Photographer Finds His Photo Edited and Used in Exhibition, Is Told It's A 'Remix'

Photographer Finds His Photo Edited and Used in Exhibition, Is Told It's A 'Remix'

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.

A direct comparison of the two works. Williams' original photograph in color, Thomas' edit in black and white.

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.”

Hank Willis Thomas' edit hangs in the gallery.

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.

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Previous comments
michaeljin's picture

I believe I've made my opinion pretty clear and as this is a comment section on an internet forum, I would think that it's understood that everything said on it is just peoples' opinions and reactions. It's not like we're writing dissertations with cited sources and stuff. As for whether appropriated works ought to be subject to legal inspection before being displayed in a gallery or not, I think that's something left to people in suits and ties to decide.

I will say that I do not believe in censorship so I would never say that any expression should be blocked from being displayed at all, but artistic expression and the desire to personally profit from that artistic expression are two very separate things. If the desire was simply for artistic expression, why put a price tag to sell it? If the desire is simply to get many eyes on it to spark discussion, why hang it in a physical gallery when we have the broadest distribution network of ideas in the history of mankind in the internet? Furthermore, if you're going to appropriate a work, why not at least credit the original source whose work you're appropriating?

I have my opinions as you have yours and others have theirs. And yes, everyone else's opinions be damned because they are just opinions in the end, not fact. Once in a blue moon someone might make a sensible argument with facts that will naturally cause me to re-evaluate my opinion. That's how things ought to be. I personally find it fairly rare for such a thing to actually occur on any comment thread, though. How we feel about things evolves over time and maybe there's a time when I will come to appreciate appropriation art. We're not monuments made out of stone. We're living creatures who are constantly being shaped and reshaped by our experiences.

I never said that I wasn't a fan of conceptual art. I said that I wasn't a fan of appropriation art or abstract expressionism (among other things). These two genres of art do not compose the entirety of "conceptual art". As far as issue wasting your time, you should know that you're wasting your time whenever you write anything on a comment thread. Ask yourself how many people you've argued with on the internet and how many you've honestly gotten to change their minds. The alternative if you're just talking to fans to the same things that you're a fan of is to be getting into an echo chamber circle jerk with a bunch of people who all share the same mindset where you're not exposing yourself to new people, new ideas, or new modes of thinking.

For me, the latter is even more of a waste of time as I don't need a crowd to validate my belief in things that I already believe. At least when I'm arguing with people who have vastly different views, I am reminded that there's a world outside of me—as narcissistic as it may sound—and there's a modicum of value in being reminded regularly that I share my existence on this rock with people who are so different from me, but who are nonetheless just as entitled to their different worldview as I am to mine. And as I said, once in a blue moon, I might learn something new that causes me to re-evaluate my worldview.

Just a thought on my part. You just said,

"Personally, i thought the original photograph was a fine reportage image; i think the appropriation takes that image and distills the message into something very artistic, focused, and personal."

I personally thought that was a valuable take on this whole thing and could have sparked some worthwhile discussion. Yet instead of simply saying this, you chose to open with:

"You all are like NASCAR drivers complaining about the Formula One cars - pedantic, pedestrian, and out of your element. Of course you think it's theft, but the truth is the art world rewards controversy and concept. You are essentially complaining about something that you want no part of, and which cares nothing for what you think."

If you think that you're wasting time arguing, I think it's pretty clear that you brought it on yourself.
Anyway, take care.

Deleted Account's picture

It sounds like you want to be done with this conversation, and that's fine. The only part i was considering a waste of time was discussing art genre appreciation, preferring rather to keep it focused on the more specific discussion. I thought overall that the conversation was worthwhile. So I'll just throw this out there, since it seems to be a major portion of your dislike for this specific case. The gallery is selling Thomas's art for 36k, that's true. Did you know that Thomas is deeply involved in many non-profit causes for equality, and is quite philanthropic? That money could very well be going to a worthy cause; perhaps far more than the original artist could ever have donated.

Anyway, i stand by my original comment. I think it sparked a ton of worthwhile discussion. But then i forget who I'm talking to - "I don't care about you. I don't care about your photos. I don't care about your community. I'm not here to contribute anything meaningful and you'll find nothing in my words or photos that does anything of the sort. I'm just a random guy passing time." I guess you called it!

michaeljin's picture

"Did you know that Thomas is deeply involved in many non-profit causes for equality, and is quite philanthropic? That money could very well be going to a worthy cause; perhaps far more than the original artist could ever have donated."

If you want to paint him as Robin Hood, that's fine. It may very well be an apt description as Robin Hood was also a thief. The only difference is that Robin Hood stole from the rich in an unjust society where the poor were oppressed. Thomas stole from a peer. Doing a right also doesn't erase doing a wrong in either case just like donating a million dollars to a charity wouldn't make it acceptable for me to steal your desk lamp. That's not the way the world works. And yes, "thief" and "stole" are my own judgments given what I see and the circumstances surrounding the image that I've read. A court may decide differently.

Yes, I believe that this conversation has run its course. As I said, take care.

Josh Spradley's picture

The eternal vacuous refrain of "the art world".

"You plebs just don't GET IT"

Deleted Account's picture

No duh. You don't get it, nor do you want to get it. Except i would use the term traditionalist or modernist instead of pleb. Social status doesn't have much to do with it. It's more about artistic view.

Please, everyone, make sure you vote down views you don't agree with. Trump would be so proud!

michaeljin's picture

How does everything become somehow political?

Deleted Account's picture

Because it's a handy allusion to censorship and small-mindedness? I suppose i could have mentioned Pravda or some other reference but that's not as obvious or timely.

Deleted Account's picture

Does he have any model release forms.

Color Thief's picture

Why would he need model release forms?

Deleted Account's picture

As far as I am aware, if you want to sell images commercially you need model releases from anyone recognisable in your photo. (I have been looking into creating stock photography). For editorial content it’s ok, but as he is selling this for personal gain he would need model releases from everyone in the photo.

Jeff McCollough's picture

The key is in your first sentence. "sell images commercially" IE photos for commercial usage. In this case the photos aren't being sold for commercial usage but rather just art so no releases are needed.

Color Thief's picture

Selling this for personal gain does not equal commercial use, after-all photojournalists sell images for personal gain too (although sadly not much these days). The issue is whether the use of a person's likeness constitutes appropriation or violates rights of publicity. That's a more complex issue with a rich (and interesting) legal history.

Deleted Account's picture

Thanks I get it now.

Allan Savage's picture

In Australia, the laws are quite clear. I can take a photo of anyone in a public place (i.e. not on private property) or from a public place without needing a model release. There are a small number of exceptions: the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority has special regulations regarding photography, as does Sydney's Luna Park fun fair. But typically no restriction, and no requirement for a model release.

Deleted Account's picture

Hi, in the UK I can also take photos of anyone as long as I am physically standing on public property. I cannot however sell those images commercially without the consent of anyone in the picture who can be regognised in any way. Try and submit one of your pictures to a stock photography library to commercial use and see if they accept it without a release form, Getty images, adobe etc. The artist who copied the work hasn’t got the releases in his hand so the people in the photos have legal rights for compensation or even destruction (I would guess) of the work if they object in court. $36,000.

Jeff McCollough's picture

But the person mentioned in the article isn't submitting photos to SS, Getty or Adobe. You don't need releases if the photos aren't used to promote a product or service(commercial photography). The usage of the photos in this article fall under the art or editorial category.

Deleted Account's picture

Yes you are right, thanks.

Deleted Account's picture

Better get my camera out now and start calling myself an artist 👩‍🎨

Aaron B.'s picture

Theft. If we go to the musical comparison, artists site where they sampled the music from AND pay royalties to the original artists. Anything other than that is theft, which is also seen in music. Doesn't matter if its fine art or instagram photography theft is theft.

Mark Guinn's picture

To take it even further with royalties, the song doesn't even have to be sampled. The Killers are paying Bob Marley's family royalties for simply saying "Redemption Song" in their song "Run for Cover." No doubt about it, Thomas stole the photo.

Aaron B.'s picture

Wow really? The Marley aren't playing around.

Dwight Erskine's picture

I think he needs an education. Remixing in music still falls under copywrite and licensing laws. If you remix a song, and don’t have permission to resell that remix, it’s theft. If you remix it, and simply “publish” it for free, it’s called a bootleg. In music this is generally ok but can still be shady.

Chris Terrell's picture

I would say that sampling a song to create a new song typically does create a new song, as most times it’s only a piece of a melody that gets altered then rearranged and then applied to a new beat.

What this guy did was take an entire song and apply a bass booster to it and then claim it as his own.

Rob G's picture

It takes some real unmitigated balls to make a snarky "Oh, I wonder if he ever compensated his models?" remark... _while_ you're charging $36,000 for your "remix".

Ash Straw's picture

I don't know why this is even up for debate, this is clearly Greame Williams picture. It hasn't been plagiarized, that would involve taking another picture to copy the original; this is the original, dropping the colour hasn't changed that. If this was the music industry just sounding like a new piece may be based/influenced by something previously published can lead to forfeiture of royalties to the original author. Visual creative work should be treated no differently.