Brief note: The travels of “Molotov Man”

Molotov man

If you’re interested in how images move and morph in a digitally linked world, check out a recent essay in Harper’s about “Molotov Man,” who was born in a photograph taken by Susan Meiselas in revolutionary Nicaragua in 1979. (Work by Meiselas can be seen in the website of the photo agency Magnum.) It was subsequently appropriated for artistic and political purposes in Nicaragua and beyond.

Molotov man is the subject of the Harper’s article “On the Rights of Molotov Man:
Appropriation and the Art of Context,” by Susan Meiselas and Joy Garnett, published in the February issue. It also figures in the multimedia record of an NYU conference, Comedies of Fair U$e,” held in April 2006. The conference attracted such fair-use heavyweights as James Boyle, Lawrence Lessig, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Jonathan Lethem.

Does anyone know of specific indigenous images that are this well-traveled?

23 thoughts on “Brief note: The travels of “Molotov Man”

  1. I love the function of photography. It truly is fantastically exploitative.

    That’s not supposed to sound too much like a joke. However, I do find it very surprising as to how the context of a photo is manipulated and how that in turn changes its meaning.

    With a photo like this, I feel it’s completely offensive to do what Pepsi did and not only destroyed the significance of who the man is with that bottle. The uneasy realities in regard to revolutions and warfare should not be turned into an inane public relations campaign by a super-corporation like Pepsi, especially because of sensitive subject matter. I’m positive that if anyone took a photo of 9/11 and somehow manipulated it in any way; it would not be well received. That says something about the nature of political imagery in the context of the photo and in the context of what is socially acceptable in the western world.

    However, the ideas represented in the discussed photo pertain more to the distortion of image and how that idea is universally applied to a society that values the superficial above all else. Most photos are now “photoshopped” to achieve a certain look because they aren’t appealing or distinct. As such, they are fixed and designed in ways to allure people and speak to them in a different way. This is somewhat like Andy Warhol’s work; his way of looking at an image and changing its appearance gave it a new meaning.

    However, the point to anything like this is that some things should not be changed because its factual and when something is edited in or out it changes the fact.

  2. ng is right about the Pepsi ad (I have corrected the post accordingly). I appreciate the correction and apologize for the gaffe. The Harper’s article includes a couple of Pepsi ads, but they turn out to be agitprop appropriations by artists, not “legitimate” advertising. Though I’ve got to wonder: given the history of advertising campaigns using the theme of “revolution,” is such a use of the image unlikely?

  3. However, the point to anything like this is that some things should not be changed because its factual and when something is edited in or out it changes the fact.

    As Stewart Brand pointed out back in 1987 in The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, it is hard to tell what’s a fact any more. Critical appraisals of photography as a documentary medium have long pointed out that what gets included in a picture and how the picture is framed reflects a subjective point of view. But–this is what Brand points out–as long as photography still meant silver halide film, doctoring photographs left chemical traces. The problem with digital media is that there is no physical difference between an original and an altered copy with which it is possible to demonstrate which is which.

    All I can think of as a counter to what Brand says is that it might be possible to find copies of competing images stored on different servers and determine which has the earlier time stamp. But if the time stamps themselves were digitally altered….

    In this particular case there are still human memories of which came first, the image presented as news, or the repetitions as parodies, advertising, etc. When those memories are gone, how will a 22nd century scholar know what to think?

  4. hi again. I wonder that this post still asserts that the photograph was appropriated all over the world; did you read the article? The photograph was appropriated in Nicaragua; the painting, a re-appropriation of the photo, was appropriated by web artists in solidarity against the photographer’s attempt at controlling the work by the painter… the painting and the photo are two different works of art. The point of the article, maybe, was to show that the documentary form and appropriative art, both legit within their own terrain, can appear to be pitted against each other due to a conflict in their priorities.

    Another point might be that despite the copyright control that copyright holders may attempt (over-reaching, as is clearly the case here, or legit as in many other cases…), is something that needs to be re-examined against the realities of digital culture.

    “However, the point to anything like this is that some things should not be changed because its factual and when something is edited in or out it changes the fact.”

    What “fact”? this is a photograph afterall — the “truth” in photographs is determined by many filters — the photographer, the context in which it appears, the performative aspect of the subject once they realize they are being photographed…. and the viewer. In terms of the photographer, the photograph represents their — one person’s — point of view. Literally. The “fact” notion is one of the myths of photography. This is old hat. Strangely enough, in law, when something is a “fact” it cannot be copyrighted. In other words, copyright only protects expression.

  5. The appropriation of Molotov Man has a global dimension because the appropriations are (apparently) available transnationally via the Internet and other sources of communication. And from the description in the article, the location and nationality of the artists who have developed variations on Susan Meiselas’s photograph, to say nothing of Joy Garnett’s painting based on the photograph, could well be international, although I haven’t sussed that out. But, um, does it really matter that much?

    Core issues according to the authors: Joy Garnett “Does the author of a documentary photograph–a document whose mission is, in part, to provide the public with a record of events of social and historical value–have the right to control the content of this document for all time? Susan Meiselas: [and here I paraphrase in my own words] Don’t artists have the right and, indeed, the moral obligation to defend the integrity of the context in which the art was created? Memorably, she calls this a “debt of specificity.” For additional discussion of this case, use the search function in

    The parallels to (and differences from) the global indigenous IPR debate are provocative.

  6. …the web appropriations of the painting came much later, and were done specifically in protest against the photographer’s attempt to control certain re-appropriations of her photograph; the painting is not the photograph. That was part of the point of the protest.

    In the lethem article he drives another point home: that all art is “sourced.” In most IP law discussions, this fundamental fact about art-making is not well understood. lawyers need to understand more about the visual arts, rather than remain for the most part ignorant meddlers, if they are to really help bolster fair use, and re-define copyright law so it is more effective and more appropriate to our digital age, for appropriators and non-appropriators alike; for both copyright holders and those who use found material for their work…

  7. re: MichaelB’s post:

    “The parallels to (and differences from) the global indigenous IPR debate are provocative.”

    That sounds incredibly interesting. Would it be possible to elaborate here a tiny bit? or point us toward info on that debate?

  8. Well, some Native activists claim that people who document indigenous activities, especially rituals, have no IP rights in their work because the “performance” belongs to the performer, not to the documentarian. (I attended a conference last year in which a prominent Native American intellectual asserted that anthros and folklorists are the human equivalent of recording devices, who add nothing to the information they convert to another medium–image, sound, text.) The flip side, of course, is that Western IP tends to privilege the documentarist at the expense of the “performers,” whose folkloric expression is, almost by definition, part of the public domain. That clearly seems wrong, too. The challenge is to get past the rhetoric to see the moral, artistic, and political rights that both parties have in the process.

  9. MB,

    What comes to mind, more than any other image, is the famous photograph of Che Guevrra, which I think is the most reproduced image in the world. Ariana Hernández-Reguant, now at UCSD comm, has written a nice piece on intellectual property law, the Cuban state, and copyright, focusing in on this infamous image: (Copyrighting Che: Art and Authorship under Cuban Late Socialism)

  10. Just out of curiosity, have any entertainment or advertising industry lawyers been involved in these IPR discussions? I ask because I know, for example, that when contracts are written for celebrities who appear in TV commercials, limits on usage are typically part of the package. It is common, for example, for Western movie stars to restrict use of footage shot for commercials aired in Japan to Japan or East Asia. These contracts also spell out the rights of the agency that makes the commercial as well as those of the sponsor who pays for production and media costs. I note that in none of these discussions is the proposition that only one party has complete and exclusive rights on the table.

  11. It’s a little confusing, but there will be an interesting paper on indigenous art and cultural re-appropriation on Saturday at College Art Association, as part of a two-part program entitled “Reexamining Appropriation: The Copy, the Law, and Beyond”:

    The Problematic of the Signature: Reexamining Appropriation in Contemporary Indigenous Art and Cultural Heritage / Tressa Berman, San Francisco Art Institute

    (It’s listed online as in the Friday session, but it’s been moved to Saturday’s session, I have it on good authority. Better if you simply go to both!)

  12. Thanks, Biella, for your reference to the Che image case, which is a fascinating one. Wikipedia has a nice summary of the fate of Alberto Korda’s original photograph at

    An inverse (converse?) example is provided by the Canadian First Nation that has filed for official mark status to protect petroglyph images that it doesn’t want to see in wider circulation. Ironically, to prevent the images from circulating, the community had to make them publicly available in the Canadian trademark database.

    All this leaves a number of questions unanswered: Does a community’s interest in its own heritage trump the artistic rights of documentarians? But don’t documentarians (ethnographers, photographers, ethnomusicologists, etc.) contribute something that gives them significant rights, too–as well as responsibilities?

  13. I was hoping someone else would take up your question Michael, as I am not all that well versed and acquainted with the issue of documentation (and I know some other readers of SM, like Kim Christen are) but since no one has jumped aboard, here are a few thoughts based on my very limited experience with documentation.

    After attending about 10 hacker conferences (4 of them being the yearly free software project I have given most of my attention to) and after buying a video camera (thanks to graduating and having more than a few dollars in the bank account), I decided it was high time to start taking some video of these magnificent events. However, even if I had been independently wealthy during grad school so as to afford a video camera, I would not have dared to take any footage (even if I had received the permission of the conference organizers) as I only felt that it was appropriate to even attempt recording footage after showing up year after year and after year, that is after establishing a pretty high quota of trust.

    And yet, even though when I finally filmed, it was my 3rd Debconf (and had lectured at two of them), and despite knowing a good portion of the participants, and despite the fact that there was a video team that was filming the talks (and I eventually joined the team and my footage was included in their collected footage), I was still profoundly uncomfortable whipping out the camera out to shoot what were basically informal interactions at Debconf. Now of course part of this discomfort was fussing and fooling with an unfamiliar equipment but part of it was that I felt I had to gain the right to do so (and if I do make a film, I will have to get legal consent of each person) and so in the end, by people letting me agree to film (which I did through informal means) what was granted was more of a privilege to do so.

    I guess am weary of a language of rights—even when coupled with the idea of responsibility—because I am more comfortable with the idea that such documentation should follow more from trust, privilege, and established norms, out of which I see responsibility flowing from. That said, I do believe, quite firmly in the value of “documentation” (in that very general sense both for education and preservation which is of value for both so-called “outsiders” and “insiders”). But I guess I have enough faith that for the most part people across the globe will see the value in such forms of documentation (given that “education” is highly regarded among many folks) and will agree, on their own accord and on their own terms, by which to oversee the shape and form the documentation takes.

  14. Michael asks: “Does a community’s interest in its own heritage trump the artistic rights of documentarians? But don’t documentarians (ethnographers, photographers, ethnomusicologists, etc.) contribute something that gives them significant rights, too—as well as responsibilities?”

    The way the question is framed here it seems to set up a conflict: “community” (group) versus “documentarians” (individuals) as well as a set of pre-existing commitments –communities have “interests” and documentarians have “rights.”

    This could have been just a matter of quickly writing the question, but it does set an interesting tone and relation to Biella’s follow-up post. I do not think that shuffling rights and responsibilities to separate corners gets us very far, the two are imbricated if not in legal theory than at least in practice–which Biella nicely points out in her example. She felt an obligation (as I read it), a sense of belonging, at least in part, to a community that persuaded her to set aside a rigid legal notion of her “right” to film and edit, remix, etc., and engage a more malleable notion of her own accountability.

    When I first went “into the field” I also felt like Biella–awkward about documenting, particularly given the history of exploitative documentation of indigenous peoples. Now, I had folks like Fred Myers and Eric Michaels to read before I started my work and I was prepared to be denied any access. I knew there was the need “to always ask” (per Myers); but what I wasn’t as prepared for was being asked. That is, even in my first field trip I was asked to film a ceremony. Not because of my relationships which at that point were just developing, but because I could get and use a camera. I was a tool–a means to an end. The women I worked with wanted a video to use as a teaching tool, I could provide them with one. We both “got” something and the “object” is a prodcut of both sets of desires (theirs to have a teaching tool; mine to learn and establish a relationship with them). Now I *could* have taken that video and done anything with it. But I left it there, archived it in a national archive, and made my own copy. Since then I have accumulated many such documents that many people have interests in–various members of the “community,” that is, have difefrent stakes in these documents, and of course I have a stake in that they inform my teaching, reaserch and writing–all the things that will hopefully one day get me tenure. Have I “contributed something” that gives me “rights and responsibilities” to these objects. I’m less sure about this choice– do I have one or the other, or can I choose both? I do have rights–I am the copyright holder–but I amd and these objects are inserted into another system of accountability in which the circulation of these objects does not soley rest with me.

    The issue seems to me to be less about who trumps whom as it does about the field of relationships (including non-humans) in which the documents/documentarians/community members circulate and in which the parameters for their use are defined (outside of the already existing national legal frames). I think it is this separation that causes much conflict and anxiety. If I choose rights, I get a legal frame to back me up, if I choose responsibilities its a more murky terrain. How can we move out of this ill-fitting choice? Is there a way to imagine this relationship without this undesirable choice?

  15. I agree that a rights-and-responsibilities approach has numerous problems, and I certainly won’t go to the wall to defend it. And I’m quite sympathetic to the idea that documentary work of any sort should and must build on evolving relations of trust and mutual interest.

    Much of the debate today, however, concerns information/cultural expressions documented in the _past_–sometimes quite far in the past. Claims are made about the circumstances and power games of those times, or about changing attitudes toward disclosure. Although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that certain kinds of documentary evidence (or whatever you want to call it) were obtained under circumstances so objectionable that the work should be quarantined in some way, the vast majority of cases are more ambiguous and therefore far more prone to claims based on “presentism,” the application of today’s ethical standards to the work of eras when different standards were in effect. The question I would pose, then, is how the admirably high standards proposed by Kim and Biella (and with which I’m in sympathy) can be deployed retroactively.

  16. “The question I would pose, then, is how the admirably high standards proposed by Kim and Biella (and with which I’m in sympathy) can be deployed retroactively.”

    Maybe someday it will all have to go through the ethnographic equivalent of NAGPRA where the closest cultural representative is contacted/consulted. Of course, that whole process is full of conflicts (like determining cultural affiliation for a 9000 year old site for example), so maybe that’s not the best model to bring up. But what else is there for information from the past…archaeologists might have some insight into that.

    One of the biggest problems that would have to be worked out first is whether or not the information, whether photographic or whatever, will affect people/communities/groups living today.

    One other comment: as someone who started off in photography and then made my way into anthropology, I have certain problems with the idea of a photographer or filmmaker copyrighting ethnographic/documentary information. Take for instance Walker Evans and his subway portraits. I have enormous respect for his work, but there are certainly some dicey areas with regards to this kind of thing.

    In the same way that i think it would be somewhat humorous for me to take a pic of a mountain and then copyright it, like I own the mountain. And people do this all the time, even beginners. We feel that we own everything. When the subject are human beings, things get incredibly complicated.

    Now, I understand that we all have to make a living, of course. But this is an issue that I have grappled with from the start 12 years ago when I first picked up a camera. Now, being in graduate school in anthropology, it seems even more complex.

    I’m someone who plans on using photography as much as possible for anthropology, so this subject is very much at the forefront for me.

  17. ryan, you just illustrated a common misunderstanding of copyright, good point: if you photograph the mountain you don’t own copyright on the mountain. Anyone else can photograph it, draw it, film it, whatever. You only own copyright to your photograph of the mountain. This is basic to copyright: you cannot copyright an idea or a fact; copyright only protects expression. Otherwise we would not be able to do very much of anything. We’d have no “culture” at all 😉 Indeed, as you say, people are obsessed with property, and under the false impression that they invented things that have been around for a long time…

  18. Nora, one of the interesting developments of indigenous IPR policies is that we’re now facing the prospect of “copyrights” on landscapes and species. My understanding–you Aussies out there please correct me if I’m wrong–is that Uluru, Ayer’s Rock, is now under the control of its Aboriginal “traditional owners,” and any commercial use of Uluru images requires their permission and the payment of a licensing fee. Analogously, the Waitangi Tribunal in Aotearoa/NZ is currently reviewing whether the Maori own NZ’s indigenous flora and fauna. Neither of these situations constitutes copyright as such, but it is something very close–and in some ways even stronger than copyright. Interesting times . . . .

  19. Paris has similar regulation when it comes to the Eiffel tower. And nowadays there’s much controversy about architects or owners holding copyright reaching into the public street. There are one or a few cases where it was decided that the building’s exterior is not to be published recognizably without prior consent from the architect or the owner. IIRC this is the case for one of the Guggenheim museums, for instance.

    Problem with such regulation is that tourists will just shoot their photos, and publish them on the internet, often outside the jurisdiction of these regulations. So, how are Australia, or Paris, the Guggenheim architect or any other party going to enforce their rights when these photos fall outside the regulations’ jurisdiction? Laws are meant to be enforceable. If they can’t be, they shouldn’t have been concocted in the first place.

    As always, if you want to control what happens to the photos or information _others_ shoot or write, you shouldn’t allow them inside or present. But that kind of secrecy has severe drawbcks, one being that tourists aren’t coming anymore and no money is earned. Goes for the Guggenheim, and for Paris, and for the Native Americans, and for everyone who makes money through visitors. Few visitors will sign a contract, and if they do, that contract won’t have much value outside the country where it was signed. Costs of enforcing and negative publicity are prohibitively high and the gains minute.

    It’s human nature to balance the pros and cons, and many people will break a contract if they can get away with it. Wouldn’t you break a signed contract where it says you can’t publish your holiday snapshots of Uluru on flickr or photobucket once you’re back in your cozy home 5 thousand miles or more away from Australia?

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