It seems recently that a lot of things in my photography life have been happening in little clumps. All at once I’ll get messages from people in the same country, or have the same theme of ideas in my head, or even the weather staying the same. But with those great things, sometimes the not so great things come in bunches as well which is what I’ve been dealt with this last week or so.
A few days a go a friend sent me a message linking me to another artist’s page on Facebook and right away I felt that familiar tingle of anxiety tickle up the back of my neck. You know that feeling when you’re taken by surprise, maybe you’ve seen a shadow that looks a bit frightening at first. My first glance at the pictures on this person’s page had me quickly go from that anxiety-hair on end feeling to complete loss for words.
What I was looking at was someone who had essentially built a photography career, copying my photos. From the lighting, to the props, to the locations, to the posing and even down to my signature flatcap hat that I often wear in photos, it was all there. Hanging in galleries, being proclaimed by magazines as creative and original, published in books. All these photos that actually had me second guessing if they were in fact mine, just run through filters. I was lost, even though it’s not something new to me.
I’m definitely not one to take myself or my images too seriously. I recognize that I put the vast majority of my work online, without watermarks. That’s my choice, my freedom as an artist as well. But that still doesn’t take the sting away from seeing that work disrespected. Almost every time I post something about this topic there’s always the comment that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And to a degree it is. I certainly don’t get upset when up and coming photographers are inspired by my work and post their interpretations with a link back to my work. I’ve been inspired by other artists and have interpreted their style in my work, and always make a point to let it be known that inspiration came from another source. This imitation stops being flattering when there’s no attribution to the original creator.
Like I mentioned at the start, things come in groups and the very next day I ended up finding another photographer on Facebook had been very cleanly, removing me out of my own images and putting himself in as a replacement. He’d obviously spent a lot of time making sure these looked like his photos. There were a couple dozen of these images, all with this other person in place of myself. Again I was totally at a loss. It was like going to watch a movie but all the actors were replaced with other people than you expect, it was just weird.
I posted in a group that I’m a part of that helps photographers with a variety of questions or problems. And the reaction was a unified, “Um…what!?” to both of these examples. At first my reaction is to just shake my head, sigh and let it continue but thanks to the support of these friends, I decided to reach out to both of these strangers to hear their side.
Both of them replied, and both replied with very similar attitudes. The first, denied ever having seen my work or knowing anything about me. After I sent him links of the original photos that he had copied, he replied with a generic “there’s lots of pictures on the internet that I like” and then stopped replying. The second person was upset at me that I wasn’t willing to supply him with “artistic backgrounds” for him to share with his friends. An hour after our conversation in which I told him it wasn’t respectful, he posted another one. After another round of explanations, I reported him for copyright violation on Facebook and the images were removed. (thank you Facebook for standing up for creators of content).
Being inspired by another artist is not bad, wanting to create something that you like to see isn’t bad, and even using other people’s work as a motivation for your own isn’t necessarily bad. Many of us have inspiration boards, favourite images we’re inspired by and so on. When that crosses into complete copying and theft, its disrespectful not only the original artist but also continues an attitude of “it’s on the internet, so it must be mine to take”.
As a freelance, self employed photographer I work hard at not only finding opportunities to continue to support myself but also to produce work that I’m proud of and that I feel engages my audience and helps me grow as an artist. When other people take those images without consent it makes it even harder to focus on the things that I love to do and easier to feel a weight of frustration cloud everything over. Originality in art is hard enough without looking through Instagram and seeing poorly redone images without any consideration to those that created them, like going to the library and checking out an off-brand version of a best seller (Larry Motter and the Chalice of Flames anyone?)
Chances are if you’re reading this right now, you’re not one to spend an hour photoshopping yourself into someone’s photos but there is a growing attitude among younger artists (no, not all) that almost anything on the internet is free for use. We as artists need to continue to support each other by fostering creativity not blurring the lines of imitation.
Do you have a story like this? Share it in the comments below.