The Moral Dilemma of Documentary Appropriation in the Age of Social Media
Late on a recent photowalk, after leaving a café, I chanced upon a group of five Shiba Inus. Naturally, in seeing such an uncommon site, I pulled out my camera to photograph them. But just as I was about to take my shot, I was blocked by the handler. He started to protest, saying it was wrong for passersby to photograph his dogs without asking for permission first. After that, he went on to elaborate his position, saying it was inappropriate for strangers to take pictures of his dogs without knowing their full story.
He said he was a blogger, and that he was creating a forum of exchange where people who photographed his dogs would share those photos with him on social media. Upon hearing that, I agreed to his terms. Naturally, I started to play with his dogs in getting to know them. But then, I made a worrisome discovery. They flinched at the approach of my hand. It was then I noticed the choke chains around their necks - normally reserved for much larger and more spirited breeds. At that moment, alarm bells sounded in my head.
These dogs all have the earmarks of suffering abuse. In making that realization, I got up to inform the handler I no longer wanted to photograph his dogs anymore. He was right, I told him. A photographer should really get to know more about the subject before taking a picture, because it might not be worth it. Frankly, I didn’t want to be complicit to this man’s hunger for popularity at the expense of his dogs. But to be fair to him, he’s just a casualty of social media - lured by the prospect of recognition - which can bring out the worst in people.
To some, it may seem rather hypocritical of me to criticize this man. After all, am I not doing the same with my partners in crime? Am I not exploiting their youth and pleasant disposition to gain popularity, or merely just to be seen? Or what about photojournalists? Or paparazzis? Or professional portrait photographers? Aren’t they also exploiting the people they photograph for the same reason? Thing is, when one takes a photo of another living being and then shares it, one is appropriating that being’s likeness.
By that standard, all shared photos documenting others can be defined as some form of appropriation. How could it not be regarded in that way? A person shares a photo, taken of another person or being, for the sole purpose of gaining recognition. In accepting that perspective, doesn’t that make the act of taking a photo of another person not as passive as one would want to believe? I mean, if they never asked for their likeness to be photographed and then shared, you’re essentially taking it from them for your own use.
Admittedly, my position on this issue of documentary appropriation may be more rigid in interpretation than those of others who typically define it more loosely. But my stance is expected. Coming from the professional world of fashion, my bias is consistent with standard industry practices where the authorized usage (or rather the appropriation) of a model’s likeness on any media campaign is contingent on an assignment of copyright. For that reason, I’m more mindful of the implications in appropriating the likeness of others.
Of course, it would be an overly impractical obligation from a recreational or even journalistic perspective, if every photographer were expected to obtain an assignment of copyright from those being photographed. It would be ridiculous. A burden like that will grind the act of photography to a halt. Such a condition where one is required to get explicit permission from the intended subject would be too restrictive; invariably stemming the free flow of photographic initiative and creative expression.
That said, the prospect of furthering photographic initiative and expression shouldn’t give exploitive intent an excuse to hide behind. Most of what’s being photographed for sharing isn’t for a greater good, but rather for selfish reasons associated with one’s need for some form of personal affirmation. As such, it’s no wonder how widespread the practice of unsolicited documentary appropriation has become - given how appetizing the prospect of popularity can appear with increased social media engagement.
Harsh words? I’m only playing devil’s advocate. But, let me ask you this question. Why do you share on social media the photos you take of other people? Are you doing it for likes - in hopes that your contribution would make you more popular with other like-minded photographers on your network? Or perhaps you are doing it to further the cause of photographic initiative or expression? Or are you really being social in sharing photos to close family and friend who may find relevance in either your subject or you for taking the photo?
Why so serious? What harm can come from a little photo sharing and documentary appropriation of another person’s likeness? This may not be immediately evident, but when you appropriate the likeness of others for the sake of popularity, you run the risk of commoditizing your subject’s worth. Essentially, you’re treating the likeness of that subject as visual proof to the world that you’ve collected enough faces (like notches on a belt) to appear sufficiently deserving of recognition and popularity.
Phrased in that way, doesn’t sharing a photo of another person sound somewhat unflattering. Personally, I am troubled to think I can be like that. It’s just too one-sided. When you take photos of others, do you really think they want you to share their likeness to anyone, just so you can prop up your popularity by standing on their likeness? It’s a hard reality to swallow, given the sense of accomplishment we all feel when we get more likes, recognition, and engagement on social media from documentary appropriation.
Frankly, it just doesn’t feel right, when one willfully takes photos of others just to share their likeness for likes. And, it’s not about respecting the privacy of others or how their likeness is presented. If the intent of taking the photo is for personal gain, there’s no sugar coating the documentary appropriation to make the person being photographed not feel used. For that reason, doesn’t taking and sharing the photo of others feel… well… kinda creepy… despite how good it makes us feel? Essentially, that’s the moral dilemma we’re facing in doing this.
Frankly, can anybody really blame us for wanting to share the photos we take of others. For many, what social media offers is often too intoxicating to resist. To be scientific, it has been proven under CT scans that a large amount of dopamine is released in the brain, the moment we get that red notification. Not surprisingly, social media has conditioned us to be addicted to sharing photos. How could it not? It gives us that momentary fix we need with a hit of delight from those red pills, popping onscreen, delivering digital highs.
Knowing that, it becomes clear how social media has perverted photography. It has facilitated documentary appropriation to the extent that restraint is seldom practiced judiciously. The thing is, it wasn’t always like that in the past. Before the do-it-yourself of social media, publishers practiced greater restraint for ethical and legal reasons. But now that the barrier to reach a larger audience is accessible without the filter of an editorial staff, restraint is lost on the sensitivities of aspiring influencers seeking instant gratification from home.
Social media has impaired mainstream values. Many of us just don’t care about the collateral damage caused by our documentary appropriation, because it feels good getting likes. In reality, the only one feeling good are the social media companies banking from our documentary appropriation. They’re the ones monetizing the likeness of those we photograph. Obviously, we’re quick to identify the injustice of big tech taking advantage of our photos. But, do we ever stop to see how they’re also taking advantage of those we photograph?
It’s only natural that we overlook the interests of those we photograph. In doing so, it relieves us from having to face our part in appropriation. But more importantly, it allows us to brush aside an even more fundamental issue - that of our subjects’ ownership of their own likeness. In ignoring it, it frees us to photograph them with complete impunity. If we didn’t, we would have to be more conscientious of our subject’s interests when we photograph them - which would make our appropriation of their likeness a real headache.
So as we work our way back to the five Shiba Inus at the start of this blog entry, you can understand how very perverse social media has made the mainstream quest of gaining popularity become. For that reason, I have stopped appropriating the likeness of my partners in crime on social media. However, there is a steep price to be paid for taking the high road. As a consequence, this blog’s Instagram engagement has petered-out from the high it once enjoyed. But that’s okay. I never did seek for popularity beyond my initial curiosity.
It’s not as if my livelihood needs me to be more active. Still, I suppose it can be seen as a cautionary tale. All is fair in popularity and war in this Shiba-eat-Inu world of gaining followers. Still, It doesn’t mean I won’t continue to appropriate the likeness of my partners in crime on this blog. This is a photography blog. Whether I’ve been exploitive, I’d like to believe I haven’t commoditized them in any compromising way to gain popularity. It’s just too desperate a thought - which is how big tech wants us to feel in prodding us to work for them.
Ultimately, there is value in popularity, which makes it worth pursuing. So if you must, please remember the likeness you are appropriating is from a living being, and not just a face. And if others are willing to help you grow your popularity with their likeness, be appreciative and respectful, and reciprocate the gesture with a tag (if it’s possible). Just remember that without people (and all other creatures big and small), it would make owning a camera rather pointless, much less taking photos.
I know this blog entry isn’t going to be popular. But, think about what I’m suggesting in this way. If you have a better rapport with whoever you’re photographing, your photos will likely benefit from it. Personally, I just think greater consideration to your subject just makes practical sense.
Images have been tweaked in Adobe Lightroom. All images digitized on the Pakon F135 scanner. All images have been cropped in the digitization process.