Obama’s poster uses stolen photo

One of the recurring topics that I’ve seen in recent years is that of copyright and what internet technologies mean to photographers. The challenges that photographers face are neatly illustrated in an article the Wall Street Journal published today.

Essentially the Obama Hope poster that was widely used, was created based on a photograph by Mannie Garcia that Sheppard Fairey found on the internet, used without permission, didn’t give credit to the photographer, and even refused to acknowledge the photograph when asked about it.

Here’s what we’re talking about:

obama_3upLet’s take it another step forward. Let’s apply the Photoshop filter Posterize to the photo and see what happens:


At this point all it appears Sheppard Fairey did was posterize the photo and then trace over it in Illustrator with a few paths. Now I realize not EVERY area in the photo lines up exactly with the posterized photos… but it’s pretty amazing to see how much work didn’t go into this. This is what passes for original artwork these days?

I wouldn’t even be taking Fairey to task if he’d been up front and credited Mannie Garcia for the photo. But it seems pretty low to not even acknowledge the photo when asked about it.

So, this is why copyright matters, why metadata in your photos posted online matters, and why it pays to try and keep track of what’s happening to your photos. I recommend reading the Wall Street Journal article. It makes some excellent points more eloquently than I could hope for.

5 thoughts on “Obama’s poster uses stolen photo”

  1. Interesting… nice breakdown. I had this sign in front of my house and it was stolen, but maybe it was the photographer trying to reclaim his IP! :)

  2. It would have been nice if Farley gave the photographer credit – but I an not sure that he had to. Using a photo (this one in the public domain) as a trace item for an artist’s personal work has been done with any technology that allows tracing – once traced – it is the changes and interpretation that makes it the artist’s and I think Mr. Farley did a good job and made the image his own. These methods have become increasing used in all art forms as the amount of imagery available keeps multiplying and I am not sure where “copyright” begins.. In the end it is up to the photographer to decide if Mr. Farley “stole” her image – and I believe she does not think so.

  3. First off, the image is not public domain. Just because you can find it on the internet does not mean it’s public domain. It’s a copyrighted image. Which was used exactly as is with different coloring. Is that sufficiently making an image your own such that you don’t have to at least acknowledge the photographer? I don’t think so.

    If it was your photograph that someone had made hundreds of thousands of dollars off of… how much surer would you be about where copyright begins and ends?

  4. WOW, I have a bit of a problem with a few statements here.
    -“Now I realize not EVERY area in the photo lines up exactly with the posterized photos… but it’s pretty amazing to see how much work didn’t go into this”
    consider that the work which goes into taking a picture could be boiled down to clicking a button, and the camera does the rest. To apply the above statement to this would likely raise quite a lot of objections by you relating to lighting, framing, etc. To sum up, the art isnt in the pushing of the button, the art is in the decisions which go into the production before and after clicking the button. Not all of these decisions are cut and dry, or easily defined, especially to someone not involved in photography themselves.

    Likewise, what this article, as the wallstreet journal one, is basically doing is boiling down the creation process to a “button click” photoshop filter, ignoring all the artistic decisions, such as colors, reference material (pin that one, ill come back to it), stroke or no, fill style, line and curve placement, balance, font, etc.

    There are plenty of tutorials on ways to get a similar effect through a series of photoshop effects and with minimal design knowledge (ie ), however consider there are TONS of tutorials on how to get / create a great photo with just a couple camera tricks and limited photographic knowledge. While some of the examples created using a tutorial like the one mentioned will look good, many, including the example listed, look TERRIBLE, unbalanced, with poor color use, and poor divisions (because they are, for the most part, automated). again, compare this to photography. I am a horrible photographer, but I take a LOT of pictures. I have a few that are great, mainly an odds game, but a real photographer doesnt rely on odds, (at least not mainly) but goes in knowing the ramifications of all the decisions and finesses a great photo out of a situation. The same can be said of the method above.

    Now, to revisit out “pinned” statement above, choice of reference material. I own my likeness. if you take a great picture of me are you “stealing” my likeness? Most photos dont even mention the subjects of the pictures. if you diminish the photographic process to a button click than yes, you are stealing my likeness, and in the beginning of photography, as with painting and computers, this was the view held by most people. If you, instead, consider the process of constructing a photo as an artistic process than no, you can claim ownership of the photograph as your artistic work. The same applies to the poster, and in fact to computer generated work in general. So, I would claim that:
    -the likeness belongs to Obama
    -the photo belongs to the photographer as it is the product of his artistic work and expertise
    -the poster belongs to Mr. Farley as it is the product of this artistic work and expertise

    I would encourage you to consider that in the beginning of public acceptance and understanding of any artistic medium (consider renaissance painting, photography, computer generated) The artist was simply seen as “copying” the source of his work, and simply playing a documentary roll. It was not until the public considered the artistic efforts which can go into production that they considered some of the productions via the specific medium to be “art”.

    Also consider that photography is perhaps the worst offender of actual theft being played off as original artwork. Im sure, being a ethical photographer, that if you were to, say, take a picture of the Mona Lisa for a publication you would credit Da Vinci, not yourself, right?

  5. I guess part of my issue with this has to do with intention. Most painters and artists use reference materials. I don’t really have an issue with that. Nor am I claiming that Mr. Fairey added nothing to the process. He certainly did. However, he refused to even acknowledge the photograph or that he had referenced anything… as if it was inconsequential. Comparing the photograph and the painting indicates the photograph played a huge role. By Fairey’s lack of graciousness in not acknowledging that he used a reference, I consider it theft. His intention was to lead you to believe that the painting was strictly ‘his vision’. Clearly this was not so. Mash-ups and other ‘inspired art’ is fine and is still art, but don’t dis the artists that created the work you’re using in your mash-up. Respect the art and artists that you’re using and give them due credit.

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