A new debate on plagiarism has been ignited after a South African photographer attended an art fair, only to find his photograph altered and credited to someone else. The American artist claiming credit for the work has questioned whether the photographer can still claim ownership.
Attending the Johannesburg art fair a couple of weeks ago, you can imagine photographer Graeme Williams’ surprise to see his own photo staring back at him, except it had been converted to black and white, with different parts of it lightened and darkened. The work was credited to artist Hank Willis Thomas. To rub salt in the wound, it was appearing in the gallery with a price tag of $36,000, a figure Williams says is 25 times more than he has ever earned for the photo.
The photo in question depicts black schoolchildren teasing armed white policemen who sit atop an armored car and was taken in 1990, shortly after the release of Nelson Mandela. It has appeared in a number of exhibitions globally.
Thomas likened his actions to that of "remixing," as occurs within music. Disregarding Thomas’ amendments as inadequate in creating a new piece of art, Williams told The Guardian:
The changes were absolutely minimal. It’s theft, plagiarism, appropriation. It’s a kind of fine line where you say it falls. Within the art world, there’s an acceptance that you can use images within the artistic framework to create something that has meaning different to the original image. This was the exact same of my original photograph and all he had done is take an image that he likes and call it his own.
In a move sure to frustrate not only Williams, but many of us as photographers, Thomas is questioning whether the photographer can lay ownership on the new, amended image. He draws particular attention to the subjects featured within the picture, asking whether they were compensated for the role they play in the photograph’s existence. He added: “I think of it as more akin to sampling, remixing, which is also an area that a lot of people said for a long time that rap music wasn’t music because it sampled.”
With the rise of the Internet and the subsequent ease of access to high-res images, a number of cases similar to this have developed. This situation is reminiscent of known “artist” and thief Richard Prince, who has caused an online backlash numerous times for using and amending other artists’ works before selling them for large profits. A New York court has previously ruled in favor of one of the photographers making a claim against Prince, concluding that his work wasn’t transformative enough from the original image.
Williams makes an excellent point in stating that Thomas’ work often aims to illustrate “the oppression of the oppressed;” all the while, he is profiting the price of a medium-cost house in South Africa. “It does feel like a mismatch between what he says he’s doing and what he’s really doing,” he said.
The piece has since been removed from the gallery.
View more of Williams' work at his website.
Images used with permission of Graeme Williams.