Back in university, in an early morning class, a lecturer held up a large photograph and asked, “What could be wrong with this image?” We craned our necks to have a good look and a student said brightly “It’s underexposed!”
“Nope” the lecturer shook his head. Another student piped up, “It’s the perspective that’s wrong!” Nope, it wasn’t that either. Perplexed, a final student called from the front row, “It’s unfocused.”
“You probably need an eye test”, suggested the lecturer.
The photograph depicted a brightly painted image of graffiti. The green and pink text looped around the image and off the page with movement and precision. The artwork, sourced in the street, covered the entirety of the photograph with no context but the artwork. It was to this that the lecturer drew our attention. “The problem here is intent”, he said. “The person who took this photo republished it for an exhibition as if it were their own work. But just because you take the photo, doesn’t mean the image is yours.”
As a fledgling photographer, this concept fascinated me. How can an image not be mine if I’m the one to take it? Let’s look at some of the ethical issues that surround street-art and photographing graffit.
Graffiti is a popular subject for photographers. Its imagery is wild, free and eye-catching. Often refreshed by new artists staking out wall space, it’s a convenient way to source new material too. But before taking the snap, consider the difference between photographing an image of a piece of graffiti or presenting the street-art within context.
Think of it this way; a musician can sample other music to make a new composition. But downloading the actual song without compensating the musician is unethical and in most cases a breach of copyright – especially if the work is then redistributed.
A good rule of thumb
A good rule of thumb is that if the graffiti takes up more than half the photo, you are copying the graffiti, not creating a new composition. If you sell or display an image that is largely someone else’s work, in some circumstances, this may amount to copyright infringement.
Having said that though, the nature of an unsolicited graffiti artist’s work is illegal in itself, which makes it less likely for the artist to lodge a lawsuit. Frankly though, when it comes down to it, it shows a lack of respect from one artist to another and can lead to problems with your reputation as a photographer.
It is often difficult to pinpoint the artist of a specific graffiti piece. I’ve had some luck googling the text of the graffiti to track down the artist and ask permission. While some artists are sheepish about being tracked down, others are happy to give consent. Especially if I offer them a free print of their work to compensate. Just make sure to ask if they actually want to be identified as the artist of the artwork.
Graffiti and the law
A final issue to be considered when photographing graffiti is the application of the law. As noted above, you should think (and where necessary, seek advice) about whether photographing graffiti may infringe on someone else’s intellectual property rights – but that is not the only legal issue.
Very often, graffiti is placed in locations that are not accessible to the public. That is either because it is on someone’s private property or access to an area is limited by law to certain people only (for example train tunnels and government buildings). You should be careful to stay aware of your surrounding and remember that while your photography can be a ticket to new ideas and self-discovery, it is not a get out of jail free ticket.
Finally, while it is generally okay to take photos of things visible from public spaces, it is not always legal or advisable to take a photo of some things. Areas in this category will generally be obvious in your own country but it may be less clear in other countries. It is important to remember that laws vary from place to place and what is completely acceptable in one place may be illegal in another.
If you’re ever unsure, the old maxim “it’s better to be safe than sorry” is likely never truer than in some circumstances where you might be trespassing or inadvertently entering a restricted area.
Photographing graffiti can be tricky. In addition to all the other things you need to think about when taking a photo, there are added considerations because another artist’s work is also involved. If you take the time though, graffiti photography provides unique opportunities to build on someone else’s work by making your own contribution.
Editor’s note: In some cities of the world like Melbourne and Medellín (Colombia), graffiti is legal in certain areas and even encouraged by the city. You can see artists at work and even get an opportunity to talk to them about the messages and meaning in their art.