"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Creativity
October 12, 2013


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?

Toni 11 years ago

There is a very distinct group of people who now believe IP to be fundamentally wrong, and that ideas and creative work should not be possessed or controlled. They see it as a fundamental right to take the work of anyone else and use it (without payment, either by cash or acknowledgement) for their own purposes.

But outside of that, there is very little truly individual creativity at all. Most people just re-cycle the things they seen one way or another, normally without realising it. That’s true for guitar effects, the stories behind films and preparation of food. Re-hashing creation is what humans do. I don’t know any details of this plagiarism, so can’t really comment on further specifics.

HKP 11 years ago

Martha Graham had that great line, “If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.” It’s good advice, but what people seldom recognize is that it contains a moral dimension as well: if you steal from the best, you’re stealing from someone above you in the pecking order. If you steal from someone below you in the pecking order, it’s vicious exploitation pure and simple.

My question to you is, why are you “not interested in dragging people’s name through the mud”? Are you afraid to align yourself with the weaker person rather than the more powerful one? That might be a wise career move but it’s a strike against you as an artist.

Fernando Gros 11 years ago

HKP – You’ve made an interesting comment. I agree with Graham’s suggestion, there is a moral component to all this. My motivation in writing this piece is to speak a concern about exploitation as I understand it.

But, I’m not sure I understand your question. I’m not interested in aligning myself with anyone and I don’t see art as a competitive game where people are either above or below me. If other people want to judge or rank me in that way, that’s their concern, not mine.

A big part of the issue here is the way the internet blurs purely artistic distinctions. What I mean by that is someone might be an amazing artist, but terrible at building and online following, blogging or using social media. Certainly in the photographic world, there are people who do a great job of building online community even if their art is not all that exceptional. And, some are good at both.

Blogging and social media can become an industry of it’s own and this is where I believe some are tempted to treat the internet as a giant farm they can harvest from whenever they need “content.” When your business model relies on “eyeballs” as the tech writers put it, then there is always going to be pressure to keep the rate of posting and tweeting high – perhaps unsustainably high.

And, finally, the main reason I chose not to discuss the people who initially inspired the post is twofold. First, the specifics of their misdemeanours are not, ultimately, central to my argument or concern. Second, the issue relates to all of us, not just those with large online followings.

I hope that makes sense.

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