What is art? The sequel.

Way back last year I commented on the award of the American Watercolor Society's 2008 Gold Medal to a Ms Sheryl Luxenburg who'd used 2 stock photographs that belonged to another person as the basis for her entry. (See here.)

As a result of that blog entry I got a letter in the post from Ms Luxenburg's lawyers - which gave me pause for some serious thought. However, I felt the issue raised important points as, with digital photography and the internet being what they are, it is all too easy for someone to pass off another's work as their own. So, with a few minor modifications, I let my entry stand.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, and on forums, there was a storm of protest from both photographers and artists. The two hot questions were:
  1. Mostly from photographers ... The legality of what Ms Luxenburg had done. Was she entitled - even if she'd bought reproduction rights from the agency - to pass the images off as her own work and earn a substantial prize from them?

  2. Mostly from artists ... Had she broken the rules of the AWS's competition?
A number of bloggers and forum moderators received lawyers letters, too. And some of the posts disappeared. But that didn't silence the discussion.

As a result, the American Watercolor Society withdrew the award and started investigations. Now, at last, they have reached a ruling (edited) ...

The American Watercolor Society, Inc., (AWS) releases the following statement to the AWS membership and the artist community about the withdrawal of 2008 Gold Medal:

The controversy surrounding the American Watercolor Society’s 141st International Exhibition Gold Medal winner, “Impermanence,” by Canadian artist Sheryl Luxenburg has been the subject of innumerable blogs, websites and chat rooms worldwide for many months.

We sincerely appreciate all those who contacted the society and respect all opinions expressed on this issue. This dialogue has contributed to our understanding of the extent to which the art community has taken an interest in the outcome of this issue as it affects each artist and the respective art societies ...

The American Watercolor Society ... has developed its eligibility requirements for entry ... as follows. “The Annual Exhibition is open to all artists working in water media (watercolor, acrylic, casein, gouache, and egg tempera) on paper. No collage, pastels, class work, copies, digital images or prints; original work only.

The requirements as contained in the prospectus as well as the acceptance form are quite specific and leave no room for ambiguity. Upon acceptance, the requirements are further emphasized by a disclaimer signed by the artist stating that “The accompanying artwork is an original; not a copy or likeness of another’s work, i.e. painting, drawing or photograph.”

Our prospectus clearly informs artists of these eligibility requirements which were designed to maintain high standards and to focus on originality.

By establishing these requirements, the onus rests with the artists to ensure compliance with the rules set forth. Each artist is therefore free to accept or decline these conditions.

When it was determined that Ms. Luxenburg’s entry violated our eligibility requirements, the AWS requested that our Gold Medal and prize money be returned. The Medal and prize money were returned, and Ms. Luxenburg has been disqualified from entering any future AWS exhibitions ...

(The full statement can be read here)

The legality of Ms Luxenburg's actions rests unresolved. But the issue with regard to her using work that was not her own to enter this competition has been settled.

But I believe it goes deeper. Photography is just as much an art form as painting is.

It is no more right for a photographer to take a picture of a painting and pass it off as his/her own work as it is for a painter to make an exact reproduction (as far as the eye can see) of photographs and pass them off as his/her own work.

On the otter hand ...

Street photography may be increasingly risky in the UK and US, what with the zealous Boys (and Belles) in Blue taking you for a terrorist.

But wildlife photography will never be the same, either.

There you go, aiming your camera at those cuddly creatures, seemingly secure in the knowledge that they ain’t gonna give you any grief when, all of a sudden, you find them pointing a camera back at you ...

It's an otter, in Monterey Bay, California, holding a seaweed-coated video camera.

Or is it? Didn't I read somewhere that the Government was training animals to be spies?

The full story here, and thanks to Mighty Mom for giving me the lead.

Photo credit: Enrique Aguirre

Steps to a police state

Today, 16 february 2009, a law has come into force in the UK making it illegal to photograph a police officer.

To be precise, it is section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 which states:

A person commits an offence who elicits or attempts to elicit information about an individual who is or has been ... a constable ... which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or publishes or communicates any such information.

On the surface that appears entirely reasonable. The police do a difficult and dangerous job protecting citizens of the UK.

But think about the ramifications of this law and the way it’s worded.

... eliciting information .. likely to be useful to a person ... preparing an act of terrorism ....’ can mean pretty well anything.

Notice the vagueness of the wording. Any information could be construed as “... likely to be useful ...”. By its very definition, information is useful. That’s why it’s information. And then there's the catch-all qualifier, 'likely'.

The law is wide open. ‘Eliciting information,’ could mean writing down the colour of a police officer’s hair, or recording something he says, or asking for his police number when confronted ... or taking a photograph.

And, given the propensity for police officers to harass anyone legally taking a photograph in public places – from a 15-year old schoolboy in school uniform to UK Members of Parliament – it is very likely that this law will be applied vigorously.

Some points to consider:

a) The majority of people in the UK are photographed several times a day by the ubiquitous (and spreading) CCTV cameras. They probably do not know that they’re being photographed and they do not know what happens to the images that have been made of them. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing – many crimes have been solved as a result – but why is it legal in one direction, yet illegal in the other? And what is done with all this information that is gathered. Do you know?

b) More sinister, the police themselves use photography threateningly. According to a UK newspaper, the Brighton Argus, members of an environmental organisation who were having a meeting in a local club were confronted by police officers wielding high-powered cameras. One of the club members, David Biset, said:

"There was no suggestion of anything going on ... The police had no reason to be there beyond intimidating people. You shouldn't be put on a database simply for attending a meeting."

The local MP, David Lepper, agreed that the police operation was designed to scare activists rather than prevent crime. And, revealingly, when asked about it, a spokesman for the police said that the photography was “ ... part of ongoing police work to gather information to support future operations.” Future operations? Chilling stuff. (See the full article here.)

c) The police in the UK have been known to use brutal tactics and excessive violence when suppressing legal demonstrations, making arrests, even when simply questioning people. Occasionally, in the past these tactics have been shown to the rest of the world by journalists and film-makers or someone who happened to have a camera with them.

Now, under this new law, the police can arrest anyone taking such photographs, and the photographer can be convicted for up to 10 years in prison.

Watch this incident ...

It was recorded in November 2008.

If, instead, that video had been taken today, it might never be seen. And, for taking it, the photographer could find himself in deep trouble.

Think about it.

It matters. Even if you're not a photographer.


Interestingly, no lesser body than the Metropolitan Police Federation oppose this law too.

See here for details.

In short, this is a poorly-drafted law from a Government that has consistently reneged on its principles since coming to power.

The vanishing hand, and other tales

I'm a great believer in 'getting it right in the camera'.

You can make a lot of changes to your images using Photoshop, or similar programs. Some of those changes can be dramatic. But there's no substitute for getting it as good as you can when you press the shutter button.

Unfortunately certain things are unavoidable ... like some joker pulling the old 'V' sign caper when you're photographing a group.

Not long ago I was doing just this, using the self-timer so as to include myself. I put my camera on a tripod, posed everyone and got them to smile sweetly. Then I pressed the button, rushed to my place and ...

Yawn. That trick is so old. (N.B. To protect reputations the perpetrator is not in the picture.)

A well ... out with the trusty old Photoshop clone tool ...

Not perfect, I know, but at the resolution the photograph was going to be viewed at, it would pass muster.

But, be a wee bit careful if you are making dramatic changes with Photoshop. This breakfast cereal may help you lose weight, but what else does it to to you?

And who created this extraordinary picture? M.C. Escher?

(More Photoshop disasters here.)

Poster Boy ...

... I like

But now the cops have caught him.

Or so they think.

Cycle paths ... pigeon droppings ...

... bus stations ... an old printing works ...

These are all things that, over the past few months, innocent private individuals have been photographing in the UK when, to their dismay, they have found themselves interrogated, or even arrested.

It may all sound like a joke. But it isn’t. It’s getting serious. The British Police are busting a gut in their ‘War on Terror.’

For example, at the beginning of January, a UK Member of Parliament was stopped and searched for taking photographs of a cycle path in his own constituency. (See here.)

Then, a few days ago a prospective parliamentary candidate, Dr Rachel Joyce, and a colleague were similarly stopped and searched for taking photographs at a bus station.

And this was not the first time that this had happened to Dr Joyce. In September 2007 she was walking through Harrow town centre with another colleague when, in her own words “… we noticed a thick layer of pigeon droppings on some of the public seats. As this could be a health hazard, we took a photo of it to highlight to the authorities and we got stopped and questioned by PCSOs (Police Community Support Officers) under the Terrorism Act ...” (See here.)

Then there was a well-known London artist who was handcuffed, detained by the police for 5 hours and had his fingerprints and samples of DNA taken, all for photographing an old printing works he intended to draw (See here).

And last summer a team of armed police ... yes, armed ... swooped on six aging trainspotters, who call themselves the ‘Steam Boys’ as they waited with their cameras to capture an historic 1950s steam engine called The Great Marquess crossing the Forth Railway Bridge. The Steam Boys must have had a terrifying experience. Remember, not so very long ago, armed police swooped on another innocent man in a London Underground train and shot him dead.

The list goes on ...

If that wasn’t enough, on February 16th 2009 a new UK Counter-Terrorism Act will become law. Amongst other things it contains a clause making it an offence (punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and a fine) to take photographs of police constables.

Slowly but surely individual liberties are being eroded in the UK.

And all for what?

There is no evidence whatsoever that taking photographs has played any role in the planning and execution of any terrorist act. There were no photographs involved in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre, the Madrid train bombing or the London transport bombings. The liquid bombers arrested in 2006 had taken no photographs. Timothy McVeigh didn't point a camera at the Oklahoma City Federal Building before he blew it to pieces. The Unabomber didn't photograph anything, neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Palestinian suicide bombers don’t take photographs, nor did the IRA.

Apart from anything else, there’s no reason for terrorists to take photographs. Why should they want to? If they require information about the layout of a location they can get it from maps, Google Earth and host of other information sources legally and freely available.

So why do the police have this fixation on photographers?

Could it be because that’s what happens in the movies?

In the movies, the baddies taking photographs before their dastardly act is a vital detail. It makes sense, doesn’t it? They have to check out their target and make their evil plans, don’t they?

And, of course, we viewers need a whole chunk of suspense-building before the climax. A bit of faffing about with cameras ... especially if the gear looks impressive ... is perfect as part of that suspense-building. The baddies have long lenses and big black cameras. They must be really bad.

And there’s another aspect too. These days the police have targets to meet.

This combination of the police inability to get to grips with reality, and the pressure of the targets they have to meet results in a lot of innocent people being intimidated.

And innocent people being intimidated is, of course, one of the objectives of a terrorist act. It is precisely the loss of our liberties, coupled with the development of fear and distrust of the authorities, that the perpetrators of such acts want to see.


Some notes of advice (from the Police National Legal Database).

If you have the misfortune to be stopped and searched for taking photographs in the UK, you have certain rights:

  • the officer must tell you the grounds for the search;
  • the officer must inform you of the object of the search (e.g. to find drugs, an offensive weapon, etc.);
  • the officer must show you his/her warrant card if in plain clothes, or if requested;
  • the officer must tell you his/her identity;
  • the officer must also tell you to which station he/she is attached;
  • the officer must tell you that you are being detained for the purpose of the search

Further information here.

And a useful PDF file of photographers’ rights in the UK is available from this website.