Back in college, in an early morning class, a lecturer held up a large picture and asked,”What could be wrong with this picture?” We craned our necks to have a fantastic look and a pupil said brightly”It is underexposed!”
“Nope” the lecturer shook his head. Another student piped up,”It is the perspective that is wrong!” Nope, it was not that either. Perplexed, a last student called from the front row,”It is unfocused.”
“You probably need an eye test”, suggested the lecturer.
The picture depicted a brightly colored picture of graffiti. The pink and green text looped around the picture and away from the page with precision and movement. The art, sourced in the road, covered the entirety of this photograph with no circumstance but the art. It was to this that the lecturer drew our attention. “The issue here is intent”, he said. “The man who took this picture republished it for an exhibition as though it were their own work. But just because you take the photograph, does not mean the picture is yours.”
As a fledgling photographer, this concept fascinated me. How can a picture not be mine if I am the one to shoot it? Let’s look at a number of the ethical problems that surround street-art and photographing graffiti.
Graffiti is a favorite subject for photographers. Its vision is wild, eye and free. Often refreshed by new artists staking out wall area, it is a convenient way to supply new material also. But before taking the snap, think about the difference between photographing a picture of a bit of graffiti or presenting the street-art within context.
Consider it this way; a musician can sample other music to produce a new composition. But downloading the real song without compensating the artist is unethical and typically a breach of copyright; particularly if the job is then redistributed.
A Good Guideline
A good guideline is that if the graffiti takes up over half of the photograph, you’re copying the graffiti, not creating a new composition. Should you sell or display a picture that’s mostly someone else’s work, in certain conditions, this may amount to copyright infringement.
Having said that however, the character of an unsolicited graffiti artist’s work is illegal in itself, making it less possible for the artist to submit a lawsuit. Frankly though, when it comes down to it, it reveals a lack of respect from one artist to another and may result in problems with your standing as a photographer.
It’s often tough to pinpoint the artist of a particular graffiti piece. I have had some luck googling the text of the graffiti to track down the artist and request permission. While some artists are sheepish about being tracked down, others are pleased to give consent. Especially if I provide them a free print of the work to compensate. Just be certain you ask if they really need to be identified as the artist of the art.
Graffiti and the Law
A last issue to be considered when photographing graffiti is the use of this law. As mentioned above, you should think (and where necessary, seek advice) about whether photographing graffiti may infringe on somebody else’s intellectual property rights; but that’s not the only legal matter.
Frequently, graffiti is placed in places which aren’t accessible to the general public. That’s either because it’s on somebody’s private land or access to an area is restricted by law to certain individuals only (as an instance train tunnels and government buildings). You need to be careful to remain aware of your surrounding and bear in mind that while your photography can be a ticket to new ideas and self-discovery, it’s not a get out of jail free ticket.
Finally, although it’s usually fine to take photographs of items visible from public spaces, it’s not always advisable or legal to bring a photograph of some things. Regions in this category will typically be evident in your own country but it could be less clear in other countries. It’s important to keep in mind that laws differ from place to place and what’s completely acceptable in one area may be illegal in another.
If you are unsure, the old maxim”it is far better to be safe than sorry” is likely never truer than in certain circumstances where you could be trespassing or unintentionally entering a restricted area.
Photographing graffiti can be complicated. Besides all of the other things you will need to consider when taking a photograph, there are additional factors because another artist’s work is also involved.
If you take time however, graffiti photography offers unique opportunities to build on someone else’s job by making your own contribution.
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