Wednesday, June 07, 2006

There’s sharing, and then there’s sharing...

Most artists dream of being accepted by the mainstream. We want our message to reach as many minds as possible. We crave, at the very least, to know that what we have said resonates with others, and at the very best, changes the way people think about a subject. It isn’t really about fame and fortune, so much as having people say they were touched, moved by the artist’s work.

No matter the medium of choice, there is a learning process to this whole communication thing, and there are always good people to help us along the way. For example, next Wednesday morning (June 14th) from ten to eleven o’clock, the Buchanan Center for the Arts is hosting the monthly meeting of Old Friends Talk Arts (OFTA), during which John Vellenga and John Van Kirk – two award-winning photographers – will offer tips to amateurs on how to best make their photos speak (especially to the judges). They’ll be, for OFTA members and all other interested individuals, offering advice on how best to crop, trim, frame, and otherwise display a photo for a judged show – just in time for the Security Savings Amateur Photo Contest.

So, if anybody in this community is interested in displaying his photographs for the show, he or she is welcome to come, first, for free advice, and second, for free entry into the contest (I am informed that the appropriate forms will be available at the Buchanan Center). The decision as to whether and how to make public his images will be up to each photographer, as it should be.

But in the big, wide world of mass media, a few seem to have temporarily forgotten whose is the last word. Michael Yon, a freelance photographer who spent his own money, risked his life to be an “embedded” journalist in Iraq for the past couple of years, has learned that one publisher, in particular, thought the artist is merely to be exploited. Of course, this is not new. On the front page of their debut edition of a gruesome magazine, “Shock”, Hachette Filipacchi Media printed Yon’s moving image of a US marine cradling a child who died in his arms. Yon had no idea they planned this, and had given them no rights to it (he was on assignment in Afghanistan at the time. One of his friends called it to his attention in an e-mail). Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the two French brothers who had the only film footage of the first airplane crashing into the Twin Towers saw their work “borrowed” without permission to make an anti-war, anti-Bush, slick piece of propaganda. Michael Yon has fought back. So have Jules and Gedeon Naudet. Both filed copyright infringement suits – Yon against HFM, and the Naudets against Dylan Avery, maker of the conspiracy theory video, “Loose Change.” In short order, both suits were settled to the artists’ satisfaction (more or less).

The trouble is, even when the stakes seem low, sometimes an artist’s work can co-opted by somebody else without the artist ever knowing. It took a friend of a friend to call attention to the apparent theft of Yon’s, and likewise the Naudets’ works. None of them had the time to search the internet daily looking for traces of their own work in others’. Sometimes, too, the artist doesn’t sign his or her name to the work. That means the original artist simply wanted to share a thought without expecting lauds, not that each person who stumbles across it can claim it for his own. If an individual or a company finds an unattributed work, it should stand as “origins unknown,” or some comparable label for its source, not “it’s ours, now!”

Whether it’s a single photograph or acres of video footage, whether it’s a painting of an Iowa dentist standing beside the artist’s sister or the poetic words of a friend who sent you an e-mail to share, art belongs to its initial creator, long before it can belong to the world. It is the first word and the finished work of a single mind, and the keeper of that mind should always be given his due. Come to the OFTA meeting, come to the show; we will always invite you to share in our ideas – but not in the credit for them.

Suggested reading:

Michael Yon's Dishonor
Screw Loose Change

Update: Michael Yon indicates that the settlement between HFM and himself is no longer settled.

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