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Andrew Heavens: If you love your photos, set them free

The end of the Indaba is a set of workshops. I offered a hastily put together workshop on activism online – about half on useful tools for information for activists (aggregators, stored news searches, del.icio.us) and half on online anonymity. I had the pleasure of having Alaa in my session, which meant that my talk about paranoia and hiding your identity was countered by his excellent reminders to try to keep as much of your activism open and in the public eye as possible. (Kifaya evidently has most of its policy and planning debates on a public website, prefering to keep these discussions as transparent as possible.)

The second (and final) workshop I attended was Andrew Heavens’s workshop on photoblogging, which was brilliant on at least two levels. It was an excellent technical introduction to what’s involved with image blogging, talking about tools like fotolog, blipfoto and flickr. He plugs the brilliant Africanfuturist – who is on a one-person quest to quash African photographic cliches – and gives us wonderful lines like “Most blogs are about cats. And Brazillian teenage girls dominate the photo blogging world.” His rules for photoblogging are tremendously helpful:

Rule 1: The camera doesn’t matter.
Rule 2: Being there does matter.
Rule 3: Stop worrying and learn to love Creative Commons

The second part of his talk is a meditation on his work as a photojournalist in Ethiopia (“I can say without blushing that I’m one of the top four five photojournalists in Ethiopia. There are only four of us.”) and his interesting experiences with Creative Commons. Shooting professionally for Reuters and UNICEF, he sells a lot of his photos, but puts his extras up on Flickr under a Creative Commons non-commercial license. This means that many of his photos have been used for other purposes – Ethiopians in the diaspora used one of his photos to illustrate a story on New America Media, and other photos are being used on a set of greeting cards. As a professional photographer, Heavens found the situation disconcerting at first – “Wait, I usually get paid for this sort of thing” – but has grown to appreciate the reuse. The lifespan of most of Heavens’ photos on Reuters is a few days – they’re picked up by a newspaper or not – but the CC-licensed photos have a much longer lifespan and turn up in surprising places.

It wasn’t until Heavens covered the May 2005 elections that he understood just how far his photos might travel, and just how complicated the reuse relationships could get. Ethiopia’s elections were an impressive moment in history – the first democratic elections in thousands of years in the country. But they were widely viewed as being rigged in favor of the ruling party, and as results came in, opposition politicians took to Meskel Square to protest the results on June 2nd. University students protested as well, and those protests turned violent, with soldiers opening fire on the crowds with live ammunition.

Heavens took photos of the elections, the rallies, the violence and the hospitals and morgues. Some of the photos were purchased by Reuters and ran on their newswire – others ran on Andrew’s flickr feed. As Ethiopians around the world reacted with outrage to the violence, Andrew saw his photos appearing again and again – on a banner at a rally in Melbourne, in news photos of rallies around the world, on Ethiopian websites.

But the use of the images that really surprised him was in a viral video titled “Ethiopia’s June Massacre“. Five minutes long, the video shows a series of images interspersed with narrative text, over the haunting sound of a female Ethiopian singer. The narrative outlines the elections, the protests, the violence and makes strong – and perhaps unverifiable – claims, including that one of the people killed in the violence was a 14 year old child, killed while trying to flee. The video urges people to visit freeourleaders.org (down when I last checked it), a website which is strongly anti-government.

Roughly one third of the images used in the film are Heavens’ images, taken from his Flickr feed.

Heavens explains that his reaction to the film is complicated. On the one hand, it’s tremendously moving, and as someone who witnessed the events first-hand, Heavens says the film drew him back to the hope, fear and terror of those days in June. At the same time, it’s a very emotionally manipulative film, and Heavens says he’s uncomfortable seeing his images in the context of text that he may or may not support. (In person, as he is on his blog, Andrew is very careful not to express political opinions about the Zenawi government.)

There were practical concerns as well: “My kneejerk reaction was, ‘Will my freelance employers be upset that this film is using my images?'” Would the film affect his press accreditation, which the government needs to renew each year for him to effectively work in Ethiopia. Would it compromise his image of journalistic neutrality?

His ultimate conclusion: if those photos had just belonged to Reuters, “they would have made a few Britons seeing them over breakfast uneasy for a few hours.” Instead, they’ve got a life a year after they were taken, memories of critical moments in Ethiopian history long after that day has passed. He concludes, “If you love your photos, set them free.”

I’ve urged Andrew to write up his story, complete with photos, as an amazing and complex example of what Creative Commons can lead towards. The filmmakers who made the viral video probably cared less about the license of Heavens’s work (it’s unlikely the other photos in the film are CC, and the music almost certainly isn’t) than they did about the availability. But the use of photos in such a radically different, activistic content is both an example of what CC enables, and as why some folks might see CC as uncomfortable. I’d vastly prefer to see my friends at CC telling this story than fictional stories about Sowetan newspapers and expat South African musicians collaborating via CC – the truth is far more compelling than fiction.