Let’s talk about Ethics: It All Started With a Fish!


Why am I here talking about “Ethics and Etiquette for Photographers and Assistants”? I guess I can tell you that we wanted to be positive…however, the working name for the program that inspired this column was DBAD (Don’t be a ….. Dingus). This column is about common sense. You may think everyone would know all of this, but many don’t. Maybe they never thought of it this way.

It all started with a fish! Groups like ASMP are about sharing, giving back, and supporting one another. I remember there was a guy in one of my photography classes who wouldn’t share techniques like cross-processing because he thought it could remain his little secret. We want to be able to share without fear that someone will blatantly copy our work and pass it off as their own. Back to the fish: At an industry gathering, one photographer asks another about his method. The photographer gladly shares some of the details and shows some of his work. The inquisitive photographer shoots the same subjects (one of which was a fish) with similar angles and lighting and puts the images up on his web site. He then (being pretty open about it) emails the other shooter to ask him to take a look at his work. Copying isn’t cool when you claim it as your own.

Alright, there’s a line crossed there. Artists copy each other all the time. Art students sit in museums and draw copies of the work of the masters. The difference is that when you put it up on your web site, you are claiming it as your work. When I was taking classes at FIT, I helped another student copy a shot out of a magazine for “practice”. I was surprised when I saw the shot we worked on (where the only obvious difference was the model) in his portfolio. This happens in professional situations too. I have assisted on shoots where the tear sheet being copied was being adhered to so precisely that the tilts of the subjects’ heads had to match the original subjects’ exactly. The original shot probably had the “family” move around and play, etc. The models on the day we shot it, had to stay still to mimic the positions of the original models. As the assistant, it was not my place to say anything. The photographer, however could have.

I have been asked as a photographer, “Can you make this shot, except with our model?” I always put the question back on the client, and ask something like, “Do you want to COPY this shot, or do you want to simulate the spirit of this shot and use this shot for inspiration?” Copying another artist is a compliment, and many artists learn this way. But it’s one thing to copy, and another to put it in your book or on your web site. Just because it is not illegal, does not mean that it is right…and sometimes, it really is copyright infringement!  It is definitely not cool either way.  Let’s say your next door neighbor (and good friend) buys the coolest car you’ve ever seen… in your favorite color. You’ve got the cash; now, would you go out and get the same car? It is certainly not illegal to buy the same car/suit/shoes as your friends, but it certainly leads to awkward situations.  Those of us into reruns have all seen the Honeymooners episode where Alice and Trixie both buy the same dress… and then Ralph and Norton have the same tie: Norton and Ralph (simultaneously): “I’m not leaving this house until he takes off that tie!”

Please keep on sharing and copying to learn, but if you think that what you are doing might be ethically questionable or bad etiquette, it probably is. You can always ask a friend or fellow photographer (or at least look at it from the other person’s point of view).

Please remember: It is your reputation… and having a bad rep is hard to change.


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