do not expect to see it on thorn trees or the backs of elephants.

The subtext of our interest, aside from the fun of seeing something you don’t every day, is that we are all perpetually in the grips of a low-grade anxiety about climate gone mad, and images like these are further evidence that all is not as it should be with the weather.

However, snows in the Karoo are not unheard of – the last big snow was in 2010. In fact, the snows are becoming less frequent, so our interest in images like this should not be because they are unusual, but because they are becoming even more so. Like the snows of Kilimanjaro, the snows of the Karoo may one day be a thing of the past altogether.

Back to my aunt. While many people in this crazy world we live in might crave the day that they have a piece of content that goes viral, she is not that person. The game reserve that she works on is private, so there is no marketing value in the widespread interest in the location or its animals.

On a personal level, while she has an Instagram account where she shares beautiful images of the place that she lives, she does not crave her ten minutes of internet fame. So all of this has come as something of a shock to her. She’s not naïve – she understands that this is a possible outcome of publishing photos on social media. She’s just a bit overwhelmed by all the interest. When it started to get completely out of hand, she asked me to help her to understand what she should and shouldn’t do.

One local weather site has received over a million views of her photos, and they have been republished in Australia, Japan, the UK and the United States. What’s interesting is the way in which the different publications approach the requests. The BBC, for instance, asked for permission, while the Guardian didn’t.

The argument for publishing without permission, as anybody in the media knows all too well, is that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Once it’s out there, you have lost control of it. This isn’t a legally supportable argument and copyright is still officially held by the creator, writer or photographer, but who has the legal resources to sue? Anyone who approaches a media house with hope of payment will just get their images taken down.

Anyway, Kitty didn’t want people to take her photos down, and she didn’t have any hopes of earning any money off of them, so she was happy to give permission when it was asked. A journalist from the UK asked her if he could try to sell the story and split the proceeds, but good luck to him because the pictures have been on just about every big news site over there for free.

This morning, under yet another Facebook posting of the ellies, where she was named as the photographer, I saw someone saying, “I hope she’s being properly credited.” It’s funny that in this day and age, credit is the best outcome we can hope for. Put your images out there, and all you can hope for is credit. Credit, like exposure, is that stuff that can’t butter bread. But at least if someone knows your name, well, that’s something, isn’t it?

Kitty didn’t want to make money out of her photos, although it would be nice if she had some sort of compensation for all the time she’s spent managing media requests (she’s now officially not opening Twitter anymore). But the lesson here for anyone who would like to monetise their content is to hang on to it, pitch it, strike a deal, and THEN release it into the world.

For everyone else, like Kitty, who’s happy to share their beautiful images with their friends and family and the world, and have conversations with strangers and loved ones about them, there’s no lesson to be learnt other than that one day, you might find yourself to be the subject of intense attention, and be ready for that possibility.