History in Pictures – Polarization in the Photographic Community

If you don’t know what History in Pictures is all about, you probably don’t like either photography or the internet. What I’m talking about is a Twitter account that gathered almost one million followers in a matter of six months. It’s the brainchild of two young (I mean it: one is 17) entrepreneurs from Australia and Hawaii. Their trade is quite simple: it keeps publishing historical photographs 24/7.

This attracted a lot of attention in the last few days. Mainly negative attention. The Atlantic wrote an article about it, asking questions to Xavier di Petta, one of the two young guys behind it all, and PetaPixel bounced it all over the photographic community. All the criticism revolved around the (sadly quite obvious) fact that all the pictures published by History in Pictures were not licensed in any way by the photographers/owners.

A public domain image of Altgens with JFK photos.

This is a sensitive subject, especially nowadays: to most, internet is nothing more than a sprawling jungle of image theft and abusive sharing of copyrighted material. And I’m not here to deny that, of course, but what I feel as completely wrong in this is the total polarization of the photographic community. It seems that today, being a photographer means spending half your days on the internet spitting fire against the internet itself.

Both The Atlantic and PetaPixel stress the fact that History in Pictures is making money out of unlicensed pictures. Like them, I honestly think stealing pictures is wrong, but at the same time I think that, as a photographer,  sharing part of my work is a good thing. If you’ve been paid for your work, if your pics have been publlished and the paycheck is already firmly in your pocket, sharing your images can only be benefical to you. Obviously, if other people are earning money out of my work it can get on my nerves, sure, but that has nothing to do with theft. The few people trying to support and defend HiP say that the Twitter account is allowed to use the pictures as long as it’s “Fair Use”. Actually this can be true, but just as long as nobody is earning money. And this is not the case.

We live in a bad time for editorial photography and this has made the photographers a bunch of angry wolves that spend most of their time trying to fight what they perceive as the source of their suffering. I honestly don’t think History in Pictures is actively damaging our community nor our profession. And to that I’d add that the pics they share deserve to be shared for one very simple reason: they educate the audience.

Sharing photographs that are universally recognized as good (both in technique and in subject/message) is the only way we have to educate the audience and teach it to recognize good photography. In an age where photographers get actually fired by big newspapers  because “anybody can take pics”, we are in desperate need of ways to tell them that it’s not true at all. And I think one of these ways is showing what great photographers did in the past. Sure, History in Pictures is not doing that out of a dire urge to educate people, but the outcome is a million people staring at great pictures. And sharing them a lot, too: every tweet by HiP gets an average of a thousand RT. That’s quite impressive.

Of course I’m not an all-round enthusiast of History in Pictures: what I really don’t like is the fact that there is no attribution at all in their tweets. That’s plain wrong. No matter what you’re doing with a picture: you must write the name of the author somewhere near it. Mainly because, without it, you’re giving absolutely nothing to the author in return, even if it’s free. And if you’re not doing it because “it would not be practical”, as di Petta said, well, then you’re just plain wrong.

All in all, I’m not saying that what HiP is doing is to be praised as a whole, but at the same time I feel that the photographic community is indulging too much in this witch hunt. It’s no use to spend days dwelving in such subjects, and in general all this negativity is affecting our professional environment in a very destructive way. As many successful photographers keep telling us: it’s time to cut the arguments short and get out taking pics.

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History in Pictures – Polarization in the Photographic Community