A tale of two photos

I've been meaning to write this post—part confession, part apology, part artistic manifesto—for a few months. It's been brewing in my mind ever since a local Christian radio station that I follow on Facebook posted the image on the left to its timeline. The original photo, shown on the right, is mine. Two summers ago, my dad and I spent the day hiking at Gatineau Park, got lost on our drive out, and wound up on this lookout just before the sun began to set.

God proceeded to treat me to one of the most beautiful sunsets I'd ever seen. The sky was lustrous, tinged with effusive pink and veiled in a soft, late-afternoon mist. It was all I could do not to squeal, so I channeled my enthusiasm into my shutter-release button, taking picture upon picture. Then, as if to complete the scene, a stranger wandered onto the ledge below with a book and a camera of his own. I doubled down on my shooting. My subject must have heard the rapid-fire clicks because he turned around and appeared to make eye contact with my lens three times, while I clumsily pretended to point my camera elsewhere.

The awkwardness was worth it: this photo is still my absolute favourite. And on the morning when I saw it in my Facebook feed, I smiled at how it had made the rounds on the Internet and ended up right back in the National Capital Region. Sure, I was a bit thrown off by the lack of credit and the editing—this version had a grey cast instead of the milky glow I'd laboured over in Photoshop—but it was a nice surprise to see something of my own pop up out of the blue.

Then, I made a fatal mistake: I reverse-Google-image-searched my photo to see where else it might be floating. To my surprise, the original shot had garnered a whopping 24,000 notes on Tumblr. The edited version had at least 8,000. I'd never seen so many digits associated with one of my works.

That knowledge transformed the image for me—suddenly, it was no longer just a personal favourite. It was, quite possibly, the ticket out of online obscurity. What if this shot could give me the breakthrough I needed in order to start up a brand, escape an office job, sell hundreds of prints, and spend my life shooting, drawing, and designing pretty things from a sea-facing apartment on the British Isles? (In my defence, it was unreasonably early in the morning, and I'm given to leaps of logic when I'm running low on sleep). As soon as this window of opportunity blew open in my mind, I became fiercely defensive of my photo. How dare someone edit all those beautiful colours out of my very pride and joy, stick a cliché phrase over the top, and cast it out onto the web without credit or permission? I wrote a peevish Tumblr post and basked in my grievance.

Not only does God have a sense of humour, but he also has impeccable comedic timing. Not even an hour later, my Communication Ethics professor put on a documentary in defence of derivative works and the public domain. The long-and-short of it was that humans have always built upon the innovation of others, and today's witch-hunting brand of copyright protection is blocking our main avenue of progress and creativity. Hot on the heels of the morning's photo fiasco, the documentary brought up issues that made me squirm.

I wasn't losing anything just because someone had edited and shared my work. The people who were reblogging the image had only a casual interest in it; they were sharing it to inspire, not to steal from me. If someone really wanted to buy my photo, they could always do a quick reverse search and message me to ask for a print (which I don't even offer yet). I had nothing to lose, so what was I trying to protect? My sense of control? My pride? And besides, I certainly hadn't been scrupulous about sourcing every picture I pinned or posted online.

Then, I went back to the image and read the caption. God has a great plan for your life. Trust him. As the sentiment sank in, I finally appreciated how my photo—of a scene that I had no part in creating—had pointed someone's thoughts to God, and that person had refashioned it into a tool for encouragement which was shared with thousands before it plopped right onto my own Facebook feed. This couldn't have happened twenty years ago. Somewhere between Flickr and WeHeartIt and Facebook and Tumblr, a modern-day miracle had transpired, and I was indignant because my name wasn't stamped on it.

This wasn't what I had set out to be. Somehow, my vision for my art had devolved into dollar signs. My self-proclaimed creative mission, full of grand, lofty aspirations about glorifying God, sharing beauty, and inspiring people, had dwarfed into yet another chase after recognition. My photography, which I've always said helps me to see, had blinded me to any purpose or plan bigger than myself. And worst of all, in writing a snarky message to assert my own authorship, I had given no credit to the Author of all that is beautiful, inspiring, and true.

So I've decided to take a different route. I want to take a cue from the Zen masters—the ones who compose poems, fold them into paper boats, and send them, unsigned, down rivers to be found by passersby or to sink into obscurity. I heard this story once, and it's stuck with me, a challenge: my art isn't about me. Sure, if photography or graphic design turns into my day job, I might start pushing some Report Infringement buttons. But all the same, I never want to forget how privileged I am to witness God's grand beauty, to capture it in my imperfect way, and to see it scattering, spreading, taking on a life of its own.

It's so much more beautiful that way.

(And now, an absolutely crucial disclaimer: The above describes how I want to approach my art—not other peoples' work. After all, my experience also showed me how much it sucks to find your work shared without credit or edited without permission. We Christians are dismally prolific for plagiarizing in Jesus' name. Let's change that reputation by giving artists the courtesy of proper credit. For my part, I've been holding off on pinning or posting images until I make a solid attempt to unearth the creator's name. Artists [of all kinds, not just the visual variety] make the world a more enchanting and colourful place... let's support them.)



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I'm Oksana—Communication major, shutterbug, occasional blogger, incessant doodler, graphic design geek, and writer of sentimental prose. I am quite content to spend an afternoon with a pencil, a few blank Moleskine pages, and a playlist of indie folk. I love musical theatre, black-&-white movies, and Eastern European illustration. Conversations with strangers make my day. When it rains, I make a beeline for my mug of green tea and stack of 19th-century fiction. I'm vegetarian about 98% of the time. I'm extremely awkward and rather nerdy. I love the sea. My name means 'hosanna' and I'm having the time of my life living to praise the One who set me free.

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