Madeleine’s controversial post has attracted considerable attention, and fostered a lot of discussion. I think that’s a good thing. I’m not jumping into the fray, but I wanted to highlight something really important (I feel). And it’s the notion of such ‘iconic’ images as Aranda’s being used for ‘promotional’ purposes out of their original (news) context, for example – as many respondents have mentioned – by other bands such as RATM and their use of the flaming monk and so on.
But there’s one difference I think. We are now living in a digital age where the dissemination of information is far easier, quicker and more global than ever before. And there was no notion of things going ‘viral’ in the early 1990′s when RATM used the burning monk image, ‘viral’ then would more likely be a medical phenomenon than a social one. Times have changed. Now ‘icons’ are created not necessarily by ‘the industry’ appropriating ‘known’ images and deliberately using them, so much as specific images being ‘adopted’ by the audience. And then becoming iconic.
Crucially, no longer are we simple consumers of whatever is fed us, we can exercise choice through social media, through ‘likes’ and ‘RT’s’ and so on. And that I would argue is what creates an icon.
Let me give an example – The Stolen Scream – an image created in a bedroom by a Flickr user Noam Galai, with no political motive, no thought of icon status, no aspirations to change the world, and yet which has become a global symbol of, amongst other things, the fight against oppression, of hope, of uprising and freedom from tyranny. (And as an aside, and worthy of a separate discussion is the ‘generosity’ of the photographer, happy to see his work so (mis)used globally.)
You can read the whole piece on TechDirt, excerpt below:
It’s about a photographer Noam Galai, who had posted a photo of himself screaming on Flickr. A few years later, he discovered, much to his own surprise, that the photo was being used all over the place. The photo is on t-shirts, in magazines, on book covers and a variety of other places. But rather than freak out and go ballistic (or legalistic) about it, he went a different route. He embraced it. He started posting an archive of everywhere that he’d seen his own face appear — including as a symbol in the Iranian protests against the government. And then others came and saw the archive and sent in more examples they had seen. So now, he’s set up an entire website, TheStolenScream.com, a blog of all the uses of his image he finds… and (quite smartly) his own store to sell things with the image printed on it.
David Bergman, from F-Stoppers, points out that his first reaction, like many he spoke to, upon hearing this story was to wonder if he was suing anyone, or if he was trying to protect his works. He even notes that he “couldn’t understand” why Noam didn’t seem particularly upset about all of this. And, eventually, he came around to realizing that maybe this wasn’t a bad thing:
There is no way to know for sure but I bet if Noam had watermarked his images from the start, none of this would have happened including the Glimpse Magazine cover. The people that were looking for “free” images online would not have contacted him if his images were watermarked, they would have simply found another image to use. By allowing his images to be public, Noam has gotten to experience something that many artists would give anything for. In my opinion, this experience is worth more than any advertising agency could pay for the image. Noam has made almost no money on these images so far, but I believe the money will come. I know many, if not most of you, will disagree with me but I see Noam’s Stolen Scream as an amazing example of art and the power of technology. I believe everything worked out for the best.
The power of an image comes not from what we as ‘creators of images’ might hope for, strive for, even pray for, but from what the audience perceive in it, and invest in it. That’s what makes these exciting times for photography, but also makes the appropriation of particular images such as Aranda’s potentially problematic.
And I think that’s why Madeleine’s post is important, and why it should make us sit up and reconsider the ways images in this digital sharing age are used, abused, disseminated and consumed. And created.