Oof! What a controversial topic for week 1!
I’ve spent the past three years working in the photojournalism and documentary film world. With the rapid changes in photo/film and digital communications, they’ve been three very interesting years to work in this field.
In this time I’ve been close to two women documentary media makers have had two very different issues with copyright. One of them has run up against copyright laws in making a film using Elvis’ likeness. The other had her photo “remixed” in a way that she found unethical, and tried to stop the misuse.
The first story about Elvis is the tell-tale horror story of copyright getting in the way of art. Our reading this week covered a number of those, so I’ll put her story to the side for now. But the reason I bring it up is just to say, I know the danger of over-reaching copyright and I agree that it is something that we need to keep in check.
I want to tell the second story, because I feel that as media makers we have a responsibility to the subjects of our art, especially if it is a person that we are interviewing or photographing. So, here goes:
In May 2014, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria edited and used one of photojournalist Ami Vitale’s photos without permission as the lead image of their campaign. The campaign went viral, and Ami was heartbroken. She went on an online crusade to have the image taken down and disassociated with the campaign. Some people weren’t so happy with her about it, but, having met Ami before, I really felt for her and I wanted to hear more about why she felt so strongly that her photos shouldn’t have been used in this way—and about the impossible feat of trying to control a photo on the internet. At the time, I was running a blog, so I commissioned and edited a piece an interview with Ami on the topic. You can read the full article here.
What stuck out to me in hearing Ami’s story was that the photo in question had been part of a project in Guinea Bissau, and it was a story meant to de-stigmatize the stereotypical ideas of African countries as war-torn and destitute. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign used Ami’s image in a way that turned the subject into a victim. It told the exact story that Ami was trying to unravel. Aside from that, Ami had secured permission from the subject of the photo, Jenabu, for her project. She didn’t secure Jenabu’s permission for use in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign or for any of the other ways that it has been used without permission over the years.
Susan Meiselas, another extraordinary photographer, makes this point in “On the Rights of Molotov Man,” but I think it’s worth making again. As information flows faster and faster online, it’s easy to become disconnected from the real people that are at the heart of our work. It’s important that we consider the stories of the people that we are representing in our art and whether we are representing them fairly. This is especially true when working in documentary and journalism, but I think it has merit in all artistic interpretations.
Cover photo: Remixed with permission from Liftarn.