Why don’t I want to go viral? Simply put, my viral experience was overwhelming, exhausting, scary, and completely out of my control. It’s February 3, 2024. While this date also marks the birth of my business, my divorce, and several other big milestones in my life, going viral had a big impact on me.
On February 3, 2018, I woke up from a much needed mid-morning nap to quite the surprise. A friend had just texted, “You’re on your way to going viral, lady!!!”. Wait…what? It was the 1 year anniversary of my divorce. My “new” house was still in disrepair after about 9 months of pure insanity. I was already beyond exhausted and the following week, the challenges would prove relentless. It also happened to be the 5 year anniversary of my business, Little Leapling Photography. The friend who texted was my very first client, a birth, back on February 3, 2013, who celebrates with me every year.
The night before, I posted some of my favorite pictures from a birth I photographed on July 24, 2017. I was preparing to make Max’s special birth video for his mama. Normally, I don’t share vulnerable pictures from births and wasn’t planning to share these on social media. I asked Mama Jes if I could include them in her birth video and she asked right away if she could share them on Facebook. Really? The past year had been such a nightmare…for both of us. I hadn’t been posting much on social media. If she was excited to share, then so was I!
I had shared some pictures from her birth a day or two after Max was born in July. They got some love, but nothing out of the ordinary for birth photos. At least not until after the viral following found them.
The February 3rd series of delivery pictures was a bit more dramatic. And apparently, I posted them just at the right time for the right person to share to the right page. There are gorgeous birth photos all over the Internet, but clearly a relatively miniscule portion of the public was aware of that.
I’d always wanted to go viral. How exciting would that be!?! Even though I’m a family photographer, I’ve posted lots of great animal pictures and videos with the hope they’d go viral. But, having a client go viral is very different. And a BIRTH client? That was terrifying. I’m very protective of my clients. Even when they have told me they are happy to share their vulnerable pictures, I’m pretty selective and avoid anything that might come back to bite them. Or me for that matter. It’s kind of crazy and wonderful that my page has never been reported for a violation.
I immediately reached out to Jes, my birth client who was becoming a viral sensation. She was beyond excited for the opportunity to share her story and empower other mothers. I stayed in very close contact with her for the next couple of weeks. We worked together to do our best to guide the countless articles that were being published about her birth photos. I didn’t agree to anything without her enthusiastic approval.
It wasn’t just news outlets contacting me. I was receiving requests by phone, text, messenger, and email from every kind of publication you can imagine. People, Inside Edition, Cosmopolitan, Love What Matters, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, CBS, Smart Parenting, Parents, Mommyish, Pop Sugar, Cafe Mom, Today’s Parent, The Leaky Boob, Motherly, and dozens more well-known publications. I was being contacted from all over the world, so they were literally coming at me all day and all night. The local articles were equally as important to me as the big time publications.
The media wanted to write their own articles about Jes’ story and use the pictures I took. And they all wanted to do it for free. I have no idea how much money was being made off of my artwork, but I wasn’t seeing any of it.
Most importantly, I desperately wanted to protect my client and make sure that the stories being written stayed positive and true to what we intended. This was a beautiful, natural birth. It was not an emergency situation and baby Max was in no danger.
Everything was happening very quickly, but it was also important to me to make a statement about crediting artists for their work and paying for usage rights. Why should these huge corporations be making thousands of dollars off of my artwork while I made nothing? And I was spending countless hours answering inquiries, protecting my client, doing my best to stop people from altering my pictures and using them without permission, and trying to control the wildfire developing in front of my eyes. Even if I didn’t make a dime, I knew I needed to try and make a difference. My 15 minutes of fame was a nightmare.
People are mean. We all know that no matter what, the mean people will sit behind their computer and speak their mind without thinking. Jes and I discussed this and knew there would be awful comments. We decided we weren’t going to give them the real estate in our minds or hearts and I’m not going to repeat anything said. I kept telling Jes that I was going to keep doing my best to give her as much control as possible over these pictures and her story. I was prepared to pull the plug on my end, for whatever that was worth.
Overall, we did succeed in keeping the story positive and wonderful. This was the feel good story the world needed at the time and why, I believe, it got such amazing reach. But, the horrible comments won. People were writing terrible things about Jes and her family. While we were being invited for interviews on shows like Dr. Oz and Inside Edition, the ugliness got too be too much and it was time to shut things down. It was a very small minority of the comments, but this remarkable and kind woman was being trashed on a worldwide stage. We were both ready for this attention to end. I stopped giving permission for usage, addressed the cruelty, and poured buckets of water on the flames.
Because of the pain it caused my friend and client, I do regret going viral. Why couldn’t a cute puppy photo make the rounds instead?
But, some really good things did come out of it. Birth Photography as a genre gained a lot of positive attention. Shortly after Jes’ photos went viral, Facebook and Instagram changed their restrictions to allow the more raw birth photos to be published. I can’t know for certain how much of influence I had, but I want to believe I was at least in part responsible for those needed changes. I connected with some of the most successful birth photographers in the world. They were incredibly supportive and helpful in navigating the media onslaught. I was encouraged to create more videos and do Facebook Lives to engage the new viral following and keep things positive.
I had never published a video of myself, so this was definitely new territory!
I did a series of photography tips over the course of the next year. Unfortunately, those didn’t get much engagement. This following wanted more birth happiness as I was needing to take a break from the intensity of birth photography to focus on my kids.
Thanks to Jes, this story was also about birth photography. I was given a stage and was actually being heard! What an incredible opportunity to bring positive attention to this difficult and vulnerable genre of photography.
I should write another blog post on what to do if your photos go viral. I’m not just talking about pictures and videos that get insane amounts of likes and shares. My photos didn’t get shared directly nearly as much as the articles published. Many of them had permission to use my photography, but many stole my intellectual property and published them illegally.
Many of the articles written about Jes’ birth had more actual reactions and shares than my original post. And while that initial burst only lasted 1-2 weeks, the photos were being shared and written about for several years.
My watermark was cropped out of photos that were downloaded or screenshotted and shared until the quality was abysmal. My beautiful artwork was blurred, pixelated, and cropped almost beyond recognition. Once you go viral, there’s a much higher chance it will happen again, so I needed to be prepared. There is a list of things you can do to react to viral exposure, but you still only have so much control.
Those big bursts often are from people creating share trains and paying for “fake” followers. But, it went beyond that. Very few of the new followers were local. People were liking my page from all across the globe. None of those people were about to purchase a photo session from me. And the Facebook and Instagram algorithms were sending most of the organic post reach to those overseas followers. The viral following was hurting my ability to direct my posts to local followers without paid ads.
It actually took several years and investing in a new website and SEO course before the benefits of my viral photos were revealed. You can’t pay for that kind of exposure and the backlinks were pretty awesome. I was fortunately very good about instructing the publications on how I wanted to be credited as the photographer.
I will be eternally grateful to Jes for how she handled this unexpected and unintended viral experience. She is one of the most incredible humans I’ve had the privilege to meet. She moved away several years ago, but I love seeing her family’s updates and am constantly sending love and strength her way.
If I ever DO go viral again, hopefully it will be with some cute, fluffy, and uncontroversial!