A few posts caught my eye over the last few days (some courtesy of @johnedwinmason – thanks for the heads up John). Seemingly disparate, but to mind teasing out a common thread about something I consider to be really important: the future of our social history.

What's missing? © John MacPherson
What’s missing from this picture? © John MacPherson

First up, and very thought-provoking was ‘Social Media Networks Stripping Metadata from Your Photos’ by Mike Ashenfelder on the Library of Congress website who published  “a guest post by David Riecks, leader of the Photo Metadata Project.

However, it’s not just about proper attribution or maintaining your copyright notice, it’s also about preservation. For example, while many people may know some well-known online images (like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”), if they downloaded it, would they know where or when it was taken if we lost all the metadata, including the caption?

One of the links that Riecks includes details how a picture by Andrej Vasilenko has been mistakenly attributed on numerous websites to one Mr Henri Cartier-Bresson, including some sites which should have known better. The Register carries this article by Andrew Orlowski in which he quotes Vasilenko:

Vasilenko’s picture remains a memorable photo. So shouldn’t the real author get the credit, and maybe even some dosh? Internet affection doesn’t pay the rent.

Well, therein lies another story.

Getting the correct attribution on images has long been a pain for photographers. The image file’s metadata, which contains the attribution information, is stripped from digital photographs, often by large news organisations such as the BBC and Sky, on an industrial scale. It’s illegal, but the authorities (as so often in copyright cases) are on the side of the offender, not the victim……..

……….As Andrej told the Copylike community in an interview on Facebook:“I wouldn’t mind someone using it, if they ask my permission first. If you put a link to the original source then it’s not so bad, but if people could freely use my work without crediting me then I would definitely publish less. I am not a well known photographer and I want more people to see my work, but not if they think it’s someone else’s.”

And then I came across the excellent piece by Blake Andrews on Petapixel, ‘Was there Then: The Importance of Dates in Understanding Photography’ , in which he remarks:

Put your name and date on everything. That’s the first lesson every kindergartener learns in school. Drawings, writing, scratch marks, pinecone Santas, they all get labeled. Kids are taught to do this because name and date are essential in understanding any piece of content. And hopefully it’s a habit that remains with them for life. If that pinecone Santa ever makes it into a retrospective, viewers are going to want to know who made it. And more importantly, when…..

…….I think there’s a general sense that the artist’s name is the most critical piece of information in assessing a photo. If you’re buying photography as an investment it probably is. It’s not necessarily about what’s in the frame. If it was made by X or Y artist it’s worth something. And that mentality carries through most of photographic history. When history books are written, they’re usually organized by specific photographers. So-and-So did X, then another person did Y, etc.

But for me, date is even more important than name. With all art this is true, but especially with photography. Because time is integral to the form. Every photo is locked into a specific moment. If I show you a photo and tell you it was made last year you will understand it in a certain way. If I then say that it was actually made 50 years ago, your interpretation may change radically.

I’m sure the late Henry Carter or whatever he’s called would have agreed with the sentiment in that final paragraph.

At a time when there are more images being created than ever before, and millions more being made and uploaded every day, it strikes me that the likes of Facebook could do a lot more to protect metadata. With such a proliferation of imagery I’d argue it becomes more, rather than less, important to ensure provenance of work and accuracy and integrity of metadata. It appears though that Fb sees such information simply as a way to grow connections, target advertising, generate revenue, please shareholders, whilst many others see it as an inconvenience that is best removed to allow them to exploit images for pennies each, relying on the vast number of images available to leverage a profit.

But I’d suggest they are failing to see far enough ahead, not realizing the value this metadata will have in years to come. In fact I’d go so far as to say that any company that decides to throw way this information is at best naive and at worst stupidly shortsighted. It may be an inconvenience now, but it could be vitally important in a century from now. Or next year. Or tomorrow.

The huge irony in all of this is that apparently many of the worst data-stripping offenders actually make their living from ‘journalism’ – supposedly ‘reporting with accuracy’ the events of our times. See here for a good example in the Dutch media of what happens when captions are either missing, or even more alarming, are ignored by those who should know better.

But metadata is more than just simple captions, apart from the value of attribution for photographers it holds the keys to the understanding of our past. It is in the widest sense the story of our times. Dates give context, gps coordinates provide location, captions may describe our stories, our hopes, fears and aspirations, and even betray our prejudices. What value can one place on that? What value does much of the web place on it? Apparently very little.

Recent WPP shenanigans with the Magnum Agency have underlined the importance of accurate captions for ‘professionals’, but accuracy matters for all of us. At a ‘domestic’ level if images are stripped of data we may lose some of the subtle information that makes up the story of a community – imagine J.A. Mortram’s work without the subject’s voices, his images drifting through time as some shifting, aimless and inaccurate collection curated by the ‘art’ establishment; but more frightening at a ‘national’ level is that such important social documentary work stripped of crucial detail and context may give power to historical revisionists.

Recently I listened to a right wing politician refuse to acknowledge the events of the Holocaust, despite physical, oral, written, and photographic proof. We owe the future, our children’s children, the right to have an accurate understanding of their history. Consider the following caption and image:

“Here is an image of the ritual scarring done by some African tribes to youths of the tribe as a rite of passage to manhood, it was continued amongst many of the tribes who migrated to Europe in the early part of the 21st Century. The marking is thought to follow a specific pattern, varying with region, and gives tribe members a common visual identity. Anthropologists are unsure of the origins of these particular  markings as they do not appear in many other images prior to this period. There is some belief that these are sacred and to photograph them was forbidden. This image was made in 2012.”

© Yannis Behrakis
© Yannis Behrakis

I just made that caption up.

It’s a pile of utter nonsense. Complete tosh.

The truth, as told by the original caption for this image, is far more disturbing:

REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis:  Hassan Mekki, a 32-year-old Sudanese migrant, shows scars on his back in Athens December 5, 2012.  Mekki, who fled conflict in his country in hopes of a better life in Europe, said he was attacked by a group of men holding Greek flags and left with the deep wounds on his back, throat and neck in August 2012, about five months after he illegally entered Greece.  Mekki was walking in Athens with a friend from Mauritania when black-shirted men on motorcycles holding Greek flags and shouting “Go home black” and other racists insults came up and knocked him out with a blow to the head.  He was covered in blood when he regained consciousness and only later realized that his attackers, which he says were likely tied to the far-right Golden Dawn party, had left large gashes resembling an “X” across his back.  “I don’t have the right papers, so I can’t go anywhere to ask for help,” Mekki said.  “I can’t sleep. I’m scared, maybe they will follow me and my life is in danger now.”

This misrepresentation of history is the real danger arising from the loss of the accurate story of images, and is something we should all be deeply concerned about.

What will the web look like in fifty years? How will it evolve? Who knows. But one thing is fairly certain – social media sites will continue to flourish, swelling with unimaginable numbers of photographs, and Facebook’s old servers may become the ‘digital shoeboxes’ of the future, hidden in their ‘digital attic’, concealing a wealth of socially and historically important images, but perhaps shorn of context and story.

We are now at what may turn out to be our ‘divisive moment’ – the point where we, the creators and recorders of our social and cultural history, part company with the ‘integrity’ of our online work as the ‘curators’, in the shape of social media and photo sharing sites, data-strip it. And with the loss of that information may go vital parts of our collective social history, and possibly our art history too.

If this concerns you find out more here Metadata Manifesto,  also Who Is Stripping your Metadata, and the Embedded Metadata Manifesto. Participate in The Controlled Vocabulary Survey Regarding the Preservation of Metadata by Social Media Websites. And of course keep an eye on our own government’s meddling in creators rights and metadata with its orphan works grab in the Enterprise Reform Bill.   There’s a lot to lose in all of this, way more than we perhaps realize.

As Blake Andrews notes in his final paragraph, condemning the short-sighted actions of many social media sites:
“The only thing that matters is here and now, and screw any historical understanding. The unwritten corollary is that as things age they become less important. In the Twitterverse anything older than 3h is considered irrelevant.”
But I’ll leave the last words to David Riecks, words we should all consider carefully:

Most documentary images will have little cultural value if we don’t know at least a few of the basic Who, What, Why, When, Where and How’s of the image in front of us.

  • Dave White

    Hugely important post John, thankyou.

    • Yes David, something we need to pay a lot more attention to.

  • John R. Fulton Jr

    Stripping of metadata should be a crime. I suspect it IS a violation of copyright.

    As a matter of historical record Henri Cartier-Bresson used “Henry Carter” as his name when he traveled in USA.

    Thanks for your column.

    • Thanks John. I wasn’t aware of that fact! I live and learn!

  • Thanks for the mention, John.

    But thanks even more for this piece. It pulls together so many good, useful sources for thinking about the issues you raise. I’ll be using it in my teaching this summer.

  • On May 08, David Riecks will participate in a live Web discussion on this topic along with the managing director of IPTC and the CEO of PLUS Coalition. It’s called “The Copyright Killings” and you can register for it for free at http://picturepark.com/copyright

  • You’re welcome John. Glad it will be useful. Thanks for flagging these interesting articles up in the first place.

  • Andre Friedmann

    More Henri Cartier-Bresson trivia about seeking anonymity:
    When traveling in the US in the 1960s he sometimes used the Americanized name “Hank Bresson”
    and the art historian Maria Morris Hambourg tells of bumping into him in Paris in (iirc) the late 1980s, shortly after MoMA’s retrospective in NYC. She exclaimed “Mr. Bresson, you must join me and John Szarkowski for lunch” and he replied “Madame, I am not Henri Cartier-Bresson.”

    • Thank you Andre. He was quite a character, or maybe more than one!

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog’s hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

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