You’re scrolling through social media when you see a photograph that looks terribly familiar; it looks so much like one of your photographs that it takes you a minute to realize that it’s some else’s work. What do you do?
If this has not happened to you yet, count yourself lucky. There’s no feeling quite like having worked hard to bring a concept to life, only to watch someone else receive praise—or worse, payment—for your pirated idea. While you sit there boiling with righteous indignation, you ask yourself: do I confront the person? And if you do, what happens when the person shrugs you off and says, “I’ve never even seen your work before,” or, worse, “it’s just inspiration, everybody gets inspired by everybody else, you should take it as a compliment.”
What do you do when you get accused of copying another photographers work? How do you know where the boundary lies between inspiration, and copying? And is there anything we, as a community, can do to prevent copying and foster healthy inspiration? If we can’t prevent copying, how do we handle it?
When talking about the issue of idea thievery in photography, someone always brings up the maxim, “good artists borrow; great artists steal,” as a way to explain or excuse the offending photographer, but aside from the questionable history of this quote—which appears to have begun life referring to poetry and saying exactly the opposite—it’s important for us to ask ourselves if artists are really condoning the theft of their own ideas. I can't imagine so, since many artists know what it's like to have an idea pirated. I take this quote to mean that when something in art is borrowed, it is reproduced, often to the detriment of the original artist and their concept. The creative signature of the original is still clearly visible. It’s a copy.
When an idea is stolen, just like the word implies, it is taken and made the property of the thief. When you make something your own, you put your signature on it, you
Originality is hard to come by, though, and with the amount of imagery we take in daily, there will absolutely be traces in our own work of photographs and photographers that have inspired us. And sometimes a concept becomes so ubiquitous that no one thinks twice when seeing another iteration of it: see milk baths, for example. For the most part, no one has a problem with incidental similarities, or the use of concepts that have been re-hashed so many times they cease to belong to anyone. And since one cannot copyright an idea, only the expression of an idea, how do we know where the line between inspiration and copying lies? And, once we’ve established that line, how do we respond when a photographer steps over it?
Many of us are drawing from the same wells of cultural experience and from the pool of available imagery, so it seems obvious that things like the usage of individual light set-ups, concepts, makeup styles, poses, wardrobe, or locations wouldn’t constitute copying on their own. But, when the offending image includes the same concept, light set-up, makeup, pose, wardrobe, and location, I think it’s safe to say a photographer has moved into dangerous territory. But what about every photographer who ever posed a family in a field at sunset? A pretty girl in the woods (or any other outdoor location, for that matter) wearing a spectacular dress?
These kinds of images are common enough that they’ve almost become cliché. Do we ignore them because so many people have recreated them, or because, in portraiture, it’s the individual that’s generally the most important part?
This makes me wonder whether issue of copying only comes into play when someone hits the right combination of originality of the source material, the purpose of the shot, and the market. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen this issue arise much less often in portrait photography, possibly for the reason I mentioned above: the portrait is about the person, and the idea is secondary, whereas in genres like beauty photography, conceptual or narrative photography, and fashion, the idea or the story are more important than the model, who often serves as another vehicle for telling the story.
Looking at an image and being inspired by the light usage, the pose, the subject, the camera angle, etc. seems perfectly natural. Photographers even teach each workshops that allow us to make our work look just like theirs. So how many boxes do you have to check before the work becomes copying?
At the end of the day, the issue may be like porn: you know it when you see it. There don’t seem to be any hard and fast rules that say categorically, “you can do this much, but once you do such-and-such, you’ve gone too far.” Less like a line in the sand, and more like a wide swath of swampland between two properties that neither land owner really wants to claim. The farther you are to one side, the more in danger you are of trespassing.
And when someone does take one step too far and ends up on your land, what do you do? I’m not a fan of the mob mentality, where everyone descends on the offender like a hungry pack of wild dogs, but I also find it morally reprehensible for someone to profit off someone else’s hard work.
I realize I’ve put forth more questions than answers, but that’s because I want to start a conversation. I’ve seen photographers accused of stealing an image when they genuinely had no idea another similar image existed, and I’ve seen photographers blatantly pirate another photographers work and try to make a profit from it. I’ve seen a photographer use the same unique location, same light, same composition as a photographer they admired, where the final image really only differed in the subjects of the photo, and wondered: is this pushing the limits? How far do you let someone else go before you say, “hey, that’s not cool.”
Below is an example of having gone too far. The original images were created by photographer Alana Tyler Slutsky for Paper Magazine, and the copies were created for an editorial in an online magazine, who thankfully pulled them once they were made aware of the theft. What makes the copying so egregious is the unique concept, which begs the question: what is the likelihood that the second photographer would have come up with the same concept, to include the colored gloves, on their own? Unfortunately for the copying photographer, the resulting image was nowhere near as strong as the original in way, from angle to light choice, and hair styling. It was a copy that did nothing new or different with the original artists idea, resulting in a photograph that pales in comparison to the original.
For examples of those ubiquitous, cliche images, one has only to scroll through instagram to see someone on a cliff with their arms raised, jumping families, water hair flips, or couples wrapped in Christmas lights. No one cries foul when someone reproduces these ideas because they're so ubiquitous that no one owns the idea anymore. If someone, or a group of someones, had stood up when the first copy-cat image arose, would our community have been forced to use more original ideas? Let’s have a conversation about what is acceptable, how far is too far, and what can we do when someone steps on our toes?