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November 9, 2006

How I learned to stop worrying and love Creative Commons

Below the fold is a re-written version of part of a talk on 'Blogging with pictures' that I gave at the Digital Citizens Indaba in Grahamstown, South Africa last month. It is the part that focuses on the strange things that start happening when you add a Creative Commons license to your work.

This really is the last word on the Indaba, promise.

How I learned to stop worrying and love Creative Commons

This is how it used to be. I took photos of things that happened in Ethiopia. I sold the best ones where I could and posted the rest on Flickr for the folks to see back home.

Then two things happened – one huge and historic, the other small and not so historic.

The big event was the violence that followed Ethiopia's national elections in May last year.

DSC0025Just to recap, opposition parties made huge gains in the elections – the third held since the country's murderous Derg regime was overthrown in 1991. The opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) won almost all of the national and city administration seats in the capital Addis Ababa and lots of constituencies outside. When all the results were finally counted, however, it emerged that the incumbent Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had held on to power across the country as a whole. Many opposition leaders and supporters felt cheated. There were three days of protests in June, and another period of unrest in November. On both occasions, events climaxed in bloody confrontations between protesters, armed federal police and special forces. At the end of it just short of 200 people – most of them young men – were dead.

I took some photos of the elections, then of the protests, the dead and the injured. Some of the photos ended up with Reuters. Without thinking about it too much, I posted the rest on Flickr.

The second, much smaller event was a passing comment from Ethan Zuckerman of GlobalVoices and ... My Heart's In Accra. It was a long story, but it ended with him suggesting that I should consider using a Creative Commons license. Again, without thinking too much about it, I made the necessary quick changes to the blog and my Flickr page.

[Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that has released a series of copyright licenses that allow you to say how you want your work – your articles, photos, music and so on - to be used by other people. Mine is a fairly typical one that allows anyone to re-use anything – as long as they credit me and don't change the original material or make any money out of it.]

ethio protest 3The days after the June protests, the Reuters pictures made it into some papers in the UK, Europe and the US. They were also all over the local press who had ripped everything off the news feed on Yahoo! – a fairly common practice that every journalist living here gets used to.

After that, they sank down the list on Yahoo News and disappeared. News photographs hardly ever outlive the stories they are attached to. The world's attention had moved on so that was that.

A few days later it became apparent that the photos were attracting pretty heavy traffic on Flickr. Up to then, the most I had had were a couple of hundred viewers in total for each photo. But the protest photos were getting many hundreds of visitors a day.

Next a couple of mirror sites cropped up on Flickr, collecting all the photos they could find of the violence and re-publishing them on the photo-sharing site, under names like Ethio Photo and Terrorism against Ethiopians. (Warning – some of the photos reposted on these sites include very disturbing scenes from the mortuaries.)

Most of the people behind these were from Ethiopia's huge diaspora population in Europe and the US. Ethiopians in Washington DC and London had heard about the bloodshed in their home country. On the day of the protests, they had been able to watch the story unfold on the BBC and CNN. But the day after that, the mainstream news organisations had moved on to fresher conflicts. News-hungry Ethiopians were left to do their news gathering by themselves.

19362867_9484df125d_o.jpgIn the weeks that followed, Ethiopians across the world started holding their own demonstrations against the government and its use of lethal force against unarmed protesters. Slowly, photographs of these demonstrations – from Melbourne, from Geneva, from New York, from Rome – started filtering back through Ethiopia's resilient blogosphere and, again, the Yahoo! News feed.

The pictures all showed crowds of Ethiopians marching past well known landmarks holding banners in English and Amharic and huge blown-up photos – very familiar photos.

In Melbourne, a middle aged woman held up one of my photographs of a nurse, weeping in the corridor of Addis Ababa's Black Lion hospital, as she looked into the (out-of-shot) morgue, which held the bodies of seven dead teenagers.

18397722_bc53f62815_o.jpgIn Washington DC, a young man held up a photo of five other young men in Addis Ababa waving their fists at a line of armed riot police. In Rome, young women held up a montage of shots of mothers and sisters screaming with grief outside another city mortuary.

I am sure they would have got hold of some of the pictures with or without the Creative Commons license. In fact photos from other photographers also appeared on the banners – including a well-known one of a soldier beating a boy with his gun from AP. But the way the Creative Commons license had opened up my Flickr account meant that the protesters had access to many of the shots in their original full resolution. Many of the photos were blown up to near life-size.

This June, the first anniversary of the violence rolled round. Ethiopian blogger Weichegud ET Politics pointed to a six-minute video that had just gone up on YouTube titled Ethiopia's June Massacre.

If you have the bandwidth and the time, watch it now. It makes its point without resorting to any of the disturbing scenes from the morgues.

Once again, many of the photos used in the film to illustrate the post election violence and grief looked very familiar. They were taken straight off Flickr and other online news sources – and, apart from the fact that they were not credited, it had all pretty much happened within the terms of the Creative Commons licence.

The film itself, with its soaring, wailing soundtrack, was very moving and brought back lots of difficult memories. From a journalistic perspective it was also very disturbing.

Most journalists do their best to keep a distance from the things they write about and take pictures of. The key thing is to maintain impartiality, particularly when the story in question is divisive and highly political.

But here were my pictures illustrating a piece of highly-charged anti-government propaganda. (That's not to criticize the film by the way. It is just pointing out the obvious that the film had something to say and it said it with great force.) I worried about what the Ethiopian Ministry of Information might think. I worried about what my freelance employers might think. For one brief selfish moment I also worried about my bank balance – didn't I used to get paid when other people used my photographs? None of these worries were particularly focused. To be honest, at the time I didn't really know what to think.

Now that a few months have passed, those worries have faded – in fact looking back they seem a bit over-played (particularly the one about getting paid given the subject of the photographs.)

Time and distance have allowed me to reflect on the many benefits of learning to stop worrying and start loving the liberating effect of Creative Commons.

On the personal side, lots of good things have come out of the fact that my cast-off photos are swimming around the internet with a CC license attached. People have written in checking to see if they can use them in textbooks, calendars, Ethiopian restaurant menus, novelty Amharic greeting cards. (How often do you get the chance to illustrate a line of novelty Amharic greeting cards?) Some of these contacts have resulted in further paid work. Some have resulted in the offer of free food if I am ever passing through New York and want to pop in to a certain Ethiopian restaurant. Others have resulted in nothing financial at all.

Lots of good things have also happened beyond the personal side. As I said earlier, one of the most frustrating things about press photography is the short lifespan of your photographs. You put yourself in a risky situation to record what you consider to be an important, newsworthy event. The resulting pictures flash up on newspaper pages, TV screens and Yahoo! News for a day or so. And then they disappear.

The greatest thing that Creative Commons does is give you work an extra lease of life. After the news event has passed on, the photographs are still out there, waiting for someone else to pick up on them, give them a new meaning and use them in a different setting.

There is no doubt it can still be scary and disturbing (imagine if a race hate group had picked up the pictures and used them to illustrate an article on black-on-black violence.) But at the very least it is a fascinating process to sit back and watch where your photos end up.

Now you will have to imagine me pressing the button to reveal the last cheesy slide in my cheesy PowerPoint presentation in Grahamstown, in south South Africa. It spelled out a simple message in swirly whirling letters – 'If you love your photos, set them free'.

Posted by aheavens at November 9, 2006 4:45 AM