November 4, 2016

Graham Ashton

Photographers Caught in the Political Crossfire

Image: Gage Skidmore

Whoever gets your vote this election, we can at least all agree that this contest was ugly. Even those making candidates look good on the trail, the photographers, weren’t safe from the mud-slinging.Amateurs and professionals alike fell into the cross-fire over bizarre copyright cases. Experienced photojournalists defended their neutrality over the tiniest of details. Some stepped in when their work was damaging (or salvaging) a campaign, or turning the whole process into a farcical theater.What role should a photographer have other than to document? Are they to blame if a poorly timed image or too-truthful shoot damages poll numbers? Most importantly, why do presidential hopefuls think it's OK to commandeer an artist’s work for political gain?

A picture says 140 characters…

The 2016 presidential election was an album of defining photographs, but certain images will define photography for the next decade. From Mark Peterson’s black and white Instagram gallery to an entire room full of Hilary Clinton selfies, every politician and pundit got their own viral snapshot.And not everyone was happy with the attention.

My report from SC on Trump, whose first event had scores of empty chairs >

— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) September 24, 2015

Donald Trump was livid after he left Charleston in September 2015. A photo from his campaign appearance showed row after row of empty chairs in the back, all before half-time. He reacted by calling the photographer, Mic Smith, a “f*cking thief” and a fraud.

“The reason why I photographed the "empty chairs" was because the reality of the event was that it was half full and Mr. Trump had been promoting the fact that he always filled his events,” Mic Smith told Pixsy. “I thought the chair photo might make Mr. Trump unhappy so I actually showed it to a fellow journalist and asked him if it was a fair photo before I sent it to the Associated Press.”

Few politicians react gracefully to a gaffe. But when you question a photograph that’s already gone through multiple editorial hurdles, you raise questions no photojournalist should have to answer. Can I capture that? What am I allowed to focus on? Should I not submit that photo?

“I never go into a political assignment thinking I have to cover it a certain way,” said Mic. “I let the event happen naturally and then photograph what happens. I try my best to not influence what happens.”“My main goal is to capture truthful moments that tell the story of the day.”

The Truth lies behind a camera, not in front

Earlier this year, a desperate Bernie Sanders campaign tried to connect their candidate to the civil rights movement.They believed they had the perfect tool: a 1962 photo showing a college-aged Sanders arrested during a protest against school segregation. The problem? Four fellow alumni of the former-democrat doubted it was really him. Ultimately, photographer Danny Lyon settled the dispute by unearthing other photos taken that day, and matching their order on his 54-year old contact sheet.When you can’t dispute the accuracy of a photo, you can still complain about where it turned up. Donald Trump accused Ted Cruz’s campaign of buying the rights to a nude photo of his wife Melania and sharing it online to sway away conservative voters. Turned out an anti-Trump super PAC (called “Make America Awesome”) lifted it from a 2000 GQ magazine spread. The photographer later confirmed he alone owned the rights, and hadn’t sold his image to anyone. With his usual tact, Trump retweeted an unflattering photo of Ted Cruz’s wife, next to a modeled shot of Melania.

"@Don_Vito_08: "A picture is worth a thousand words" @realDonaldTrump #LyingTed #NeverCruz @MELANIATRUMP"

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2016

Didn’t we say this election got ugly?There are photographers who set out to debase candidates. Nate Gowdy spotlit every wrinkle, crooked smile and unfortunate hair-do on the political stage with high-contrast close-ups. Jean Malek’s “Locker Room” photo series recreated the Republican nominee’s worst debacles with gruesome imagination. We the audience can tell the artists from the journalists. Yet some politicians can’t seem to sort between the ones making statements, from those portraying the election cycle in all its dishonesty.

There’s no “right” or “left” when it comes to copyright

We at Pixsy are used to defiant infringers. Elections offer a rare chance for everyone else to glimpse this sort of arrogance. Such as when the Republican National Committee allegedly stole a photo for their vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine smear campaign. That’s right: they criticized an attorney whilst potentially breaking the law. When approached by Pixsy, the photographer Scott Elquist said the case was in litigation.

Dear @GOP, you are using a Style Weekly portrait in this @timkaine attack ad (about the legal system) without permission. Please contact.

— Style Weekly (@StyleWeekly) October 5, 2016

There were many other cases of image theft this election, but unlike the above, most photographers were apolitical.Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski are gold-standard wildlife photographers. Their specialty is revealing rare moments of the wild American West. That penchant for powerful animal personalities attracted "Donald J.Trump for President Inc." to their iconic Bald Eagle image.

A screen capture of the bald eagle sign for sale on Trump's website, before its removal.

Trump brandished the bird across for-sale lawn signs, T-shirts and caps. His campaign even encouraged its liberal (no pun intended) reuse among supporters. Attempts to resolve the situation civically were rebuked, and a lawsuit was per-usual the only option.It all ended with an undisclosed settlement, making it one of the lucky 150 out of Trump’s 3500+ lawsuits to be resolved “amicably”. Remember, party lines played no part here. Image theft is image theft, and taking office doesn’t give you an excuse to ignore a photographer’s rights.But the most notorious case of all occurred just two months ago. Donald Trump Jr. posted this photographed bowl of Skittles on Twitter to illustrate a (questionable) point about Syrian refugees:

The post was condemned by media outlets, politicians…even Skittles’ manufacturer Mars:

— Mars, Incorporated (@MarsGlobal) September 20, 2016

Trump. Jr stole from the worst possible person in terms of campaign damage. David Kittos, the photographer, was a former refugee who fled the Republic of Cyprus when he was just six years old.

“It was never done with the intention of spreading a political message,” Kittos told the BBC. "I have never put this image up for sale. This was not done with my permission, I don't support Trump's politics and I would never take his money to use it."

Kittos soon removed his image from Twitter with a DMCA takedown and has now escalated the case into a full copyright lawsuit. Trump Sr., Jr., Mike Pence, and the campaign organization are all listed as defendants.Will it go to all the way to court? There is less chance of settlement here than in the bald eagle case, given the claimant's personal investment in the theft. It will be a long legal journey, but then again, this is a photographer who left everything behind to escape injustice. We think he, more than anyone, has the determination to overcome the monetary and legal hurdles.

Processing the photographic backlash

Picture this day four years from now.Photographers will once again deliver us hundreds of thousands of images of each potential U.S. president. We can only imagine the new cameras those images will be captured with, and what role social media will play up until the final ballot is cast.Here’s something we shouldn’t have to speculate: how the law (and future law-makers) will value those photographers. We should expect more mutual respect between those in front of and behind the camera. Most of all we hope that a photographer’s iconic image, and not image theft, is the big headline of the day.

Graham Ashton

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