Letting Go or Holding Tight

Tonight our Photo League members will be watching a film on photographer Vivian Maier.  After her death, someone outside of her family purchased her negatives and has shown her work literally to the world.  She was apparently a very private person and never wanted anyone to know about her photographs.  Now she is a buzz in the photography world and her story gets you thinking about what might happen to your work once you are no longer here to speak for it.  Sadly, the person fighting for the rights to her photos–a first cousin once removed–never even knew he was related to her until a lawyer dug him up.  It’s a fascinating story and raises all kinds of questions about who is entitled to your art and how you can protect it.  Read the story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/06/arts/design/a-legal-battle-over-vivian-maiers-work.html?_r=0

Now that we are in the digital age of photography, we are even more at risk for losing control of our images. Not so long ago, about 15 years to be exact, professional photographers and the general public still shot primarily with film.  Digital cameras were on the market, but were just being tested and there was still a great deal of skepticism regarding their validity when compared to their film counterparts.  I was just beginning my portrait and wedding photography business and primarily used my Nikon F100 film camera and my Rolleiflex.  In the next couple of years, I added a Fuji S2 Pro digital camera, but was still a bit hesitant to trust it.  Photo sharing sites like Tumblr, Flickr, and Instagram didn’t exist until the mid-to-late 2000s, and iPhones didn’t hit the scene until 2007. In other words, it was easy to keep your photos close to you. People couldn’t use your photographs unless you printed from the negatives yourself. You clearly owned them and it was a whole lot easier to keep track of who saw them and, more importantly, who used them.

Once I started relying more on my digital camera and began giving clients digital files instead of prints, I realized that I was beginning to lose control of how my images were treated.  This became very clear to me on two occasions: 1) a prominent English band used my photos on their website without crediting me or paying me because someone gave them a disc of my images without my knowledge and 2) a photo of a baby that I had taken ended up in a major hospital advertising campaign without crediting or paying me because the parent of the baby (whom I had given a disc of images to after our photo shoot) gave the photo to the hospital without my knowledge, claiming it was hers.  I was incredibly upset at both situations and was raging about the injustice of it all.  They were my images and I didn’t even get credit for them!

That can happen so easily now.  With so many photo sharing sites and so many ways to download images and use them without the photographer’s permission, it is hard to hold on to what is yours.  I’m guilty of it myself.  If I need examples of specific photo techniques for a class I’m teaching, I often search the internet for the right image to use an an example, right click, and save it to my computer.  No harm, right? Well…

The rules of the game have certainly changed when it comes to being paid for your images and being in total control of how they are marketed.  The digital photography/computer age has definitely made it easier to get your work out there, but has made it harder to maintain control of how it is used.

Ultimately, it is the photographer’s responsibility to control his or her own images.  Let’s face it, if you don’t put your images online, then they are not going to be stolen. If you don’t give clients digital proofs, then they can’t use them without your permission.   But then how are you supposed to market yourself?

A lot of photographers choose to put watermarks on their images to ensure that they do not float about on the internet unbranded.  I don’t do that.  In fact, I hate the way it looks unless it is done as discreetly as possible and doesn’t take away from the image itself.  I do see the value in it in terms of making sure that the image is credited correctly, but I don’t think it is visually appealing in most cases.  I will occasionally put a small watermark on a particularly treasured image of mine, but I let go of trying to control the bulk of my images long ago.  I decided it was better to have the images admired and enjoyed rather than trying desperately to reign them in.  I became very zen about the whole thing and just decided to put my images out there and hope they are enjoyed.  I let go of the stress I was feeling at trying to keep my images under my control and hoped for the best.

I also decided to quit giving clients low-resolution discs of my images.  Why?  I found that people were printing them incorrectly.  If a client tries to make an 11 x 14 or even an 8 x 10 out of a low resolution disc, it is not going to look good and my name is still going to be on it.  I would rather make sure that it is represented in its full resolution than pixelated because someone wouldn’t fork over the money to pay for a high-resolution print from me.  But again, this is just a decision that I have made based on my own experiences.

For those of you who are indeed concerned about how your images are used without your permission, there are a few things you can do to help make yourself less vulnerable.  Check out these links for ideas on how to keep your images safer:



In truth, there is no clear line, no definitive answer to the age-old problem of protecting your art and receiving just compensation for your photography.  It happened to Vivian Maier just as easily as it happens to someone who promotes an image on the internet. It boils down to how diligent you want to be in defending your images or if you are comfortable letting them float about in the world without your strings to tie them down.

As always, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for your camera!



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