Why Photographs Lose Their Attributions

cover of Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and LearningAfter reading my essay Web Writing and Citation: The Authority of Communities, a colleague wondered how my arguments about online communities having their own sets of expectations for crediting sources applied to sites such as Imgur where photographs are often shared without attribution. Are these simply communities with very loose standards for citation?

That is part of the story, but there is also a more general issue: how people regard photography today. If you carry a smartphone, you have a decent point-and-shoot camera with you most of the time; because this camera doesn’t require you to deal with film, you can click-click-click until you find one you like, giving little or no consideration to composition or lighting. Taking a photograph can seem more like taking a screenshot of the real world than of making a work of art. Why would you give credit to someone who held a machine up to a sunset? They didn’t make the colors.

Of course, barring the occasional flash of luck, great photography does require skill—however much the camera used lets the artist control. But if all you have ever used a camera for is a quick snap, why would you know that? How would you know the difference between what you do and what people who use similar processes to make art do, without educational interventions? Our understanding of what is skillfully made, and what is not, helps determine in part our citation practices.

To be clear, I have no issue with easy smartphone photography. I have an Instagram feed consisting mostly of quick pics of my cats, but I keep my more serious work on Flickr. I’d like to see a stronger understanding of how these two kinds of photography differ and to see expectations for attribution that reflect the differences.