Inspiration or plagiarism?

There are so many photographs nowadays, you can’t avoid seeing many of them. And if you are a photographer, you can’t avoid being influenced by many of them. Also, many photographers recommend other photographers to study photos of renowned photographers as well as photos which attract their attention. To learn the craft, to find out what captivates them and to get inspired. Some even go as far as recommending others to reproduce the ideas or even the scenes to learn in that way. As a result, both knowingly and unknowingly we use the ideas, scenes, compositions, etc. in our own photographs.

We need to learn the basics, the principles and techniques, that’s fine. But then? Don’t we just copy what’s successful instead of coming up with our own unique views? And if we use the ideas knowingly, how much such conscious reproduction could or should be regarded as kind of plagiarism if such a photo is presented without referencing the original and its author?

Once I saw a photo taken in a town and I loved one particular feature of the photo consisting in one of the photo’s edges being filled with an edge of a house. Just a few centimetres of a wall and that detail accentuated the whole image in a very interesting way. I used this idea consciously in two of my photographs and I love them both yet I feel like I stole that idea from the other photographer.

– this is one of the photos I took based on the idea, you could see it in week 30 of my 52-week photo project back in 2014 – 

Nonsense, you might say. Who knows who was the first person having used such a detail? Who knows whether they used it purposefully or whether it was just coincidence? And actually, why the fact that I saw it in another photo should prevent me from using it as well? It’s not even the same scene…

You know, the thing is that if the same idea occurred to me without seeing that other image, I would have no problem with finding it elsewhere but as I adopted the idea, the photos don’t feel to be entirely mine.

– this is the other photo, you could see it in my post from Klatovy

I surely can’t imagine that everybody who would be inspired by somebody else’s photo and used that idea in their own photo would reference the original and its author. And the truth is that we all learn from one another, adopt what we like, what’s interesting and what works for us and carry it further. Our work may thus become richer and more creative and using ideas others came up with may lead us to new results, new inspiring ideas.

So perhaps we don’t need to invent what’s already been invented but should rather build on it and be grateful for the knowledge… even though we don’t mention the source of that knowledge (unless it’s necessary for copyright purposes of course).

But that doesn’t relate just to photography, does it?

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8 Comments

  1. I agree! Your snow shot is lovely, and makes me want to see what is around that corner. We have lighthouse not far from us that is photographed often, by people from all over the world. There are three or four spots along the cliff trail that seemed to be favorites places to shoot. I like the idea that we all see with the same eye.

    1. Sandy, thank you for sharing your view. I know what’s around the corner but I can’t tell you! 😉

      Do we all see with the same eye? That’s an interesting question which I’m sure can be answered in more than one way… In certain regards we do and in others we definitely don’t as people are identical and unique at the same time.

  2. Lee

    Good thoughts. I think we each see with our own unique eye, and even if we are inspired by another photographer’s work (consciously or unconsciously) ours will still be ours. Isn’t there a well-known quotation that “There is nothing new under the sun”? There is probably very little in the photographic world that hasn’t already been done by someone before. The photographer who took the shot you emulated probably got their inspiration from another photographer, who was inspired by someone else…..

    1. Lee, thank you for sharing your opinion. You’re right, the chain of inspiration might be very long and if it brought me to a photo that I like and that is mine in many ways because I used the idea in the right place and at the right time, then why to fuss about it? Yet I still don’t feel comfortable with that idea even though my brain says I should. Isn’t it important though to ask ourselves what we want to achieve by means of our photography efforts? To create original images based on new techniques and ideas or to express ourselves by means we can study and learn and perhaps arrive at an unexpected place? This is a question I feel more comfortable with.

  3. I look at others’ photographs all the time and often observe a perspective that I had never considered before. And, yes, I will often attempt similar results in future photographs. I’ve never thought of it as plagiarism, though. In most cases, I wouldn’t be able to give anyone credit because I wouldn’t recall where I had gotten the idea for the image. Besides, the original photographer would not be likely to recognize that it was his work I was imitating since mine would be a poor representation of it. 🙂 The two images that you present in this post are your own work. You might have been inspired by the work of another photographer, but you needn’t let that diminish your satisfaction and pleasure in the results you achieved when you applied the idea to your photographs.

    1. Linda, thank you for sharing your experience and for the encouragement. I’m sure we all absorb what we find interesting or useful and there seems to be nothing wrong about it. It helps us learn and grow and lead a richer life. Usually we don’t even notice or think about it. As a result though, the outcomes are often quite similar…
      The other day I read a comment where the person said that he stopped taking photos because there are so many and they are all so similar which is actually boring. I don’t agree with this attitude at all but understand where it comes from… Can we justify imitating one another that easily? And could it be different, with so many people doing the same things? Could it be different when we often need one another to learn and grow? These are questions I need to ask and find reasonable answers.

  4. Yes, I think we can look at other’s images for ideas which might spark inspiration in us, maybe use those ideas and build upon them with our own talents and knowledge. There is a multitude of possibilities with just one idea to make it our own. It isn’t plagiarism unless it is an exact a copy. I think the photographer would be happy that a part of his image was liked and the idea repeated. I bet he saw it somewhere else before he took his first shot. 🙂

    1. Michelle, thank you for sharing your opinion. Externally, I agree with the statement saying that it isn’t plagiarism unless it is an exact a copy but internally it feels much more complicated. Yet without building upon all the knowledge, not just ours, the potential growth and development would be restricted significantly and most probably quite unnecessarily… Still confused, but I might be overthinking this… 🙂

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