David Shankbone’s photos are on more than 5,000 Wikipedia articles

For Wikimedian David Shankbone, contributing to a Wikipedia article isn’t just about the words, it’s about the complete picture. Although he does edit text, his primary contribution is his photos, which illustrate over five thousand articles on Wikipedia.

“People are supposed to be able to have access to knowledge and that’s not just written text,” he said. “So you should be able to go to an article and not only be able to read about something, you should also be able to see it, you should also be able to hear it and you should also be able to watch it. That should be the end goal of any article on Wikipedia.”

Shankbone’s first contributions to Wikipedia were during law school. He couldn’t afford textbooks and noticed fellow students were relying on Wikipedia for summaries of legal cases. At that point he took his education outside of the classroom, and as he noted, “I started editing the caseloads on Wikipedia, and I began photographing and meeting very famous lawyers for Wikipedia.”

After law school he first started to contribute his photos to Wikipedia, but it wasn’t until the implementation of the Creative Commons license that he began to take his photographic contributions more seriously.

Shankbone explains that Wikipedians started enforcing the Creative Commons license, which meant copyright images were being removed, returning some articles back to their image-free state.

So Shankbone went out with his 2.3 megapixel point and shoot and started to capture images that he could contribute to Wikipedia under the Creative Commons license. At first he wasn’t focused on the technical aspects of the photos he took, “When I started to shoot it was more about the experience of showing up and taking the photographs than it was about the actual product.” But over the years, he concentrated on learning from the professionals he was shooting next to, and Warhol photographer Billy Name became a mentor. “I have some bad stuff from the early days, but I feel like over the years I really improved, and I’m proud of the work that I put out.”

In addition to contributing to Wikipedia, he is also an accredited reporter for English Wikinews, a free-content news source wiki. “I felt compelled to contribute to it cause I was already meeting people that were notable and taking their photographs, and I also sort of wanted to start just asking them questions,” he said. Shankbone has contributed forty articles to Wikinews on a variety of topics and he has interviewed some notable figures including a president of Israel, three Republican presidential candidates and Al Sharpton.

According to Shankbone, his contributions are about leaving a legacy. “I do have the desire to do something that outlives myself and something that somehow betters the world, at least more than I found it,” he explained.

Shankbone credits Wikipedia with providing him the platform to pass on his knowledge. “People should care about Wikipedia because it is the only way for you to contribute your knowledge and to actually examine reality. It used to be that people, unless they were a reporter, were just passive consumers of information, whereas Wikipedia teaches you to critically think about things.”

Profile by Alice Roberts, Communications Intern
Interview by Victor Grigas, Visual Storyteller