Last week, I got a message from a friend with an image from the Socality Instagram of a photobook on a table with a cup of coffee beside it. On first glance, I was confused as to why Socality was promoting From Here & Away, a photobook that I had self-published nine months earlier.
Then I realized it wasn’t.
The book on the table was theirs, a collection of photos from a recent meet up in the Portland area. But the cover contained a near identical photograph to From Here & Away, and the promotional photo of the book was also identical to one I had published a week earlier than them on Instagram.
I made a Facebook post with a side-by-side comparison of the books and photos in question, which 19 people shared. A friend saw the post and directed me to the contact info for the founder of Socality, and I sent them an email politely drawing their attention to the fact that I felt my work had potentially been plagiarized.
Their response was what I had expected. It was merely a coincidence, they had never heard of me, and they had never seen my work. But what struck me most about the email how it suggested the similarities between our books are due to the fact that I was being on trend and stylish with my images. They said the style of shot is “honestly pretty popular right now” and then stated again “quite popular stylistically currently” and that the coincidence arose because “hundreds of people take photos of people in front of oceans from behind.”
That’s where I have a problem. Maybe that’s why they chose that photo for the cover, but that’s not why I took and subsequently chose mine.
Socality was only a month old on Instagram when I took the photo for my book cover. The exact date is February 12, 2014. At that time I hardly used Instagram at all, and very rarely showcased any of my actual photography on it. I did not follow any photographers and was not part of any communities. I was making images, not because they were on trend, but because I was genuinely inspired by real moments that spoke to me on a deeply personal level.
My book, From Here & Away is a visual representation of a very personal journey from a time of anxiety and depression to a state of mind that appreciated, participated and enjoyed the world rather than be overwhelmed and frightened of it.
When I saw this figure, holding their head in what looked like confusion and shame, facing the turbulent waves that seemed to hold all the overwhelming anxiety I used to feel, I knew right away it would be the cover. This moment perfectly represented the beginning of that journey for me and that is why I decided to click the shutter. I did not take it because I thought it would be a cool, trendy photo to put on the cover of my book.
Some technical stuff about the image as well. I was about 20-25 yards away from my subject and captured the moment with a 300mm lens. The image is completely candid and completely real. The person in the photo is my 11-year-old cousin who didn’t even know I took the photo until I showed her the cover of my book 6 months later (she was thrilled.)
Two things about the cover of their book, I’m quite sure it was posed, which leads me to believe it was taken because, as they said, it’s a stylish and trendy kind of image. And I found the actual person who took the photo for the cover and interestingly he follows a person (one of his only 622 followings) that repeatedly entered a contest I held to win a copy of my book. So there is at least a connection there. (I’ve not put the names because I don’t believe it would be beneficial to involve them in anything.)
The coffee shop image was also not taken because it is on trend, but because I actually work Thom Bargen, a really nice, neighbourhood shop in Winnipeg and have my book there for people to look at. Instead of going to a coffee shop with the intention of showcasing my book, I just took a photo of where it was sitting.
The difference here is organic work versus posed work. The thing that bothers me most is that someone would now see my book and think “hey that kid copied Socality because people looking at ocean photos are trendy” and disregarding the tremendous amount of emotion and time I took crafting something that I’m really proud of. I didn’t create it because of what is currently popular like they’re response accused me of.
Another thing that bothered me is that if the photos are only slightly similar, like they claimed, why would they delete two comments that some of my friends put on the Socality Instagram respectfully suggesting similarities? They also deleted a comment I made asking them to respond to my email that contained the photo of the books side by side. When I asked them about this they said it was because it was “damaging towards the integrity of our organization. Unnecessarily so.”
I’m obviously not totally satisfied with their response to my questions. But it did get me thinking about how this whole situation perfectly illustrates the main issue I have with photography/social media.
Instagram can cause people (or in this case, organizations like Socality) to constantly seek conditional love of their work in the form of likes and comments. When you do this you run the risk of reducing your artistic scope to only meet the approval of your audience and peers. By being safe and linear reduces not only your art, but art in general. The most popular people are the ones who have found a sort of perfect formula that gets people engaged. Fog, coastal roads, mountains, blond hair underneath red toques, flying kicks (really don’t understand that one at all) and cool backpacks, are 90% of the images I see in a day and are the ones that get the most likes.
I guess I'm just asking what the point in taking a photograph is if you only seek to copy the formula of someone else who has found a certain type of image that people respond to.
I’ve for sure been guilty of this too. But it's the people closest to me, that I respect the most that have made me realize I need to make images that speak to me first. If you raise your eye to the viewfinder already thinking about the audience who will view it, you are regressing as a photographer. I've definitely done this, and even though these images look pretty I am ashamed of them because they contain no meaning. And at the end of the day, art without intention is not art at all.
I'm taking this whole Socality situation as motivation to push my artistic capabilities beyond what I see 1000 times a day on Instagram. I'm not saying that I'm a super innovative photographer, but if the intent is to produce images I haven’t seen before, I can only get better. And that's all I want to do, progress on my terms, in my own way. If people like it and connect with it, that is amazing and so rewarding. But if they don't, at least I have the satisfaction in knowing I was true to myself and how I wanted to shoot the scene.
In a lot of ways, Instagram is awesome. It is such a powerful tool for connecting with other people, sharing work, getting ideas and even getting new clients (if you’re a photographer.) I do like that I can show a bit of appreciation for someone’s work by commenting or liking. I mean, I started the From Here & Away website and community Instagram page to do exactly that. Give innovative people (not necessarily professionals) a platform to share their original work with a caring and like-minded audience. I have no interest in a perfect grid, or the prettiest images. I try only to feature images that clearly spoke to the people who made them.
I think (or really hope anyway,) that when people are truly present in their work, it shows. The number of likes on a photo are not an indicator of quality nor should they be the driving force behind creating an image.
Maybe the plagiarism wasn't intentional, like Socality claimed, but it still happened. I believe this was a symptom of the Instagram problem. This is a good lesson for me, Socality, and others, to try refine our own style and not directly copy someone else’s work that they put time and effort into creating.
I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes of all time.
There you have it.
Happy shooting, everyone.