Lizzie, who I've not heard from before, left a comment a couple of posts back about the photo that the woman from the Regional Council asked for from my Flickr account, to the effect that I should insist on a credit for it (I had asked for that), and ought really to ask for some payment for it (I hadn't and wouldn't). She raised the whole question of organisations and companies getting photos for free from the internet, and where it leaves people who are trying to take them for a living. I started answering her comment and found I had quite a lot of ideas about it, so thought perhaps I'd air it in another post. Then I talked with Tom about it, and it turned out he agreed quite vociferously with Lizzie, and I realised that my thinking was clouded and cluttered with some fairly woolly notions. So this isn't any kind of cogent essay on the matter, just kite-flying.
The matter of how the internet and all the free stuff available thereon has changed the whole landscape of copyright and intellectual property, and its effect on how people make a living and how information and images are transmitted, is hardly a new area of debate, but I suppose this is the first time it's impinged on me directly. I remember a while back Dave saying in effect, he was abandoning all attempt to prevent anyone from reproducing anything of his anywhere, that all he could do was ask them please and nicely to acknowledge him for it - or I seem to remember that's the gist of what he said, correct me if I'm wrong. (Please, anyone, any time, correct me if I'm wrong. I don't like it but I need it...)
I have to say I was inclined to take the old, morally lackadasickal, and sometimes indefensible, line, that if I didn't do it, someone else would. Had I said no, you can't have my photo, unless you pay me, or go and find a professional photographer and pay them properly, they would presumably have replied that they didn't have a budget to do that, and would simply pick up another free image elsewhere, from someone who would be happy just to see their work recognised. And at least they were good enough to ask - it seems to me once you put a photo into the public domain, not watermarked or otherwise protected, you are effectively making it fair game. I upload small, here and on Flickr, mostly to save time and space, but that's all.
Mostly, I guess, it's a question of vanity; of all the wealth of material being circulated freely on the web, having something of mine singled out for notice or considered useful by anyone is an ego-boost. If I get a poem accepted at Qarrtsiluni, say, (which is about the only place I submit them), it's an unequivocal honour as far as I'm concerned; plenty of serious, established writers have been published there for no fee, and I'm gratified to be alongside them. And a poem takes a good deal more effort and skill than a snapshot.
Also, I've had so much for free from the internet - from photo-editing tools to English teaching worksheets to dear friendship, that I don't mind giving something away on it myself from time to time. I quite like the idea that we can all live on a bit less because things are being shared round so generously. That said, if I was continually being peremptorily asked to spend time ferreting around on my back-ups for high-res images for no pay and little thanks, I might get a bit pissed off and tell them to be likewise. I know too that I'm in a privileged, dilettantish position to be able to be above needing to make money.
So on the matter of people like photographers losing a living frorm people like me giving stuff away, which is the thorny part of the matter, I'm not sure. It's a truism to say that photography has changed, irreversibly. Among my photography books is one by a very successful commercial photographer who started his career in pre-digital times. His photography is beautiful, staggering in its proficiency, sunny and bright and eye-catching. I find it a little lacking in depth, but perhaps that's just sour grapes. His creative tips are sound and interesting, but I just got slightly fed-up with his continual self-congratulation about how much money he'd made on the sale of his pictures to advertising stock agencies, and how if I was as clever as him I might even be able to do the same. I found myself entertaining a degree of petty-minded shadenfreude that, to some extent, his glory days must be at an end with the availability of huge numbers of free images on the web, and with the fact that one no longer has to have complicated mastery of the technicalities of photography to produce a reasonable picture. People have lost their jobs in film factories with the advent of digital photography, as they always do when technologies change, which is regrettable, but then all those dusty piles of mediocre prints clogging up cupboards, drawers and albums being a thing of the past is no bad thing, to my mind.
Having said that, when it comes to the area of people's voluntary journalism, photography or reporting, taking the place of the paid kind, it's a different matter. If we want proper information about what's going on in the world, we need people who are contracted to work full-time at it, to undertake risk and boredom and legwork if necessary and to be paid properly to get hold of it, relying on people to do it out of love or public-spiritedness or vanity is not enough. Which isn't to say that the kind of spontaneous, on-the-spot recording and commenting on events that takes place thanks to camera phones, networks etc aren't invaluable. But we also need people whose job it is to seek it and sort it, because there's just too much of it otherwise, and to be able to find it in visible and accessible places, rather than buried in a welter of less reliable and important other information and noise on the web. So being a professional now doesn't only involve getting the stuff yourself, it means finding it elsewhere, knowing where and selecting it. At one time the Conseil Regionale would have commissioned a photographer to go around the region taking pictures, now they employ Cindy, who also takes very good reportage photos herself, I checked her out on Flickr, not only to do that but also to look around for other people's work, like mine, to supplement it.
On the other hand, in employing a special group of people to acquire, select and and transmit our information for us, we are engaging in an act of trust of which those people are not necessarily always worthy. Free public journalism, blogging, twittering and the rest can be a tool to redress this.
There are, of course, things you just can't experience fully from the web anyway, though it can help you to access them. With music, downloading, legal or not, has changed the way its made and consumed, and it appears that the days of the few millionnaire rock stars with their enormous sales and recording contracts, are over (is that so bad?), but the attendance at live performances is increasing. Photography may be something that has become so ubiquitous and democratised/commonplace that professionals are finding it hard to make a living, but other forms of visual art - painting, sculpture, printmaking, mosaic, embroidery, whatever, seem to do quite well from the internet; they can't easily be stolen or replicated (though I suppose imitation might be a problem), they can be viewed by and sold to a wider public, techniques and materials can be shared, but nothing takes the place of the real thing in your hands or in front of your eyes, and that will always ahve a value. Even the commercial photographer I mentioned earlier has adapted; he writes books, and does on-line and other courses; his work will always have the stamp of virtuosity that all his years of technical training and experience have brought to it, and he still had something to teach those who want to get beyond the Intelligent Auto and other pre-programmed settings on their cameras which are my main area of operations.
And many writers, whose life is writing, write on-line too, and blog, and draw more readers than ever, and aren't grudging about sharing their talent for free, but rather welcome the opportunity to do more of what they love to do, and to be available to their readers in a more direct way, which astonishes and delights me as someone who benefits from it. And I often end up buying the book anyway, because, again, there's nothing like being able to hold it in your hands and carry it off with you.
Coming back to my defending my decision to give the photo away, I was inclined to say that I might feel rather differently about a commercial concern wanting a free image from me than I did about a public body like the Regional Council. We have a good quality of life in this region, and I'm not averse to studying and promoting it, so I didn't begrudge someone else doing the same, for a living. And yet I felt slightly disgruntled, firstly that their manner of asking, though correct according to the formalities, was brusque and impersonal, and secondly that I felt they chose an image which, on its own, was not particularly original or interesting, that they could have found in a number of places, and I suppose I rather thought that, of all the images of local interest I've produced, they could have chosen better.
However, by a pleasing stroke of coincidence there was a further development: a comment left on a November post from someone called Claude, asking me to e-mail his friend who was the skipper of the Aztec Lady, about the pictures I'd taken, mostly abstract and of the rust and peeling paint on the hull of said vessel while she was being refurbished in the boatyard at Granville. I seem to have made some new friends; Pierre, said skipper, asked me if he could have the pictures to put on the website and even perhaps to print and hang in the boat's cabins, and invited us to look in if we were passing Granville, and maybe I'd be interested in an exhibition of drawings and photos some other friends were putting on at the boatyard...
I was pleased beyond measure at this, more than happy to think it might help them to sell voyages to magical places on their beautiful ship, because their approach was warm and friendly and personal, and because they are clearly enthusiasts who do what they do for love as well as a living. From the point of view of gratifying my vanity, I was charmed by how they were charmed images which were odd and abstract and not what anyone else had thought of taking. They haven't so far offered me a free trip to Norway on the Aztec Lady, but I'm quite glad really because it would be difficult to refuse and I don't know how I'd square it with my other commitments...I urge you though to go and look at the slide show of photos of the boat at the Esprit Grand Large website. It's something to dream into.
Well, all this seems a lot of words about one small photograph, but it raised some questions, all of which I am aware have been raised before and discussed at greater depth. I'm not unreservedly singing the praises of the internet and all the changes it has brought, I know about the evils of it too. However, I found myself wanting toget my tuppence-worth in anyway, because this space is here for me to do that. I appreciate that too.
14 minutes ago