The photography world has been rocked, or at least disrupted, by the news that two well known and popular photographers have been accused plagiarising photos and words online. Petapixel broke the story, which has been shared widely online. You can get a glimpse of the debate in the comments under both the Petapixel article and […]
The photography world has been rocked, or at least disrupted, by the news that two well known and popular photographers have been accused plagiarising photos and words online. Petapixel broke the story, which has been shared widely online. You can get a glimpse of the debate in the comments under both the Petapixel article and also the repost on Photoshelter’s blog (same article, different comments).
I’m not interesting in dragging people’s names through the mud. What does interest me far more is the skepticism and cynicism I sense in some of the comments, under those articles and in blogs and social media. There’s a frustration many seem to have with the photographic industry and some pockets of online celebrity within it. To be frank, it’s a frustration I share, as a photographer, as a blogger and as a creative soul.
Changing Business Models
Photography, like music and journalism, has been disrupted by the web and the explosion of digital technologies. But, unlike musicians and writers, many photographers have adapted well by adjusting their business model and drawing some (or most, if not all) of their income by marketing not clients or buyers of their photos, but to other photographers, by selling workshops, tutorials, ebooks and instructional videos.
Within two years of taking up photography seriously, people in the game were suggesting I start teaching (I’ve already explained my reasons for not going down that path). It was only later I realised this was not unusual at all.
The idea of relative novices (or people whose photos are not that great) teaching is not problematic to me – as long as they are good teachers. But, much of what you need to know to make decent photos is already out there in print. So, to stand out from the crowd, to make your mark, you either have to work really hard, come up with new insights, or repackage what’s already available in fresh and innovative ways.
Or, you can just plagiarise it then claim the credit for yourself.
Not An Abstract Problem
Some apologists in the current controversy suggest that everyone quotes other people’s ideas and work, so nothing wrong has been done. But, quoting implies both acknowledging the words or ideas are not your own and giving credit to the original creator. When you quote, it’s clear you are standing on someone else’s shoulders, but when you don’t give credit and plagiarise, then you are pretending to be a giant.
And, neither is this an example of “stealing like an artist.” The whole point of that argument is not just to take ideas, but to make those ideas do some kind of new work, to synthesise and create. That’s the difference between stealing like an artist and just stealing.
In the old academic world, plagiarism was a serious issue, which could even see you expelled from academic life. Many legal frameworks also exist to protect ideas and intellectual property. These are not abstract ethical ideas, but structures designed to protect and reward innovation and creative thought.
But, in the wild west world of the internet, things are faster and looser. Like every blogger whose been around for a while, I’ve seen my words and thoughts appear, uncredited in other people’s posts and even in print. What hurts is not that people “borrowed” my ideas, I put them out there for just that purpose, it’s that the borrowers were so stingy, inhospitable and unkind, they could share even one sliver of their attention.
On Pointing Fingers
I don’t really have an answer because I don’t see this ending. The nature of the internet means these minor creative celebrities (and those who aspire to be like them) need to dredge up a steady stream of new material for their posts and educational “content,” often at a rate far faster than a working photographer can keep up with. The shortfall has to be made up somehow.
Unless we all grow up a little and start to accept that maybe, maybe we are too hungry for tips, shortcuts and courses. Maybe we are feeding this beast by wanting our inboxes, bookshelves and RSS feeds constantly refilled with new “content.” Maybe we are just as much a part of the problem as the plagiarists and thieves?
Perhaps it’s time we drank from our own wells a little more? Maybe it would do us good to spend a little less time trying to steal like an artist and a little more time making art?