Appropriating and Recontextualizing Google Image Search Results

Part 1 of an article I wrote for

Every art student learns about the fair use principle, granting us permission to use any image in our artwork as long as we transform it so that it conveys new meaning.  But beyond that all-encompassing definition, we don’t know what transgressions, if any, we are actually committing.

The Associated Press is alleging copyright infringement against Shepard Fairey for his use of Mannie Garcia's photo (left) in creating his "Hope" poster (right). AP

Recently in the news is the preemptive lawsuit artist Shepard Fairey filed against the Associated Press. According to Fairey the AP threatened to sue him unless he pays royalties for the image that he used as source material for his now famous campaign poster of Barack Obama. Fairey argues that he is protected by the fair use principle. He claims that his intention was not to reproduce any particular image,  but instead was to capture a specific gaze representative of the ideas of hope and change.

In an interview on NPR, Fairey declared he was going forward with this suit on behalf of all artists, the thousands of artists that created their own campaign images in the same grassroots manner, pulling images from the web in support of the message of hope, change and a new administration in Washington.

screen shot of: first page of google image search results for "Barack Obama"

screen shot of: first page of google image search results for “Barack Obama”

I am fascinated by Fairey’s implication that the process of appropriating and re-contextualizing Google image search results might be considered a grassroots action. As an artist, I frequently use images that that I find on Google. Like Fairey suggested, my motivation for using these images is to highlight the search itself, not the derivative image.

Perhaps then, these cyber Robin Hoodian actions—using and transforming Google image search results—are capable of changing the structures that control the dissemination of information. After all, the order that information appears in Google searches is determined by the amount of people searching any given topic. And as a result of the Fairey’s appropriation, his campaign poster may be forever linked to Obama’s presidency.

email from President Obama

email from President Obama

Obama’s popularity can be credited to his skillfully constructed presidential campaign that effortlessly linked his name to hope.  I was quick to jump onto Obama’s online campaign message of hope.   Like many others, I subscribed to his twitter, facebook, and YouTube pages. I now get weekly emails from him and I even have a blog on his site…

5 thoughts on “Appropriating and Recontextualizing Google Image Search Results

  1. Hi guys,

    thank-you for the eye opening article – i am currently writing a contextual essay for my degree course and this is a really interesting factor, i wasn’t ware of the debate behind this image as i haven’t followed American politics. but I do hope to use this argument as an example of re-appropriation of images.
    thankyou once again, keep up the good work!

  2. Maya,

    I enjoyed reading your post, I had been thinking about the topic a bit.

    I wouldn’t normally advocate eye for an eye, but in a sense when everything becomes public property, why not?

    I don’t oppose using existing resources, but there is a process for doing so. If artists don’t respect each other, who will?


  3. Thanks for your comment Mark!

    “I hope that people begin to rip off Fairey and make money from his works.”

    Part 2 of this post addresses- the appropriation of Fairey’s appropiration…

  4. I’m not the judge or jury in this case, but, on behalf of creative professionals of all kinds, I do hope that Fairey looses. How about back when Fairey was still obscure, struggling, and working a day job, if some huge corporation had taken his Giant logo, colorized it and then used it to make millions of dollars without offering Fairey a dime?

    From what I can tell, Fairey has blatantly plagiarized someone else’s work. Because he is the creator of the work, even if he did not profit from it directly, he is responsible for the work’s content. That content is stolen. Simply recropping and recoloring the original photograph does not diminish the fact that it is someone else’s work. In fact, the image is immediately recognizable as the same work. He even used the same colors prevalent in the original work in his re-colorization.

    Further, I don’t believe that the original was available for alteration under license restrictions. This was a copyrighted work, not a Creative Commons work.

    Make no mistake, this image has made MILLIONS of dollars. The artist who originally captured the image has been bilked out of huge sums of money, without even being offered the chance to donate the image, or even asked. In short, it was stolen.

    So, what does that mean to the internet? If we cannot safely post our work to the internet without the risk that our work will be “legally” taken and re-appropriated, then it is time to quit posting new creative works to the internet.

    I find it hard to understand why people don’t respect that a photograph is a work of creative art. People say that it could have been any image of Obama. Then why didn’t Fairey take a picture himself and use it? Because he isn’t a talented enough photographer to capture a meaningful and powerful moment like this photographer has. It is the image of Obama that has weight and meaning, not the fact that Fairey has added red and blue masking to it. The red and blue masking simply make it easier to screen print.

    I am not saying that Fairey has no talent, he does. But works of creativity are incredibly valuable in the right circumstances and the talent to create them is not common place. It needs to be rewarded. Simply adding color to an existing photograph is not enough of a departure from the original work to qualify as an entirely new work.

    I hope that people begin to rip off Fairey and make money from his works. Then he will see how the shoe fits when it is on the other foot. Or maybe its too late, he’s already made millions of dollars, unlike the real talent, the photographer, who is still struggling in relative obscurity.

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