What’s a Picture Worth?

April 5, 2009 at 4:12 pm 4 comments

Text citation is one of the fundamentals of good research skills. From the painstaking index card notes I took starting in middle school to any of the various citation generators you can now find online, schools and libraries generally do a great job when it comes to drilling home the dangers of plagiarism and the importance of proper citation. Not everyone gets it, of course, and it can be tricky to expect a perfect MLA citation every time if these skills aren’t taught early and often and as part of a holistic approach to the research process.  But we at least all agree on the principles of intellectual honesty and the importance of attribution when it comes to text.

But what about images?

To be fair, I know that not everyone shares my academic background. Aside from a Master’s in library and information sciences, I also have a BA in the history of art and architecture–which meant I dealt with a lot of images. My essays were full of illustrations. Even when handwriting midterms, I was expected to be able to reference works by title, artist and date–sometimes location and medium as well.

But even if you’re not dealing with that level of specificity, it’s not hard to understand the concept. Anyone who’s ever read a newspaper or magazine has seen photo captions and credits. This is true of monographs as well–any book worth its salt includes a section of illustration references along with the standard bibliography for text references. But when we move into the online sphere–both as a resource for offline research and also as a new medium for publishing–the academic rigor of image citation virtually (ha!) disappears.

As an educator, I see sloppy image use by teens every day. For papers and presentations alike, students pull images straight from a Google search and don’t bother to cite the original source, or even really notice it. And teachers are equally guilty. They accept these citation- (indeed, context-)free images without question or comment. At times they’re the ones directing the students to simply Google to find images.

But it’s not just teens. Over and over again I’ve seen unattributed images on major blogs. While it’s not standard practice to provide free bibliographies–although many bloggers, particularly those with academic backgrounds, do–bloggers are usually thoughtful about properly linking their sources. The best linkers explain links in-text–“I found this great post on language and trans* identities from Cedar over at Taking Up Too Much Space“–while slightly lazier linkers give the credit through a hat tip (which still links the original source, but doesn’t make it quite as explicit in-text). And, of course, there are assholes who don’t link and don’t attribute, but that’s called not being intellectually honest, and that’s sort of another story.

Consider this piece on Lovell Mixon, written by Samhita over at Feministing. It’s a highly charged, controversial piece–Samhita ultimately closed comments and wrote a follow-up piece–but one of the big things that stuck out to me was the use of imagery at the head of the piece.

Originally this post came with the image you now see–an image that looks like it came straight from Obamicon, drawing on the imagery of Barack Obama and derivative of the work of Shepard Fairey, who is now in hot water for issues of fair use concerning this AP photo by Mannie Garcia–and absolutely no mention of the image’s source or its creator.

Now, as you can see, the post has been updated to include a link to the image source as well as the artists’ statement. Still, the artists aren’t mentioned by name, nor does Samhita mention the site she links–a New American Media commentary by Kevin Weston.

What does this all mean for image citation?

It means that if you do an image search for any set of keywords (I actually tried Lovell Mixon, but didn’t have much luck retrieving that same image) you end up finding a lot of images that aren’t properly attributed to their creators. If you, in turn, post that image without citing where you found it, the cycle of misattribution only continues. Thus failure to properly cite images is effectively claiming them as images of your own creation. Maybe that’s not what you intended, but other searchers will assume they’re yours all the same.

So how do we get images the attention they deserve–and that text has been enjoying by itself for so long?


Entry filed under: Education. Tags: , , .

What I’ve Been Reading What I’ve Been Reading

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. sarcozona  |  April 5, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    I always try to directly link an image to the page I got it from.

  • 2. pandanose  |  April 8, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    I think you’re in the minority, though.

    And something I just learned is that when you post a news item to Facebook the interface automatically provides some pictures for you to use–and they’re not linked or credited.

    (They’re clearly being pulled from the site source, but they’re not explicitly credited–and sometimes the suggested images make no sense. I just tested out a link to a New York Times piece on YouTube and Disney, and I recognized some of the available thumbnails from other–completely unrelated–Times pieces.)

  • 3. sarcozona  |  April 9, 2009 at 8:20 am

    I like that facebook pulls pictures to use, but it does bother me that so many of the pictures it automatically pulls aren’t actually related to the article. I think that choosing the right picture (or no picture) is part of responsible citation.

    For correctly chosen pictures, I don’t think that it’s a problem if they aren’t explicitly credited. I don’t really think that posting an item on facebook with an image is substantially different from just linking the picture to the article. Unlike some situations on blogs, the link to the source article is very clearly associated with the image.

  • 4. pandanose  |  April 9, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Ahhh, but the actual photo credit itself is still obscured. If I provide you this link to a Times article, you’ll see an image and the caption, identifying it as copyright Sergei Grits/Associated Press.

    But if I get that same photo automatically generated for me via Facebook, it doesn’t carry the photo credit. (I’m pretty sure–I can’t check Facebook at the moment to actually test.)

    True, clicking through to the link will take you to the full story, photo credit and all. But I think allowing the photo to float around Anywhere without its full credit is just as bad as letting a chunk of text free-float without a citation.


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