We take many things for granted, not even giving them a second thought. They are just there. Wikipedia, for example, has a photo of every car model that has ever existed. But where do these photos come from? And how is it possible that hundreds of thousands of these images can be traced back to just a handful of photographers worldwide? Join us on our journey to seek out these everyday heroes, whose tireless efforts ensure that nowadays anyone can find out exactly what a BMW M3 GT (E36) from 1994 looks like (➜ Read more: The seven generations of the BMW 3 series).
Less than two hours from London, Warwick Castle is a delightful medieval fort that was built by William the Conqueror. Throngs of tourists come to breathe in its history. Adam C. is also fascinated by old things, but what really gets his heart racing is not to be found between the castle’s ancient walls or among its historical weapon collections, but in the parking lot.
“I photograph every car regardless of model or year. But my favorites are cars from the 70s, 80s and 90s, which you rarely see anymore,” explains the 21-year-old. After photographing the vehicles, he uploads the pictures – up to 120 a month – to Wikipedia Commons under the user name “Vauxford.” Wikipedia users can then use the collection of freely available media files to illustrate Wikipedia entries. No one knows who the photographer is, even though his photos receive millions of clicks. Adam does not earn a single penny for his work.
The mission: capturing rarities
“If I were a superhero, I would want my superpower to be invisibility. Then I could sneak into the production halls at BMW and photograph the prototypes and concept cars. That would be cool!” grins Adam as he answers our question. So why are we visiting this lanky, unassuming young man with long hair in his hometown? Because in a way he really is a hero. Only he wears baggy jeans instead of a flowing cape. And even if he isn’t out fighting evildoers, Adam provides an invaluable service to society, at least to the internet community.
I haven’t even had to jump a fence for the perfect photo. But I would do it.
Our hero of the internet is out almost every day walking his hometown with his camera. Thriving tourism brings exciting subject matter to the city for Adam. While tourists would much prefer not to have any cars spoiling the medieval atmosphere of their vacation pics, Adam focuses precisely on the vehicles. For him they are the main attraction. “I haven’t even had to jump a fence for the perfect photo. But I would do it,” says Adam of his passion. And his expectations regarding the perfect photo are high.
Most cars don’t pass his strict screening process. “I can retouch a little bit of bird poop on the hood. But unfortunately a lot of cars are filthy due to the weather. Or the aluminum rims are darker on one side because of braking,” explains Adam, as his eyes wander attentively in all directions, always looking for his next subject. “Nowadays you rarely see cars that are more than 20 years old on the road,” he continues. “And when you do, they’re often rusty and have dents. This is a real problem with a lot of models. Take the Ford Ka. It was introduced in 1996, and fewer than 100 of the first edition are now on the road worldwide. They’ve gone the way of the dinosaur. Every car I’ve ever photographed has been in bad shape – missing hubcaps, rust everywhere.”
When he talks about cars, Adam transforms visibly. He loses his shyness, his words become faster and he bubbles over with enthusiasm. His mother says that this is how he has always been.
Everything revolves around cars
To say that Adam is a living car encyclopedia is no exaggeration. Talking with him leads you to believe that he’s memorized the dates of, and information about, all the cars in the books and magazines that lay in towering piles about his room. He’s effortlessly stored all this data in his head. Are nerds the superheroes of our day? Even at the age of six, Adam felt the need to name every car that he passed by. “This didn’t bother my mother a bit. She thought it was great because it made me happy.”
Every good hero story needs a mentor. After school, Adam would often sit in front of the computer for hours soaking up all the car information available on Wikipedia. That’s how he came across his role model: “In England, there’s a user by the name of Charles01 who has been photographing cars for the last 40 years and who started uploading his pictures to Wikipedia when it first began in 2001. I thought to myself – this is exactly what I want to do.” A year later, Adam’s grandpa gave him a camera for Christmas and he began emulating his idol.
I’ve never wanted to be like other people. Sport doesn’t interest me. I don’t watch movies or TV series. I only watch YouTube videos. That’s how I am. Why should I try to be what I’m not?
His friends just smile wearily at his passion for “normal” cars. “They don’t understand why I get excited about an old BMW Z1 but not a brand new Lamborghini. I’ve never wanted to be like other people. Sports don’t interest me. I don’t watch movies or TV series. I only watch YouTube videos about cars. That’s how I am. Why should I try to be what I’m not?” We asked whether his classmates teased him about his unusual hobby. “No one makes fun of me,” he replies with a quiet confidence.
The League: a dedicated Wikipedia community
At some point Adam, who studies photography, hopes to turn his passion into a profession. Until that time, he continues to upload his photos to Wikipedia Commons for free. In doing so, he makes a valuable contribution to the internet community. He’s uploaded several thousand images already. Many of them have been published in books, magazines and online articles around the world – as well as by Wikipedia. “It’s more than a hobby. I want to provide the world with my pictures for free so people can use them. People have a right to free information. How many of my photos have been published? I have no idea, I’ve lost track,” says Adam. Unauthorized uploading of one’s own photos in an external post is considered to be an affront by Wikipedia users. “It’s not against the rules, but it is frowned upon,” says Adam of the unwritten law of the online encyclopedia.
No one but me takes pictures of their mother’s car.
Besides Adam, there are very few other car photographers who take pictures strictly for Wikipedia. The community is small. Although they all know one another, they are not especially friends. They are more like competitors. “It’s not a social network. We share information and discuss which articles need editing.” Many users specialize in a specific make of car or only photograph luxury vehicles. “Nowadays, everybody’s taking pictures of expensive cars and posting them on Instagram. My motivation is different. Nobody photographs everyday cars. They don't get the recognition they deserve. No one but me takes pictures of their mother’s car.”
The Holy Grail: the Vauxhall Albany
Adam happened upon his most exciting find by chance. As he accompanied his mother on a shopping trip into the old part of town, he saw it: a light blue Fiat 131 from the early 80s with right-hand drive. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. I got so excited. Luckily I had my camera with me,” relates Adam. “It was crazy. It even had the original sticker from the Fiat dealer in Warwick on the car. This Fiat had been in my hometown all this time, but I’d never seen it before! And there it was, just a stone’s throw from my front door.” Despite his elation, Adam tried to remain calm on the inside. Often he only has one shot, because it’s photos like this that make his name in the Wikipedia community.
The Vauxhall Albany is my Holy Grail. For this car I would travel the whole world.
But there is only one car that he dreams of at night. “The Vauxhall Albany is my Holy Grail,” admits Adam and goes on rapturously about the 1990/1991 van, of which only 300 were sold and just two are said to still exist. “I wish I knew where they were. I would travel the world to find them. It’s so rare that hardly anything has been written about it. And I’m very good at research. There are only two old photos of the van still in existence. Photographing a Vauxhall Albany for Wikipedia is my life’s dream.”
Last question: do you not dream of driving some of these rare cars? Adam’s answer is surprising, “Me? No, I don’t even have a driver’s license. It’s so ironic, I know!” he says with a grin. Adam is just different. And the deeper we dive into his world, the more admiration we find for him. Maybe sometimes we search for our heroes in the wrong places. Maybe we’ve found one here in Warwick, and now he’s no longer unknown. And it’s high time we thanked him.
Author: Nina Kleine-Vogelpoth; Illustrations: Anuj Shrestha