Week 2 – Appropriation and Context

This week’s forum was a discussion centered around the controversy over “The Rights of the Molotov Man” and the case known as Joywar.  In 2003 Joy Garnett used an image taken in 1979 by Susan Meiselas of a Sandanista rebel in Nicaragua as inspiration for a painting in a collection called Riot.  Garnett did not acknowledge the original author which was in my opinion an ethical breach.  While Meiselas claimed copyright infringement, Garnett in fact created a unique, derivative work based on Meiselas’ photo.  Meiselas later stated her principal objection was the loss of context of the original photo and the appropriation of its subject for a different purpose.

Sontag wrote “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” (Sontag, 1977) She goes on further to say “The photograph a thin slice of space as well as time.” “Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else, all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently.” “Any photograph has multiple meanings: indeed, to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination.” “Photographs, which cannot by themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy.” (Sontag, 1977)

While Garnett should have acknowledged Meiselas’ photo as her inspiration, I find Meiselas’ argument about Garnett having stolen the context of the original photo to be specious and frivolous.  Someone standing next to Meiselas taking a photo of the same original event might have had a very different interpretation of the event if they had been on the other side politically and may have seen a riot instead of a rebellion.  As soon as a photo is published its author’s context is lost to that of the viewer.  Garnett simply chose to accept the invitation to deduce, speculate and fantasize about the image to create her new version.  I can see Meiselas’ point about the subject, Pablo Arauz, having his story misappropriated as he had a specific history, a piece of which that was captured in Meiselas’ photo, but that image was also appropriated by the Sandanista government and showed up on walls and matchbooks with intent to use it in a different context than when it was originally taken.

Context is a tricky business and as Sontag says photos do not stand alone.  We each view the world through the filters and biases resulting from our unique life experiences and those are applied to one degree or another to every image we see, to every word we read, and to every story we hear.  How then as photographers can we ever hope to control the context we saw when we made a photograph?  Sontag again wrote ” Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it.  But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.  All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.  Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.”  (Sontag, 1977) Our cameras can provide evidence of something existing or having existed, but understanding requires more than can be captured in a single photograph.  Perhaps only through a collection of photographs or with words of explanation we can hope to convey to a viewer that which we originally intended when we chose to record an image.  And even then, there will remain those who are unconvinced.

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. Penguin Books.


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