Fashion week season,
Coverage of Paris, Milan, London, New York fashion weeks; communicating the codes of fashion culture in real time, through images, street style photographers, arguably are the cultural intermediaries of the system that we call the fashion industry. At least four seasons a year, they help deconstruct and reconstruct the field of fashion. Documenting fashion's sub-culture - backstage, in the shows and on the streets - they have a unique talent for their ability to capture all sides of the fashion world.
Through them, the system comes to life, verifying as the famed designer Chanel is known for stating: "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion [in fact]... is in the street... it has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." And during fashion weeks the streets truly do become the unofficial documented runways of style.
Yet, in Milan this past weekend, according to WWD, about 40 photographers have come together publicly to protest against the unauthorised use of their street style photography. Members of the group, which calls itself an "unofficial union" named "The Photographers," have begun adding the agreed hashtag #NoFreePhotos to images uploaded on their Instagram accounts to take a stand against the commercial use being made of their photos by bloggers, brands and influencers at fashion events without correct remuneration or acknowledgement. As per a statement released to WWD on the matter, the group asserts that: "Brands, influencers and bloggers regularly make use of these photographers' copyright-protected photos to fulfil their responsibilities to the brands that pay them to wear and promote the garments and accessories which they wear to the fashion shows and events. The statement notes that the objective of the "collective action" is to put a stop to the "disproportionate gain being derived by the influencers."
The statement establishes that there is "no malice intended with this action" however confirms that the photographers "simply wish to no longer be viewed as a passive entity in the equation of this industry." On Instagram one user commented that: "big/small designers use photos without permission to promote themselves and expect to use your work for free. This has happened to me every season!" Thus, Along with the hashtag, group members are now adding to their Instagram bios: "My images are not to be used without express consent of license, contact me to obtain the rights", and more than three million followers, are said to have taken part in the movement across social media networks.
In response, some bloggers like Bryanboy maintain that many girls are not paid by the brands to wear their clothes, but agree to do so to be "well seen." On his Instagram account, he said: "I obviously understand the photographers' need to be compensated. But then again, when was the last time an influencer demanded a model release form from photographers who sell their images to magazines, retailer websites or the brands directly? Imagine if every influencer or editor or fashion person started complaining that their images are being taken and sold without authorization?" Adding: "I like to think that everyone should win in this symbiotic ecosystem. Think about it: girl gets famous online on her own, gains the attention of brands and starts to go to fashion week/month/circus looking like a clown. Street photos then starts shooting the said girl, often in borrowed clothes and uncompensated, and her images are sold to different outlets... where's the disconnect?"
But the issue here is not about image it's about rights. Other influencers, like Shea Marie discussing the matter, maintained that she is not paid to wear the clothes of the brands, but recognised the work of the photographers "who are sometimes overwhelmed by a car, waiting in the rain or under a blazing sun for hours, weeks, and until the end of Fashion Week," she notes.
Notwithstanding the differing views on the matter, the collective action speaks to a larger problem for creatives and cultural entrepreneurs in the fashion industry and that is a lack of respect for rights. A major challenge for those operating in the creative and simultaneously cultural economy is how to sustain business growth. For many photographers the Internet has complicated the boundaries of ownership. Fashion images are cultural currency and operate as a form of symbolic and cultural capital that has the ability boost one's reputation as an icon in the industry. This is reinforced by data that highlights that for some bloggers a single street style shot during New York Fashion Week season could generate as much as $100,000 for them. So it makes sense that photographers are starting to take a stand for their rights. This unionising marks a growing shift. Earlier this year, the well-known fashion model Gigi Hadid was sued by a fashion photographer for uploading an image of herself to her personal Instagram - without the photographer's consent to use it. Hadid according to court documentsmaintains an Instagram account, which has over 35 million followers.
With Paris Fashion Week starting this week - there seems to be a timeliness about raising the spotlight and conversation around visual artists rights and image use. After all, it's a complicated digital landscape out there. Rights are important, and this includes photographers understanding their rights when joining and using social media sites - so that they are not allowing the platform to do something with their photographs that they do not like. Images are fluid currency - and borrowing the term from Hussein Chalayan in the "LIKE" era, this (banding together, while albeit only a partial solution to the problem of copyright theft) comes as an important step for fashion photographers in the direction of making those in the industry more aware of their rights
Tania Phipps-Rufus is a PhD candidate in Fashion & IP law at Bristol University. This article was originally published on Fashion, Law & Business Journal.