Week 2: Whose image is it, anyway?

In the legal case between appropriation artist Richard Prince and photographer Phillipe Cariou, both artists appear to have gained in some way from the exposure achieved. This kind of controversy is at the heart of Prince’s practice, and he courts (no pun intended) this kind of attention. Cariou’s work is almost certainly better known than it was previously. Legal actions like this can only come into play when there is some kind of loss (actual or potential) to be compensated. In this case Cariou’s work is not diminished in any sense by Prince’s appropriation. We might be irritated that Prince has ‘made something’ from someone else’s work (both artistically and financially), but the potential for this is not inherent in Cariou’s work. Cariou couldn’t, for instance, have made Prince’s work himself – the ‘value’ (commercially and artistically) of Prince’s work lies in the appropriation and manipulation of the work of others, and in the fact that it is Prince that is doing it (Duchamp’s point with the urinal). These kinds of appropriations and manipulations are everywhere, and we all do it to some extent in our work (I didn’t design or build the C19th colonial building I have just made an image of, and the role in colonial oppression that I might want to convey is, I am sure, no part of the architect’s plan). Aesthetically, I don’t personally like Prince’s work, nor do I find it conceptually significant in any lasting sense. But there are artists, such as Peter Kennard , whose work I do admire (for its directness and clarity of purpose), who work predominantly with other peoples’ images (the bomber used in his piece ‘Conversion’ appears elsewhere in this discussion thread – I don’t think he’ll be suing).

‘Researching reality for me involves ripping photographs out of their context to bring the perpetrators of war and poverty slap bang into the same space as their victims. I want to act as an early warning system, be the canary down the mine. Imagining through images the end result of the direction in which we are heading and picturing people struggling to find another way’ (Peter Kennard in Read and Simmons, 2016: vii).

We are always building on and with something, and I personally wouldn’t want this to be overly restricted by the law (particularly having worked in oppressive jurisdictions where freedom of expression is limited by law).

If it is moral outrage that we feel in seeing Prince’s (and other) appropriations, I don’t think we should turn to the law to do the required ethical work (we’d be constantly in and out of court and consistently not getting the outcome we desire). Whilst recognising that we can’t control how our images (and other creations) are used, we can, through the use, for instance, of the creative commons, signal how we would like our images to be used, and what restrictions or caveats we wish to place (for instance, on whether an image can be freely used for non-commercial purposes, whether we want to be asked and/or acknowledged, whether it can be edited and used in part etc). This doesn’t police and enforce the use of images, but it helps users know when and how they are able to legitimately and without recourse use an image (we do want our images to be seen, right?) and draw a clear(er) ethical line in the sand, so that when those who use and appropriate images cross the line, they do so knowingly. And, of course, if you feel there is any actual or potential direct or indirect loss (financial or reputational, for instance), the courts are ready and waiting, with well trained legal eagles to fight your case (for a price, of course).

Read, M., & Simmons, S. (2016), Photographers and Research: The role of research in contemporary photographic practice, London: Routledge.