Transcript of a presentation at Full Color Future @SXSW2018, presented by Google. March 10, 2018
I’m a storyteller — at heart and by profession.
I’m the chairman of Black Public Media, which funds and develops more than a few of the black-focused documentaries you see on PBS. We work to make sure the black community gets the opportunity to tell its stories.
But I’m also a producer of my own documentaries, multi-platform projects that also attempt to tell stories of communities. And those projects almost always have photography as an important and core element.
In between projects, I try to find inspiration in various creative ways, and one of those ways is to collect old photographs of people I don’t know.
I know that sounds strange (and it’s strange to me as well).
I get these photos from my favorite vintage shop in Washington DC. They sell them, in a big box on a side table, right next to the cocktail glasses, old furniture, and bad art.
I tend to reach into the box and pull out one picture that speaks to me for whatever reason. Then I pull out others that in my imagination seem to connect to the first.
But they don’t really connect, of course. Then again, maybe they do. Were these photos lost? Were they discarded? Do they come from the same house? The same family? There’s no way to know. And in some sense, that’s what’s so intriguing about it creatively, and also what’s so disconcerting about it.
When I get them home, I lay them out and put them in different orders, and try to come up with different stories about them. And depending on the order, the stories are different. Put them in one order, it looks like a love triangle. Rearrange them and it’s a story of a longtime family feud. Another order, another story.
These stories I make up are just inspiration, to jumpstart ideas for short stories, to define characters for books I’m writing or they become the basis for an experiment with visual art. They are muses, of sorts.
But I must admit that I’m really conflicted about doing this. And for that reason, I never share what I do with those pictures. That’s because these pictures all come from estate sales, which means somebody died or a maybe house was auctioned off. And somehow the photos seem somehow very different from the old furniture, albums, and books These are memories, probably found in a drawer or in an attic. Likely never intended to be sold.
And now they are disconnected – — from the people in them, from the people who took them, from the subject, from context, from their original meaning.
Creatively I try to give these photos new life, but my version of that might be completely divorced from cultural relevance or family significance. What I do might be offensive, or even hurtful.
I don’t know. And the fact that I don’t know disturbs me.
I think I’m making art. But this is someone else’s life. Their history. One of these photos could be the very important missing piece of a family puzzle that finally connects someone to their heritage. And if so, what is it doing in my house?
Those questions make me very uncomfortable. So I keep the work I do to myself, and eventually, I return the photos.
My hope is that someone connected to them will walk in that store one day, look in the box and say, “Grandpa!”
Yet it occurs to me that in some way, all of us do some version of what I do with these photos nearly, maybe every day.
We pin other people’s photos on our Pinterest board, and the pictures we put together mean something new to us as a group, that has a different meaning than one picture alone. We create blogs on Tumblr, we post and share things we like on Facebook and the collection of what we share speaks to our agenda and personality. We curate what we discover and it becomes something different.
And there is a long history of that.
In fact, some of the artistic expressions we consider to be the most original and innovative –jazz and hip-hop — are partly grounded in the idea of re-mixing, refashioning, rethinking what came before.
But for the most part, there are generally clear guidelines in those genres around how much of someone’s work you can use before creativity bleeds over into theft. In the digital world, we have become accustomed, by habit and culture, to re-using and re-contextualizing. We make things our own, and fashion our own realities, largely without contact with the original creator, and without attribution or compensation.
And now there’s an entire generation of people who knows nothing but that.
But the rules are all very confusing. From our earliest days in English class, we are taught that if you use someone else’s writing, either too much or without thr right quotations, it is cheating. Stealing. There is a premium put on originality and creativity. People lose jobs, get kicked out of college and lose reputations for breaking the rules.
Then we send that same student across the hall to art class, hand her a bunch of magazines filled with the work of other people, and a pair of scissors and say, “Make a collage!”
On one side of the hall you are an artist, but on the other side, you’re a thief. Why one standard for one form of expression and not the same for the other?
We’ve addressed this somewhat with digital creativity. We have tools to catch plagiarism, and through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, creators can request that their work is pulled down, assuming they catch it if they see it being used in a way they did not intend. Generally, that has worked pretty well.
But is that enough to cover the onslaught of content and the incredible number of ways available to create and aggregate and remix it?
What makes it more confusing is that a lot of creators want you to share and use their work. They’ve accepted the modern idea that if you attract attention first, you can set yourself up to monetize it later.
For some, that works, but for others not so much.
These are some of the questions we face as we move forward, and as more people create and distribute their work in away that is “digital-first”.
In particular, it’s one the things we at Full Color Future have to look at because these are issues that tend to impact creators of color differently.
People of color have a long history of their work being undervalued or even stolen outright, then redone by others for far more compensation than the original work. So the normalizing of a system that does less to protect their work, but says “Throw it out there, see if someone likes it and maybe someone will pay for it” becomes a real stumbling block for many creators.
How many great ideas get unseen because of the fear that one’s work will be appropriated, or otherwise profited from, without credit or compensation — whether that is a legitimate fear or not?
Add to that the death of net neutrality and the possibility that communities of color may have less access to broadband, so your audience — if you’re making a product specific to your culture — might be artificially smaller.
And then, there’s the issue of who is on the other side to appreciate your work and offer you a deal? If those people don’t look like you, or appreciate the culture you represent, that makes it harder.
These are not problems without solutions, but they are barriers that we need to knock down, but first we have to see them.
The infrastructure to make this all easier has not caught up yet with technology or the culture.
If you want to use a music sample, there is a company, a website and an established fee based on usage. You may not want to pay it, but the standard and the method is there. For other ways to create, it’s still wide open.
So the marketplace is behind the culture. Education is behind the technology. Law and policy are struggling to catch up with the new reality.
But does that mean we need more laws and policies to make sense of all this? Maybe. Maybe not.
But we need to be mindful that the next generation of policymakers will be from a group that has grown up remixing, so the policies will likely be guided by their cultural norm.
In the meantime, maybe we can start by going back to how we teach that English class and start treating creativity in the digital world the same way.
You can use some things, but not too much. In proper context. With proper attribution. And with a clear understanding of its original intent and meaning before you attempt to change that meaning.
In other words — Stop. Think. Then create.
But always place a high premium on originality, across the creative board.
Because between creating new laws, policies or stressing originality, the thing most valuable is originality.
Despite how vast the digital world appears to be, we often seem to be discussing the same relatively small group of memes, sharing the same ideas, watching the same videos. A finite group of ideas tends to bubble to the top.
And once we all start drawing from the same stream of influences, refashioning the same concepts, the art stops growing, we stop growing, we stop challenging, we stop learning. And when that happens, we all lose.
Eric Easter is a founding board member of Full Color Future. We are innovators, creators, entrepreneurs and advocates of color. We believe the Internet provides unprecedented opportunity to build businesses, share stories, and spark movements for justice. We work with policymakers to ensure that future opportunities are available to everyone