Yesterday duckrabbit published a post criticizing the photo industry for selling a set of pictures of the aftermath of the Haitian Earthquake but refusing to compensate the photographer because he had shared them on a twitpic. Much of my criticism was aimed at JF Leroy, the Director of Visa Pour L’Image (a photojournalism festival). You can read the full post here. Today we are printing Leroy’s response in full:
While i do not support your defamatory tone and behavior, which I do not believe is conducive to adult discourse, I do think your readers deserve an elaboration on what I told the BJP.
First of all, you seem to misunderstand my fundamental point : it is not because I believe that Mr Morel was wrong to upload images to Twitter that I believe that AFP had the right to steal them. The reductio ad absurdum that you reprint by using a rape metaphor is not only deeply offensive to me, it is also patently wrong. A better one, in my view, would be that of an insurance company who would refuse to cover the theft of a car its owner would have left with the keys on the ignition. My position here is that of the insurance company. While, had the owner of the car (or, in this case, of the images) have exercised a reasonable amount of caution, I would have been defending him, I am forced to see that this caution was not exercised, and that I therefore cannot defend him. This does not mean that I defend the thief, as you imply.
We, at Visa, have always defended professional photographers who work on representing the real within the specific context of the mass-media. In other words, photojournalists. We are, like many, a little bit overwhelmed by the recent evolution of the craft, and the technological evolution that has come with it. Among the many recent changes, there have been three major evolutions that are especially relevant to the field, and that I would like to touch on. The first is the availability of technologies that allow for fast retouching of a sort that necessitated considerable means and knowledge only a few years ago, and who make dishonest behavior easier.
I expressed my views on this in this year’s editorial, but this question of ethics is, I believe, relevant to the current case. The second is an increased ease in the transmission of images : much in the same way that movie studios are no longer the most efficient way to spread the movies they produce, photographic agencies are no longer the gatekeepers to the mass dissemination of material. In fact, they are, in some cases, less efficient at it. The third change is an increased blurring in the lines between professional and amateur photographers, in part as a consequence of the ease of transmission of the images.
I expressed my views on this in this year’s editorial, but this question of ethics is, I believe, relevant to the current case, in the sense that professional photojournalists have different ethical constraints than amateurs who post their images on social networks.
We at Visa strongly believe that photographs are documents which have a value, and that their use should be fairly retributed by those who use these images. We also believe in a photographer’s freedom to choose to let someone use these images for free in a given context, if they so wish. The images that are displayed on Visa’s website were licensed for the use on Visa’s website, and, as stated by the universally-recognized copyright sign at the bottom of the front page where you stole the work of others, they are protected by copyright. If you have some kind of viewing impairment that prevented you from seeing this, please accept my apologies. I would however appreciate it if you had the courtesy to remove them from your site, or at the very least make an effort to contact the photographers whose work you infringe.
Now, back to the Morel case. I will not take a stance on the legalities, because I do not believe it is my place. However, I will explain where my position came from.
As I said earlier, the tools that have been developed to allow people to share their images can sometimes appear to be more efficient as a means of spreading information than traditional means. However, their use can come at a cost, which is an ambiguity as to what their source is, as well as what the role of this source within the context that they are photographing is. As in many fields, scarcity makes the value of a product go up – an exclusive picture, especially in the United States, is worth much more than one that everyone has. In this context, by choosing to use a tool that is designed to spread images as efficiently as possible, Mr Morel made a decision that was contrary to his direct financial interests, and, as such, behaved not as a professional photographer but as an activist. That he seems to have decided at that moment that the value of the immediate dissemination of his images to the public was greater than his own financial gain is extremely noble behavior, and it should be commended. However, it also means that it is extremely difficult for me to defend him within the limits of what I do, which is defending professional photographers. I was not in Port au Prince when the earthquake struck, but I am surprised that, as a professional photographer, Mr Morel claims that the only means available to him to transmit his images was a Twitter affiliate. I have no way of verifying this claim, but I must say I am surprised by it. I am curious to know what technological exception made Twitpic more accessible than other options (assuming the absence of an FTP site, a password-protected archive uploaded to something like YouSendit, for example), which would have allowed Mr Morel to better protect his valuable intellectual property. This is an explanation that will hopefully come out of the trial. My understanding is that Mr Morel also made the fundamental mistake of uploading full-resolution images to Twitpic, or at least at a size that was useable by the people who printed them (this is another fundamental difference between the images that you stole from Visa’s website, and those that Mr Morel uploaded).
Making these kinds of files public, especially in the case of images that are so valuable, is, to me, akin to leaving your keys on your expensive car, and it is not something that I would do if I owned an expensive car. In other words, Mr Morel behaved in an amateur way. Much like Martin Parr would not expect me to defend him when he submits his pictures to photo club juries and, in doing so, takes his work out of the context of professional photography, Mr Morel should not expect me to defend him when he makes elementary mistakes like sending his images in the open instead of going through the established channels that would have allowed him to best profit from his work, and to control the context in which they were shown, something that is of prime importance in our field.
This said, I do not believe you will find me defending the AFP’s behavior anywhere. Between the liberal attitude towards the rights of photographers and the problems with sourcing within sites like Twitter or Flickr, I’d be defending a car thief who went around having unprotected sex and then complained he’d not only gotten caught, but that he didn’t know he could be spreading gonorrhea.
I do, however, truly hope that the matter will be resolved in a fair way, not only for Mr Morel, but also for others in the field who might make mistakes such as this in the future.
duckrabbit’s response can be found here. I would also like to point Mr Leroy’s attention to the comment by IAMNOTASUPERSTARPHOTOGRAPHER. I hope that at the very least Mr Leroy agrees that it is time these issues are debated face to face, in front of an audience and in the real world.