Artist Edits Photographer’s Picture, Calls It Art, Sells It As His Own

By Kehl Bayern / September 17, 2018

The more accessible your photography the more likely it is that someone is going to steal it or otherwise “misappropriate” it in this era of ubiquitous media.

But what if you find yourself staring at your own photograph in an art museum, albeit with minor editing, and with a huge price tag to boot?

Image via Rawpixel from Pexels.com.

Then you would find yourself in the shoes of photographer Graeme Williams who saw his work on display, sans color, under the name of Hank Willis Thomas who is selling Graeme Williams’ photograph for $USD 36k.

Such brazen use of a photographer’s work might be construed as outright theft and some would even expect the “artist” in question to offer some kind of apology or explanation as to why a photographer’s picture was used and put on sale at an art gallery. (You can check out the two pictures over on The Guardian by clicking here).

But, according to The Guardian, Hank Willis Thomas questions whether Graeme Williams even has rights to the image that Williams took.

In his response to The Guardian, Thomas says: “I can empathise with his concern and frustration but there are critical questions about who has the right to the image and whether it be subjects of the image, who I am most interested in. If the subjects of the image were compensated or remunerated. If they were asked. There’s a lot of questions related to representation, objectification, exploitation.”

Thomas continues, “If a photograph is 25 years old, 40, 100 years old, of public events where most people who are in the photograph are not given control over how they’re depicted and what’s happening, when is it ours as a society to wrestle with?…I think of it as more akin to sampling, remixing, which is also an area that a lot of people said for a long time that rap music wasn’t music because it sampled.”

Without elaborating on whether or not he himself had sought to answer these “critical questions” before slapping a $USD 36,000 price tag on the image is unknown and as to whether Willis has plans for reimbursing the exploited subjects in the photograph also remains a mystery. What is known is that Williams is unequivocal in his feelings about the project.

Asked for a response by The Guardian, Graeme Williams told them: “The changes were absolutely minimal. It’s theft, plagiarism, appropriation. It’s a kind of fine line where you say it falls…Within the art world there’s an acceptance that you can use images within the artistic framework to create something that has meaning different to the original image. This was the exact same of my original photograph and all he had done is take an image that he likes and call it his own.”

The Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa, where all of this began, sided largely with the artist Thomas. Liza Essers, owner of the gallery, said of Thomas’ use of Williams’ photograph: “That has been fundamental in his work since the beginning of his career. We’ve worked with him for nine years and he has an ongoing interrogation and questioning of the ownership of images…Hank is questioning the ownership and authorship of documentary photography. The question of copyright or not is irrelevant to what Hank’s asking. They’re coming from completely different places of departure.” Essers then went on to justify the asking price for Thomas’ work using Williams’ photo, a picture that the photographer claims he has never licensed out for more than $USD 1,200.

To resolve the dispute, the artist Thomas offered to let Williams keep the piece for one year to “contemplate” it. This proposal evinced a rebuke from Williams who said, “It’s utterly bizarre. I take this artwork and keep it for a year and then we’ll chat after that? Fuck knows what that means. Perhaps that after a year I’ll understand the complexity of his artwork. I said no thanks. I have my own version of the photograph and I really don’t need an American to give that image some kind of significance and meaning.”

Though bizarre the incident does illustrate a wider problem of taking someone else’s creative work and adding a slight spin to it and claiming it as original without attribution to the source.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.


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About the author

Kehl Bayern

Kehl Bayern is a freelance writer and editor of Demagaga.

  • Stuart says:

    I think you’ll find this is called theft, dress it up however you like but at the end of the day that’s what it is … sorry if that doesn’t sit well with the thief ???

  • Another Web Commenter says:

    This is bullshit. Is the photograph still under copyright? If so, get a license to use it before you do something stupid like this. It doesn’t matter how much you change it.

    Or would the “artist” and the gallery owner be ok with me going into the gallery and making high quality photographs of the “art” and make fine prints that I sell for a mere $USD 3,600? Of course not, they would call the police on me!

    Funny that they feel entitled to do the same to other people. Stupid charlatans is a nice name for them.

  • John Forde says:

    I think that Hank Willis Thomas is a thief, pure and simple. It would be a crying shame if anything bad were to happen to him. He’s just another talentless hack piggybacking off of the talent of others. I wouldn’t pay a dime for his “interpreted” garbage he calls art. If he stole any of my photographs he’s need to keep looking over his shoulder although it wouldn’t do him any good because he’ d never see me coming.

  • Jeff says:

    First of all, Sherrie Levine has already approached photographs from this perspective. So, if you want to consider Thomas’ ideas art, it’s derivative. Bad art. Considering the notion of “taking” a person’s image is as old as photography, Thomas is late to the dialogue. Too late. His work is not interesting.

  • I am completely on the side of the photographer here. I can’t believe the ‘artists’ front! He’s a thief. Pure and simple. Taking someone else’s work and making changes doesn’t mean it’s your work, it’s still theirs, you’ve just altered it. Plagiarism? I think it qualifies.

    I can’t believe he was allowed to even do it, and that gallery owner needs a good slap as well. Selling someone else’s work for 36p (I’m English) is bad enough, but $36,000??? Disgraceful. If I take a photograph it’s MINE. It BELONGS to ME unless I relinquish the rights to it.

  • M. L. says:

    Thomas is a simple thief.

    If he were as creative in his “art” as he is in his rationale for stealing perhaps he would create something original.

    Thomas, you are only a con artist.

  • RJ says:

    Clearly this “artist” is stealing. It’s not even a question. It’s lazy art at best. The gallery should be boycotted by all honest artists.

  • Catherine says:

    Theft, pure and simple!

  • Dennis says:

    Did Andy Warhol steal from Campbell’s soup?

    Food for thought…

    Cheers!
    dj

    • Philbert says:

      I’ve never liked Warhol’s work. I never considered it particularly creative but…at least he took ordinary things re-textualized them. This guy is just a thief.

  • Is there a lawsuit in the works? I hope so.


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