THE EDUCATIONAL VALUE OF EDITING OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS’ WORK

Valli di Comacchio, Italy

LET’S EXAMINE THE EDUCATIONAL VALUE OF EDITING OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS’ WORK, ONE OF THE MOST POLARISING TOPICS ON INTERNET FORUMS

One topic often popping up on photography forums is the one concerning editing other photographers’ work. In particular, people argue about whether doing so is acceptable even if unsolicited by, and without the consent of, the original poster of the image in question. Sometimes, someone even touches upon what, to me, should come first: is there any educational value in editing other photographers’ work?

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I have been a teacher all my life, and despite all the internet’s shortcomings I believe in its educational potential. Therefore, I find this to be a very important topic and one with lots of ramifications. So, when a new thread about the pros and cons of editing other photographers’ work comes up, I avidly read all the discussion. Sadly, I can’t help but noticing how it seems impossible to get anywhere meaningful. Any thread trying to deal with this topic almost inevitably ends up being shut down by moderators, due to the uncivilized behaviour of some of the posters involved. Perhaps this happens because the issue is a very polarising one, perhaps it is due to today’s seemingly increasing inability to discuss in a civilized manner. Nevertheless, since I am neither interested in fuelling the forum’s trolls, nor in being part in what ends up being nothing more than a virtual fist fight, I always choose to stay away from participating in these threads. Instead, I thought I’d offer you my thoughts about it here.

As we know, today, thanks to the web, photographers who want to share their work are able to reach an enormous audience, something impossible to do just a few years back. This is a real revolution, and in the case in point, a revolution carrying a huge educational potential. The beauty of the internet is that today, if one wants to learn anything, one has a truly incredible amount of resources available just a click away. We always need to remember, though, that most of the information available online is unfiltered, not reviewed, not peer tested, and so on. That said, and with all the caveats and care that one must use in discerning and navigating through all that is offered, finding sources one can trust, and learn from, is not impossible.

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As in the analogue world, though, even in today’s digital world the best way to learn an art and a craft such as photography is directly, from our betters. In this sense, we can consider a photography forum to be the online version of a photo club. Online forums aren’t just places to discuss photography-related topics; pretty much all photography forums out there offer galleries, or at least have a section dedicated to posting images. To help posters invite comments and critiques, and to signal others whether comments are welcome or not, many forums offer the possibility to add indications such as “C&C”, for Critique & Comment, or something of that sort. So, following each forum’s rules and indications, forum members can add their comments and critiques in words, or not at all. So far so good.

However, there are many people interpreting “C&C” as having the right to download another photographer’s image without asking first, to retouch it and edit it to their own taste, and to repost it offering their own edit as a critique & comment to the original poster. And here start the troubles. The point is, not everyone is OK with having their photos edited by someone else without giving them prior consent to do so. And with good reasons, if you ask me, as we’ll see in this article.

A STRANGE LOGIC AT WORK
Asking permission before downloading and editing other photographers’ work should pretty much be common sense. One would imagine that good manners would dictate that, first of all. Not to mention the legal implication of not asking, since we are dealing with copyrighted material. Unfortunately, uninvited and unauthorised downloading and editing happens more often than one would think. Even less fortunately, there are many that try and defend such behaviour, both when people call them out directly, and when it’s others that do it. Worse of all, they often do so by resorting to aggressive personal attacks. For the purpose of this discussion, since I find people that cross the line of civil behaviour unworthy of our attention, online or otherwise, I’ll leave that last group out of this article.

So, what happens when people download and edit other photographers’ work without getting consent first? Some people are OK with that, many are not. Out of the latter, most are silent, for the sake of forum’s peace, some on the other hand are more vocal and challenge such behaviour. When they do, supporters of the editing practice most often articulate their position like “if you put a product of your intellect, such as a book, a painting, a CD or a movie out there, you should be ready to accept criticisms. That is also true if you put a photo on a forum. Since photography is mostly a visual medium, it is perfectly normal – better, in fact – to offer criticisms in a visual way by re-editing the original photo: a picture is worth a thousand words, and all that”.

I don’t doubt the good faith of people making the argument above, of course. However, while it might sound somehow reasonable at first, that is in fact a bizarre argument, and most importantly a very weak one.

According to that same logic, a book critic should be allowed to rewrite the parts of a book he didn’t like, rather than explaining why he felt the book didn’t work.

An art critic should be allowed to take up brushes and colours and do over the parts of a painting he finds unconvincing, rather than talking or writing about it.

A music critic should be allowed to rewrite, or replay, some of the music he is critiquing, rather than describing with words why in his opinion either the music or the interpretation are not working.

A film critic should be allowed to shoot a different version of the scenes of a movie he didn’t like, rather than writing about the reasons why he doesn’t agree with the director’s choices. And so on.

Obviously, this simply doesn’t make any sense. I don’t see parts of Hemingway’s books being rewritten, or Picasso’s paintings repainted, or Mozart’s notes replaced, or Scorsese’s scenes reshot and cut off his movies. No book, art, music or movie critic would even think about doing anything of the sort. Even assuming they could, they would likely find the very idea ridiculous. It is exactly the same thing when it comes to editing another photographers’ work.

So, why is it that photographers on a forum feel they are allowed to download other photographers’ images, and why do they feel that it is OK to edit them and repost them, and all without asking for people’s consent? 

THE WHY: EASINESS OF DOING IT, PERHAPS?
Perhaps, the problem is that while it is not easy to shoot a new movie, or compose a new symphony, or play various instruments, or write a novel, or paint, editing someone else’s photos is relatively easy. It just takes a click to download an image. Once you did that, all you need is some skills with any editing software such as Photoshop, and you are good to go. Just because one can download and edit someone else’s photo, though, that doesn’t make it OK to do so.

THE WHY: PERCEIVED LACK OF FAME AND IMPORTANCE, PERHAPS?
Perhaps, people agree with my book / painting / music / movie examples above, but they still feel they can go about editing other photographers’ work on a forum because, well, who is the other guy? He is not Hemingway, Picasso, Mozart or Scorsese, is he? He is not Ansel Adams, right? Well, to begin with, people need to be careful about assuming too much about those they critique, since it isn’t always easy to know who you are talking to, in today’s online world. But, even if the author of the photo in question were a nobody, fame and importance have nothing to do with whether it is OK to download and edit other people’s work or not. The same respect granted to Picasso should be granted to a first-year art student. Most importantly, the protection accorded by law to a product of the intellect doesn’t change according to the fame and importance, or to the value and ability of the person who creates it, or to the value and quality of the work produced. Therefore, our respect for someone else’s work should not change either, accordingly.

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THE WHY: THE EGO, A CLASSIC POT-AND-KETTLE SITUATION
People loving to edit other photographers’ work almost inevitably accuse those who don’t want to have their work freely downloaded and edited by them, of having a “big ego”, or that “their ego cannot take it”. This is as good an example of the pot calling the kettle black as I have ever seen.

No matter how people editing other photographers’ work try and sell this as “wanting to help”, I can’t help but thinking that it’s very easy to see through that. To me, they are just showing off. But, why would they do that, you might ask? The first thing that comes to mind is that the problem lies with their own ego, not with the original photographer’s ego. Add to that the interesting fact that almost inevitably those self-appointed editors do not have any work of their own to speak of, and one can’t help but feel that these people like to edit someone else’s work and repost it on a public forum not to help people, but to just boost their own ego. All they want, is for everyone to see how much better, how great their own version is, compared with the original one. Unless…

THE WHY: THE ADVERTISING THEORY
Unless, and this is the second thing coming to mind, people stalking forums just to edit other photographers’ work are, in fact, just advertising. That would make sense, right? They feel they are better at the editing game than everyone else on the forum, and perhaps they really are. They figured, there’s no better way to find customers than offering a free taste on a forum. However, this would make all their arguments disingenuous. Forget all their talks of helping others, forget their going on about the educational value of what they do. They are just doing it to advertise their own skills. The thing is, since pretty much all forums have a no-advertising policy, this would be against forum rules, and it would not be allowed in the first place. Using editing other photographers’ work to promote themselves is a very subtle and smart way of circling around a forum’s rules, though, and most people can get away with it pretty easily – or so it seems, at least.

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THE WHY: GOOD FAITH
Since I have a lot of faith in my fellow men, despite what I wrote above, there is of course another, third option to consider. Leaving aside for now those editing other photographers’ work because of their own psychological shortcomings or because they are trying to advertise their own services while staying under the forum’s radar, let’s now talk about people that are actually doing it in perfectly good faith. Let’s assume they really believe in the educational value of editing other photographers’ work, and let’s assume they are the majority and the ones I talked about before are just a few bad apples here and there. Discussing the educational value of editing other photographers’ work is the most interesting part of the argument for me, the one that is really worth investigating.

WHAT ABOUT EDUCATIONAL VALUE?
It is well known that doing something on behalf of someone else doesn’t teach people anything. It is also well known that guiding someone through the process of doing something so that they can learn to do it by doing, on the other hand, does teach them how to learn a new skill. Finally, it is also well known that arts and crafts are best taught by example, that is, by following the example of a master, a tutor, a mentor.

The misunderstanding here, in my opinion, is in the interpretation of “taught by example” followed by people editing other photographers’ work. Posting a different version of someone else’s photo – even with notes – doesn’t qualify as “teaching by example” and won’t teach someone how to do anything.

On the other hand, critiquing a photograph through the use of words, giving directions on how to solve a particular problem, technical or artistic, and showing examples of different photos where the same technical or artistic problems were present, explaining how and why such problems have been solved, does. Of course, it is much easier to do so in person, i.e. during a Workshop or at a photo club, but it’s certainly something possible to do on a forum as well.

Personally, this is the way I teach during my Workshops. And once the Workshop is over, I keep working on images using my words and without any problems via the email, or in private Facebook groups. Let’s see how this would work on a forum. Once people posted a photo, if one wanted to offer a critique one could do so with words, perhaps posting examples of their own photos to illustrate points that are best illustrated visually – if any – and listing what needs to be done, in more or less detailed steps.

Doing so would allow the people who posted the photos being critiqued to go and try to do their editing by themselves, doing their best to implement the suggestions offered them by the collective wisdom. They would then repost their new version, and see what people think about it. And so on, wash, rinse and repeat until the authors of the photos critiqued are satisfied that the final version of their work is the best.

If that final version also satisfies the critics, the better. If not, we always need to remember that everyone is different, everyone’s taste is different, everyone’s vision is different, everyone’s experience and knowledge at any given moment in time is different.

So, if a photographer is sure that the final version of his or her photo is as good as it can be, then so be it. If the photo is also great by the majority’s standard, the better. If not, perhaps its author will develop, improve, grow, and in time see that what seemed a great edit at the time is, in fact, not so great. But it’s a process one should do on one’s own, no matter how long it will take.

If someone else does it on one’s behalf, by editing one’s images, one might get a better photo right there but one will be robbed of one’s chance to develop, improve and grow.

Perhaps our imaginary photographer will never become very good, and the critics will always find his or her work lacking. That would be perfectly normal, since we aren’t all Ansels after all. Most importantly, however, that shouldn’t detract from the pleasure one takes in one’s hobby, and – to stay on topic – that still wouldn’t allow a critic to do the work on someone else’s behalf. No matter how good or bad our imaginary photographer is, doing so won’t teach him or her anything.

Therefore, editing other photographers’ work, in my opinion, carries no real educational value. 

THE LEGAL IMPLICATIONS
While this is certainly an important part of the issue, this article is not about the legal aspects of downloading and editing other photographers’ work without asking for their consent. I am a Fine Art photographer and an educator, not a lawyer. So, since I don’t have the knowledge to demonstrate whether such practice is in fact legal, I’ll leave that side of this argument to someone better informed. However, since copyright is infringed when someone modifies someone else’s intellectual work without their explicit consent to do so, no matter the purpose, I have my doubts about the legality of downloading and editing other photographers’ work without asking for their consent. More, there are many signs that even just downloading and reposting someone else’s image without consent is not allowed, at least in parts of the World, notably the EU (see for instance the recent EU ruling C-161/17 of August 8th, 2019).

THE EINSTEIN FINALE
Finally, let me end this article with a quote from someone who knew how to do things – and how to explain them – well enough. Albert Einstein said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Need I say more?

CONCLUSIONS
The internet is an amazing tool, and if we can use it for the betterment of mankind, all the better. On the much smaller scale that interests us, it would be great if we could at least use the power of the internet to help other photographers develop and grow as craftsmen and artists. So, if you feel you need to improve and grow, my recommendation is to share your work on forum and try to learn as much as you can from everyone. Listen, experiment, study, practice and try again. If, on the other hand, you are more experienced and believe you have something to offer, by all means comment and critique all you want, offer all your knowledge and experience, push people to be the best photographers they can. Do it with your own words, and of course offer your own images as examples if you think it will help.

However, believe me when I tell you that editing someone else’s work on their behalf, even if only to show what can be done, has very little educational value, if any at all. If you really want to help someone to improve, while at the same time showing off how much you really know, don’t go about editing other photographers’ work and especially don’t do that without their consent. Even if people ask you to edit their images to show them how something is done, I’d go as far as recommending you just follow Einstein’s advice and explain them what to do instead, offering them your words to inspire and guide them in creating their own images through their own work and their own edits. You’ll feel good, they’ll learn and grow: a win-win situation.

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6 thoughts on “THE EDUCATIONAL VALUE OF EDITING OTHER PHOTOGRAPHERS’ WORK”

  1. Very thoughtful and well argued post, Vieri.

    As a member of a camera club I find the judges input varies in quality but not their good faith and by listening and taking comments on board, I’ve improved my standards – at least technically. I’m also learning to see through different eyes. None of this would be accomplished by the projection of an image edited by the judges other than annoyance. I would however be happy to sit with a person I respect to work through an edit – that way I would learn.

    Thank you for the blog

    Peter

    Reply
    • Hello Peter,

      thank you for your comment, I am glad you enjoyed the article and that you agree with my conclusions. About your last sentence, I totally agree – working side by side with a person you respect, a mentor or a tutor, guiding you through an edit is the best way to learn.

      Best regards,

      Vieri

      Reply
  2. Guilty as charged!

    Hi Vieri,

    I just came across your website and blog today. I am also a professional photographer, teacher and guide. The topic of learning through editing caught my attention as I believe in “learning through doing,” and I incorporate friendly critique sessions during my workshops.

    I have on occasion downloaded an image, cropped and re-posted it in the comments section and saw it as a teaching tool. This was among friends on Facebook and not on a photo forum, and, although it was well received, the edits were uninvited. I didn’t think of it as copyright infringement, which it is, nor that I could accomplish the same, or perhaps more, through writing and encouraging these friends to see the crop that I was seeing. Thinking about it now, I realize that I would be horrified if someone did this to me!

    Thank you for opening my eyes with this thought-provoking and well-supported blog post. I will be looking for more!

    Cheers,
    Cindy

    Reply
    • Hi Cindy,

      thank you very much for reading and commenting, I am glad you found my post useful. Your comment is truly much appreciated!

      Best regards,

      Vieri

      Reply
  3. Hi Vieri,
    this is a very interesting article. Thank you for posting.
    I broadly agree with it, and I had made similar considerations myself in the past.
    In my opinion, the basic problem is anonymity on the internet and only written communication.
    I think this is the actual source of most of the “why” you listed. Well maybe not the source but the vehicle.
    Because if all participants would be in one (class)room and talk to each other, this would not happen (as long as all participants still have some decency left).
    We should really pay close attention to how we deal with each other – and start with ourselves.
    Best Regards,
    Christian

    Reply
    • Hello Christian,

      thank you for your comment, I am glad you found the article useful and that you agree with my analysis. About your closing suggestion, it would probably be a good enough start if we’d all behaved online as we behave face to face. Best regards,

      Vieri

      Reply

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