“I like your backgrounds”
“I created this myself, I found the image online somewhere”
“You don’t own things on the internet”

All responses that I received from the people that I messaged who I’d found chopping apart my photos only to photoshop themselves in.

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It was about three or fours years into my photography journey when I first came across someone who’d put themselves into one of my photos. It was a really bizzare feeling, seeing part of my own face being blended with another, at first I thought it was just a copied image until I noticed a tiny freckle next to the eye. That’s my freckle! That’s my forehead! But not my mouth, my eyes or my hair. It was though someone had taken digital scissors and created a collage of two images, a Picasso of faces smashed together. But as unsettling as this was, the reaction from the girl who had done this was even more bizzare.

She at first denied it. Denied that the idea was even copied and went for the ol’ “great minds think alike” theme which I didn’t believe, because it wasn’t that at all. I pushed further, sending her back an image circling the identical features, my features. Eventually she confessed, told me she didn’t think I’d find out, that she was sorry and deleted the image. I thought that’d be the end of it.

But as I’ve discovered over the past few years, it wasn’t the end of it at all. I found image after image that were just like this one, half mine and half someone else. A hybrid of my mind, my creativity, my world crudely mashed together with the pixelated snapshot of someone else.

We live in a digital time where there seems to be a never ending river of content flowing onto our screens, it’s amazing really. To think that at any given moment we can scroll through work from talented artists all over the world at a pace that never seems to fulfill our appetite. But with this outpouring of content comes the dark side of the digital gallery. The belief that if it’s out there in the pixels, it’s up for grabs. An all you can eat buffet of images ready to be repurposed.

I tend to come across the cut and pasted images of mine by accident, sometimes a friend or follower will tag me discreetly but more often then not I find them just by noticing a profile picture that looks a bit similar or by coming across it in a hashtag or random search. It never seems to matter how I find them, the answers are almost always the same. A combination of apathy, ignorance, and lack or respect. More often than not, the person on the other end will say something like “I wanted your backgrounds” or “I found it online and didn’t know it was yours”.   And both of those are frustrating in their own way.

Art shared online is not automatically offered up as stock. My finished pieces aren’t ‘backgrounds’ (although maybe I could tap into a new market) to be used freely and without consideration. There’s a growing trend, especially on Instagram, to see an image and assume it’s up for grabs, that nobody will mind if you add a quote, change some colours, photoshop yourself into it.

Just because you see it online, doesn’t make it yours.

The idea that whatever someone may see online is without ownership therefor can be used is a poor and lazy excuse. A quick google image search could tell you who the content creator of an image is, I tried it with a handful of images both mine and by others and it always found the original source. Not knowing who the creator of an image is, is not a justification into violating that piece of work.

My work, my images, come from a place that I don’t always enjoy going to. Often times the visuals that I create are expressions of emotions and feelings that I’m too scared to say through words, that are painful, that make me sad or upset or that carry with them more weight than any word that I can find. I take and create these images because it’s my voice, it helps me understand myself and the world around me. When I see these photos, that mean so much to me, simply chopped apart and reposted it makes me feel like closing up shop and simply keeping my work to myself.

I know that most of the people reading this blog will probably be photographers who have either experienced this themselves or would never consider ‘shopping someone else’s photo but after collecting over 100 examples in the past year, I felt that I had to share it. I felt that I had to put it out there to the people doing this that we see you and that what you’re doing is not ok. Thankfully, I must say that Instagram and Facebook have been excellent at removing these images, but even that has it’s consequences, I’ve been harassed and had people create fake profiles only to send me messages telling me that I’m evil because I had someone’s account blocked or suspended.  It’s a loop of madness really, when you have to explain to a thief how reporting their activity doesn’t make you the bad guy.

In the end though, the positives of sharing my work outweigh these negatives. Every day I’m able to log on and connect with artists, creators, friends and followers of my work that inspire me to share exactly who I am. That share who they are without censorship, people who stick up for art, who create art, and who promote art and artists. I wouldn’t be who I am today, sitting where I am now and enjoying the life I have if I didn’t share my work online and I’ll keep doing it, and I’ll keep adding to my album of screenshots every time I see an image that is half my body and half someone else, a backdrop of Cranbrook or Guildford or California with a mismatched portrait from a far away country. It will bother me, of course, but it will never keep me from creating because try as they might, they can’t photoshop me out of my world.