Image Abuse

Probably most of us have seen pictures tweeted around the world with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls but I imagine few have asked ourselves about the source of the three commonly used pictures.

James Estrin did so, and on May 8 Lens published his The Real Story About the Wrong Photos in #BringBackOurGirls in which he interviewed the photographer who took the pictures, some time ago and in a different country more than a thousand miles from where Islamic militant group Boko Haram carried out the kidnapping that has shocked the world.

The first photographer Ami Vitale knew about it was when she was told by someone from the Alexia Foundation that the work was being used in this way, and she was enraged. She had made the pictures in a long-term project showing the “dignity and resilience” of African people whose lives were improving, and had promised the families she had lived and worked with that she would take responsibility for the images and use them to tell their stories.

As she makes clear, it isn’t that the images have been used without her permission that upsets her, and she supports “the campaign completely and I would do anything to bring attention to the situation” but the misrepresentation and the use of these images without the consent of those in them for a very different purpose to that for which they are made.

If you don’t feel it is important, think for a moment if a picture of you, or your daughter or some other family member had appeared across the world illustrating a similar story. If you had the resources and could identify who had carried out the abuse you might well sue and receive hefty damages.

And as Vitale put it: “I can’t help but wonder that they thought this was O.K. just because my friends are from Africa. If it were white people from another country in the photos, this wouldn’t be considered acceptable.”

The article and a comment there on one of Vitale’s images prompted John Macpherson to make an image search, and revealed a huge level of unauthorised use across the web of this particular image, as he shows in his Tears for fears on the duckrabbit blog on May 11th, Mother’s Day in the US.

The first comment on this piece came from Ami Vitale herself, expressing her surprise at the many ways her picture was being used “for almost every stereotype one can imagine” and going on to say how it was “particularly poignant and disturbing to read this on Mother’s Day. How would any of these people feel if they saw their own child’s image used in the same way? ”

I’d loved Ami Vitale’s work from Guinea-Bissau from when I first saw it, particularly for its warmth and intimacy and its life-affirming nature, presenting a very different view from the stereotypes we see of Africa. And when I was fortunate enough to meet Ami in Poland it was clear how her work embodied her ideas and personality.

I’m not sure what can be done to prevent the irresponsible use of our images, though I do know those who have made large amounts of money in the courts from people who have misappropriated their work.

But we really need to somehow change attitudes. Using images in this way is simply dishonest, but people who wouldn’t dream lying publicly seem quite happy to do so through images. I don’t know if it is going to be possible to change attitudes, when it does seem to be going against the whole stream at the moment. My images on blogs and my own web sites carry a simple copyright watermark, but it isn’t possible to insist on this on most usages, and perhaps that doesn’t in any case go far enough. Perhaps it might begin to get our message across if we also included a simple message ‘May not be used in any way without permission’ as well.

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