“So, you came all the way from San Francisco yesterday just to take a photo of the lighthouse?” – “Yes, I’m one of Wikipedia’s photographers.” I’m sitting next to Rick, who works as a taxi driver in Crescent City, 6 hours driving distance from where I live. Rick is driving me to the airport, so I can pick up a rental car after getting into a car accident last night. He looks at me and laughs. “How much do they pay you?” – “Nothing. I’m doing this as a volunteer.” Rick looks at me. He’s stunned. “But at least they’re covering the gas and the hotel” – “No, I’m actually paying everything out of my own pocket.” – “For taking a photo of our lighthouse?” Obviously Rick thinks I’m crazy. “Yes, the lighthouse. We didn’t have a good image of Battery Point Light.” Rick laughs again, shakes his head and smiles, “Next time, you’ll give me a call and I’ll take as many pictures as you need”.
At that point, I didn’t want to start a discussion about how much effort it takes to take a really good image of a building. How many attempts it usually takes me to get the exposure and the composition right. And I also didn’t elaborate on “Wiki Loves Monuments“, the annual photo competition, that I’m shooting the lighthouse picture for. But Rick’s reaction makes me think. He’s the third person I’ve been telling my story after coming to Crescent City, that small town close to the border to Oregon. And everybody I talked to had shown the same reaction. They all thought that I was somewhat crazy. Strange a least.
Crescent City is located on the Pacific coast in the upper northwestern part of California. Fishing, timber and tourism are the main sources of income. According to Wikipedia, the average per capita income in 2003 was at $13,000 and almost 34% of families were below the poverty line.
Is it strange to drive more than 300 miles for taking a picture of a lighthouse? Maybe. At least when you look at it from the perspective of someone living in Crescent City. Most people I talked to knew Wikipedia. However, none of them knew that its articles are written by volunteers. Same for the photos. Some people assumed I was a professional photographer. Whenever I said “I think it’s a good thing to give others access to free information”, people nodded. But you could tell that volunteering was nothing that people experienced very often in this remote part of California.
The same day I talked to Rick, I drove back home. And I thought a lot about the people I met. And their reaction to my story.
Yes, it is a blessing to have the opportunity of doing the things you love in your spare time. This month, volunteers around the world have been participating in Wiki Loves Monuments, the world’s largest photo competition. They’ve been investing their skills, their free time, and sometimes their own money to document cultural heritage in more than 50 countries. To this point in time, more than 250,000 images have been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia’s media repository. What a great success! Cudos to the uploaders and also to the many volunteers who did a great job in organizing the contest. I enjoyed it a lot. Although my trip to Crescent City ended somewhat unexpectedly. I would have loved to take more lighthouse pictures. And also, to spread the word about Wikipedia and its ten thousands of volunteers. Well, fortunately I got at least a few decent shots of Battery Point Light. And I’m also quite sure that I’ll be going back. There are still so many lighthouses along the California and Oregon coast that don’t have a good image on Wikipedia…