A Thesis for Indulgences

I’ve been casually following the ongoing suit following AFP and Getty’s use of Daniel Morel’s images of the Haitian earthquake that were posted on Twitpic immediately after the disaster.

In the latest twist of events, the photo agencies may possibly be liable for $123 million in damages for more than 820 instances of copyright infringement resulting from use of the images.

I often wonder what the stunned subjects of Morel’s photographs will say when they find out that a bunch of American corporations have been fighting for years over pictures recording the worst days of their lives. $123 million is more aid than most independent nations were able to pledge in the days following the disaster.


As photographers, we all deal with the disconnect between our intentions and reality. Endlessly we debate whether compassion fatigue is real, whether spot news photography in 2012 still has importance, whether we’re doing anything more than producing a record of man’s unique and endless ways we continuing hurting ourselves.

In The Cruel Radiance, a treatise about the power of photography in the face of modernity’s political violence, Susie Linfield notes that ethical responsibility lies with both the producers and viewers of photographs.

“Photojournalists are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing,” she notes in her second chapter. “This requires transforming our relationship to photographs from one of passivity and complaint to one of creativity and collaboration.”

When we view images of tragedy, war, death and destruction, we (the West) understand them through the frame of reference given to us by previous images. A burned out building in Kosovo looks the same as a burned out building in Libya, which looks a lot like a burned out building in Detroit. These visual similarities lull us into a sense of understanding—a false knowledge—that we know about what we’re seeing. Our ignorance is collateral in today’s image-soaked society.

But without this build up, where would we be?

“Try to imagine,” Linfield asks, “what your intellectual, political, and ethical world would be like if you had never seen a photograph.”

Now apply this to what she said about our responsibilities as viewers and consumers. We’re responsible for seeing, and for making sure we’re not just gaping passively and ignorantly at the tragedy unfolding before us.

The potential damages of this suit are equal to more than a quarter of the total donations the Red Cross received following the quake. $123 million isn’t a small number. A donation of this amount would shift the relationship viewers have with Morel’s photos from one of passivity to active collaboration.

This could be the first time in decades that photojournalism literally created funding for its subjects.

Wouldn’t this be a great opportunity for photojournalism to redeem itself?

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