Friday, May 7, 2010

Image Karma

by Drew Martin

I have a confession: I am an image kleptomaniac. I take images from the Internet without permission and I shamelessly use them here without acknowledgement. It's not that I am an evil person, it's simply that it is impossible for me to fluidly and creatively function otherwise. Yes, it's "lying, stealing, cheating" but I think this has to be the way of the future. On some photo sharing sites, such as Flickr the photographer can be easily contacted but it is often very difficult to find the right person from other image amassing tools such as Google Image Search.

Since I am not business minded and have no model of how image exchanges could work, I have thought about it more holistically and have come up with the idea of Image Karma. The idea is to generate and upload as many images as you "lift" and that you are willing to give them as much freedom of usage as you expect from the images of other people. Like Karma, it's not something that needs to be monitored and externally regulated because it is something you have to live with, balance and own up to. Although, technologically, it would be quite easy to tag the original image and then run a program to detect which user owns the images.

I looked at this blog to test the waters and see if I have image debt or image credit. I thought it would be quite easy to add up all the contributed versus appropriated images but it gets complicated. For example, what do you do with a picture you find of yourself or something you made, which was taken by a photographer you do not know and posted online? And what about an image you take and add to, giving it another meaning or if you make a unique collage from several independently lifted images?

I came up with four categories for images (which includes photographs, drawings, charts and graphics): Generated, Lifted, Borrowed and Deserved. Generated means you are the original source. Lifted are the ones you have taken without permission. Borrowed are ones either given to you or which you took with some kind of understanding. This happens a lot with people I interview, they either send me pictures of their work or I get them from their websites. T
he latter, is more a matter of convenience for my subject and is always done with discretion and the rightful owner always has final say of whether or not I can use it. Deserved images are pictures of you or something you have done.

Of course there are tons of existing rights issues involved with what I am suggesting. I would not typically grab someone's personal photograph unless it was absolutely fitting and was handled respectfully. I also would not purposely trespass onto the property of living professional photographers who depend on their photo rights for their livelihood. These people are typically sharks roaming the Internet for improper usage of their photographs and will sink their teeth into you with threats and lawsuits. I envision a shared future where such possessiveness will seem wrong and archaic.

This is the 90th posting to this blog and up until now I came up with roughly 150 Generated and 125 Lifted I have got some image credit in the grand scheme of Image Karma. I also have about 50 Borrowed images, which are, in the end promotional for the original source. There were also a couple Deserved images and those were from a freezing mud run I took part in so I really deserved those images. Although this seems like a justification for appropriating images, I actually think it is a duty to be thinking this way and contributing as well as taking. It is a very positive exchange and a lot less suspicious than the thinking behind the idea of offsetting your carbon footprint. In this posting there is one Generated graph and a Deserved image below. The other two pictures are photographs I took of sculptures I assembled from found objects. No one else could possibly have these pictures. I have added them only for that reason, to introduce them into the sea of images without restriction. I could care less if they end up on a corporate presentation or someone else's website.

I started thinking about this a year after 9/11. I was pursuing my Masters degree in Media Studies at The New School and was taking a class in Media Ethics. One day I was flipping through a big silver book by Magnum Photographers on 9/11 while waiting for a librarian. To my surprise, there was a picture of me running (in the center, black suit) from a wall of smoke/debris/ash being pushed up West Broadway. I was four blocks from the first tower to collapse, when it collapsed. One would think that I would have some say as to whether or not that picture could be used, especially to generate money for profit or even a cause. But I have absolutely no rights to it. It belongs to the photographer Adam Wiseman. I did contact him and we arranged for him to send me prints but I did not get his permission to use it here. I did not ask. In terms of Image Karma, this falls into the 100% Deserved, especially because of the emotional circumstances.