Originally, the offcolor project was intended as content for an article in the German DOCMA magazine that explored the possibilities of NFT technology for photographers.
Then Ralf Mohr, a Hanoverian photographer and an old friend of mine called me and wanted to know if I had an idea for two dozen portrait motifs. He had been asked for an exhibition, but time was a bit tight at the moment. In the course of the conversation, it turned out that he had the NFT project portraits in mind as exhibits. But there were not enough of them yet. So we agreed to share the work of organizing, photographing, and post-processing, and thus to mount the exhibition together.
The political dimension
If you make pictures especially for an exhibition, they should have a connection to the environment. In the town of Oederan in Saxony, where the pictures will be on display in the city center for a whole year, the AfD is getting 35 percent of the vote. So it made sense for us to give the project a political touch. Even if only a slight one. One that is about playfully questioning one’s own, perhaps just a little bit racist, prejudices.
With this approach, it was relatively easy to find enough people of different skin colors in Ralf’s Hanover artist community who wanted to be part of the project. We made the recordings and asked the participants about their experiences with their skin color.
In the end, we were able to characterize the people textually with a short quote and a few details about their biography. As a thank you for taking part, they received, among other things, image files for use in social media.
Because all the participants took up the idea of using them in social media with glee, it didn’t take long for someone on the web to get excited: “These are really cheap copies of the work of Angelica Dass!”, a Brazilian artist who had international success with similar images about ten years ago.
It was only a few hours before Ms. Dass herself contacted us in writing. With us, with some participants of the action and with the responsible persons in Oederan. She accused us of intellectual theft as well as colonialist practices and demanded that we stop the action and dismantle the exhibition.
What does one do in such a case? The artist had argued on two levels. On the first level, we would have copied her work, which she forbade. On the second level, we as “Western” privileged men would be perpetuating colonial history with our behavior. And we would do so by cheating women of color with colonialism backgrounds – like her – of the fruit of their cultural achievement. When the term colonialism comes into play, the moral club of “cultural appropriation” resonates in the background. Even if Ms. Dass didn’t call it that directly.
What kind of shitstorms such accusations can trigger – regardless of whether they are factually correct or not – we regularly read in the (social) media.Unfortunately, it is difficult to argue on the basis of identity-related accusations. As a white person, one can only listen to the accusations. Counter-speech is – for lack of experiences of discrimination and colonization – forbidden. After all, you can’t really put yourself in the other person’s position, so all we could do was find out if we had stolen anything at all that we could be accused of. In such cases it helps to ask a lawyer. Better not just any lawyer, but one like Arne Trautmann, who specializes in media and copyright law.
The legal situation
How the lawyer arrives at his assessment from a legal perspective in detail is to be read here. The brief summary is as follows: “From a legal point of view, it is fair to say here that there has been no infringement of the rights of the creator of the original series. This applies both to the concept of the series and to the individual images. “This makes it quite clear that we have not “stolen” anything from the project. Now Angelica Dass, as the image author of the original series, asserts points of view that lie less in the law than in social conventions, namely – even if she does not call it by name – accusations in the context of “cultural appropriation.
What is cultural appropriation?
Wikipedia defines the term as “the taking over of a component of one culture from bearers of another culture or identity” and further explains “The ethical dimension of cultural appropriation is usually only addressed when the appropriated cultural elements belong to a minority that is considered socially, politically, economically, or militarily disadvantaged.” If we go in search of “cultural elements” in the image concept, some can be found: First of all, these are real-life, secular images. These have existed with this posture and a neutral facial expression since antiquity. They are known from Rome and Greece. In European painting, under the term “incarnate”, the preoccupation with skin color has been an important theme at least since the 16th century. Color photography was invented by a Scotsman in 1861. Even coloring (which could be considered the basis of background coloring) originated in medieval European book art. None of this has any discernible connection to today’s disadvantaged minorities. The project is “clean” in this field as well. Whether factual arguments are of any use to us, however, or whether a shitstorm is inevitable if we continue, remains to be seen.
Conclusion: Much ado about nothing
As a picture maker, you can be annoyed when other people – consciously or unconsciously – use your own ideas for their work. This is quite legitimate, humanly understandable, and probably every creative person has experienced this in one form or another.Just be aware that an idea is always the product of conscious or unconscious perception of others’ ideas. Creativity needs an occasion and a context. It does not happen out of itself. The only way to protect image ideas is not to publish them. This is the dilemma of every creative person: There is only a chance of praise if you show your work. But when you publish your ideas, they are also available to others for inspiration. You don’t change this principle by refusing to acknowledge it. It also doesn’t help to use the fact that you belong to a presumably underprivileged minority as a defense of your own desires.