Thursday, 23 January 2020

Guest Blog - Where did that old photo come from? by Mark Amies

A great many of us enjoy looking at old photographs of the area we live in. It gives us the opportunity to see places either we can recall in our youth, or allow us the possibility of a bit of travel into a past we didn’t experience. Numerous Facebook groups and Twitter pages exist for us to revel in this past time. Some of us enjoy finding old images, and putting them up onto social media. It is a normal human desire to share things with others, and it can be a wonderful thing. For those with failing memories, it can spark the parts of the mind that retain their past experiences.
We are fortunate to live in a time where we are able to access huge numbers of old images, and then rapidly self-publish them to seemingly endless numbers of people across our local areas and the World, and it’s all free. Or is it? The majority of archive images go up onto social media platforms and blogs without any credit as to where they came from, and there are examples where individuals claim that the pictures are from ‘own collection’. Why is this important? Well, it is important for a great many reasons.
The most obvious reason why images should be credited is the legal status of copyright. In essence they are the property of someone else, and there are rights applied to their copying. The owner maybe the photographer who took the image, an agency that paid the photographer for the image, or the family of the person who took the photograph. Don’t be lulled into thinking that because a photo is ‘old’ that means it is exempt. Copyright can last for decades. Old images of areas may be owned by local authority archives or museums, and they will renew their copyright as time goes by.
The rapid arrival of electronic media has opened up a huge problem for the owners of images. In the more traditional world of publishing, books, magazines and newspapers have to adhere to the strict rules of image usage, pay for the rights to publish an image, and they have to credit where the image comes from. But with electronic self publishing and social media things have become much looser. A large majority of people assume images can be used without any permission or payment. 
So why I have got a bee in my bonnet about all this? Well, I have spent most of my working life in the world of imaging . I spent about ten years working for major photographic libraries and agencies, I have sold photographic goods and equipment to professional photographers and studios, and I have worked for a magazine publisher. Commercial image libraries make money from the sale of images to all forms of visual media. But there is more to their existence than selling pictures. They commission professional photographers to take pictures, and they manage and promote their work. In simple terms images are not free, and they should not be treated as such. I have recently finished putting together a book about London’s industrial heritage, and I have had to pay out several hundreds of pounds of my own money for the right to publish historical images, without which the book would have had no appeal. I was lucky that a number of images were permitted to be published without payment by their owners, but I had to ask them, explain what the book was about, credit them, and in many cases give them a copy of the book once it has been published.
So that has put into some context why using images without appreciating their value and ownership is something to be aware of. Now you are wondering why so many images are being used willy-nilly across Facebook and Twitter, and nothing happens. This is something that I have wondered too. However, just because image reproduction is not heavily monitored and enforced on these platforms, it does not mean the individual should not take some responsibility. All you need to do is credit the place where the image came from, or to say who took the photo. It’s not unreasonable. How would you feel if your photographs were used without acknowledgment? Worst still, imagine your living was earned from taking photographs or maintaining an image library, and you knew someone was doing this?
As a number of you will be aware, I started a Twitter account in the Spring of 2019, called NW London TimeMachine, where I post old images of North West London. I started it as a bit of fun, but incredibly it has picked up over one thousand followers. People like history, and they like to see images of the places they live in, as they were in the past. I do not make any money from the account, nor do I mean to. I do it because it is fun and people seem to enjoy it. However I do my very best to say where the images come from. There have been a number of occasions where there is no source name and as good as the image may be, I have left it, because I felt it wasn’t right to put it up, without a source name. More than anything it is just common courtesy to acknowledge where you found the image. I have often tagged the owner of the image, so that it is perfectly clear I acknowledge them. Two examples of this are the Francis Frith Collection and David Smith over at Memories (Hendon). Quite often these people will be happy that their images are being publicised, and potentially they could end up selling them as prints.  The aforementioned places add watermarks, in otherwords a logo or name will be added over the image to ensure no one can copy it easily.  I had to laugh when I saw someone on a Facebook group claim an image was from their own collection, when it had an obvious London Borough of Barnet logo in the middle of it.
Another issue that I find rather unfortunate is the individuals who, on Facebook groups in particular, will fire up loads of old images of places and things, and as well as not properly crediting where they found the image, will also produce minimal captions. I have lost count the number of times I have seen someone post up a really quite wonderful archive image, and left so many unanswered questions as to where the place is, or when it was taken. A lot of this information is available, whether it be in the book, or the website it was copied from, so why not add it?
Lastly do be aware that you cannot really claim ownership of an image unless you or a family member took it, or you have made an agreement with the person whose photo it is. If the photo comes from a book, it should have a credit, and a picture postcard can still be under copyright. Oh, and simply putting a filter over the image or some other fancy gimmick does not suddenly make it yours.
Sharing old images is fun, and it can be incredibly educational. But just think about where that image came from, and try and pay respect to it.

P.S. – you will note that there are no images used in this blog post!!
Mark Amies lives in Edgware and is a local historian. He has a book coming out soon. You can follow him on Twitter at @Superfast72

The Barnet Eye recently made a film with Mark about the history of Airco in Colindale

Guest blogs are always welcome at the Barnet Eye. Email us at with your submission. Must be relevant to the Borough of Barnet or other topics we cover such as dyslexia, grassroots football, cancer or grassroots music

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