Venice Beach, February of 2016
I had been a photographer for about 8 months when I took this one. I had almost forgotten about it…until I found myself in a Rizzoli bookstore on Broadway in the Flatiron neighborhood in New York City, looking through the newly published photobook of another photographer. Unfortunately, to my great dismay, I saw this photograph. It wasn’t mine….but it was. In fact, it was a nearly identical copy of the one I had been so proud of, so exact that it took me a beat to realize that it didn’t come off my SD card, somehow mysteriously and inexplicably printed in someone else’s publication. Plagiarism and copying is rampant on social media, and I remembered that the photographer who had so cleverly copied my picture had unfollowed me when I was still in Los Angeles. I know how difficult it is to execute a photo like this one, because the tumbler rotates so quickly as he traverses the length of the assembled bodies that achieving the exact positioning relative to the signage and general background is not a random occurrence. I wonder how many shots it took for him to duplicate my image–did he have to return several times, trying to capture the light (golden hour), the crowd, the general ambiance? An amazing replica, to be sure. And one that makes me feel like a parallel universe Cinderella, one that missed the party entirely. A strange feeling, and one laced with equal parts frustration, pride, disbelief and resignation. That last feeling is the worst, overlaid with a sort of dull surprise replacing the heated anger I would’ve felt a year ago. It’s happened before, and so I am learning how to try to process these occurrences without losing my temper.
When we post our hard won images to our websites and, most especially, social media platforms we are taking a massive risk. Images are routinely used without permission and therefore without compensation for the creator. The worst thing by far in my estimation, however, is plagiarism. Why? Because Plagiarism is theft. To me, it’s just as much a crime, albeit an intellectual one, as it would be if another photographer stuck his or her hand in my bag and pinched my Sony 35mm f 1.4 as I stand on a crowded subway platform.
As I write this, I’m on the 4 train. I will ride to Utica Avenue in Crown Heights so that I can walk with my camera through the crowds at the West Indian festival and parade. I know that in a crowded place on a special day that any images I manage to craft will be nearly impossible to duplicate. I am also aware that there will be someone somewhere that may try, no matter how preposterous it may seem, or how difficult or unlikely or productive. I was slow to realize that there’s no significant downside to doing so. It surprised me for a long time, this lack of respect for the work of others. Because that’s what it is, ultimately: a total lack of respect in the absence of personal responsibility and culpability in the universe that social media immersion has created. It ranges from demeaning and aggressive commentary to outright bullying. Plagiarism and theft of all kinds are not only tacitly accepted, these behaviors are strangely and surprisingly encouraged by the complex set of furtive etiquettes that govern people as they forage online for entertainment and stimulation. There is an odd defense of this habit of theft as well, the idea that once you post an artistic endeavor online, there’s an implied complicity on your part as artist–you’ve posted it or displayed it so therefore you’ve lost your rights. In speaking openly about clear instances of outright duplication I have noted an almost abusive form of chastisement for doing so, commentary completely devoid of the obvious problems associated with copyright, ethical behavior, and respect for ourselves as artists.
It’s critical that we use social media carefully, that we develop the ability to separate playful, artistic abandon from the tension and stress resulting from the inherent competition that a “likes” based system encourages. The resulting desperation from this handicapped system of encouragement from outside, anonymous sources just reinforces this total lack of self reliance, and breeds sameness, and uniformity. Devoid of the professional ethic of the working artist, we find ourselves lost in a jumble of ridiculous commentary, ruinous and frustrating instances of plagiarism that never help us to grow as photographers, and desperately childlike behaviors that reduce us all as creators.