Stamping on abuses of my Roma work

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year or so thinking about how Gypsy and Roma people are represented and misrepresented through photography. I wrote a research paper which touched on this for my MA and my two following projects – Rethink and Elvira and Me – both attempted to challenge the prevailing visual stereotypes of these two connected but separate communities. So it feels somewhat ironic that I have spent the past two days chasing websites which have stolen and then misused my work. Or perhaps it was only a matter of time.

Yesterday I received a phone call from a pretty upset Ramona, who had found a photograph of herself on the internet while searching for stories in the Romanian media about Roma migrants in the UK. She was shocked to be confronted with a photo of herself selling the Big Issue within an article which had absolutely nothing to do with her – it was a story about a group of named Roma squatters who had moved into a woman’s home in London – and wanted to know if I had given it to the website. I knew the story she was talking about as I’d seen it in the Daily Mail, which used a portrait of the victim, but I was furious see the Romanian site had lifted a photo I had taken for a Guardian Society story and run it with their piece. Ramona, understandably, wanted the photo removed as soon as possible – she hated the idea she was being associated with criminal activity in this way.

I mentioned what had happened on Twitter while I was pondering how to proceed, and a contact with far more computer know-how than me replied to say he had found the very same image being misused elsewhere. This time it was on a British blog about deaf people, illustrating a court story which had been itself been lifted from the Manchester Evening News. This case was even more unbelievable to me – a clearly identifiable photograph of Ramona was being used to illustrate a story about a different named Roma woman from Manchester who was prosecuted for begging using faked documents which claimed she was deaf and dumb.

So now she is apparently not only a squatter but also a convicted fraudster…

This morning I searched for another similar photograph which I have only licensed to Equality, a charity which advocates for Roma migrants in the UK. I wasn’t exactly surprised to see this one had been commandeered by a different Romanian news site, again as an illustration photograph in a highly negative story about Roma migrants in Britain. This time my friend was being associated with benefits tourism and the idea which is gaining traction in some sections of the UK media that Romanian Big Issue vendors are all here to scam the benefits system.

I. am. not. impressed.

Thankfully in all three of these cases the people behind the websites took down the offending photographs promptly after I sent a complaint by email, two of them before Ramona even knew about them or had seen them.

For me this has been a real lesson. Of course it’s annoying when people lift your photos and use them without permission, ignoring your byline and infringing your copyright. But far more serious to me is what I see as the abuse of the very essence of my work and of Ramona’s image – I described it in my complaint emails as defamation through the use of photography, and I truly believe it is. I am going to have to be very attentive from now on about how my Roma work in particular is being used and abused.

I totally understand that many people who run blogs and websites are untrained in media ethics and perhaps a little naive when it comes to the politics of visual representation. But if they are going to publish online they have a responsibility to think these matters through before stealing and then posting images completely out of context.

Crucially for me though, this has underlined the very important issue about stereotyping minority communities such as the Roma through photography.

I am CONVINCED that had the criminals and/or alleged benefits tourists in these three news stories been ethnic Romanian (for example) as opposed to ethnic Roma, very few people would think to use photographs in such an ill-judged way. Nowhere I have worked would we ever have used an identifiable photograph of some random person to illustrate a story about criminality committed by someone else simply because they happen to share an ethnicity….it would be big trouble if we did. So why is it ok to do so just because someone is Roma?

Is it ignorance? Casual racism, perhaps? – the idea that all Roma people are interchangeable and/or a bit suspect? The misconception that Roma Big Issue vendors couldn’t possibly chance upon their own photograph online in the way Ramona did, and so therefore these things don’t matter? I’m not sure but it maddens me and it made Ramona furious too. I’m very fortunate that she is open minded and has colleagues who can help me explain the nature of the internet and how images can get copied and pasted in this way. Happenings like this have the potential to undermine months of hard work on a project like mine.

I really hope the people on these websites have learned something through this. Everyone makes mistakes but photographs are powerful. I will not allow my work to be abused in this way.

The anatomy of a stitch-up

It’s an infuriating feeling to know you’ve been done over, and your hard work nabbed by other journalists. That’s what has happened to me, when my Streetfighters work caught the eye of a producer at the BBC.

In December I was contacted by a researcher on BBC One’s One Show. She told me the programme – a fluffy prime-time magazine show – was planning to cover the issue of Housing Market Renewal and that she wondered if I’d be up for fronting the report, since it’s something I’ve covered a lot:

I’ve no interest in working in TV and certainly no interest in dumbing these issues down for the One Show so said thanks but it wasn’t for me. Then she suggested that they’d quite like to use some of my material and that a producer was going to get in touch to have a chat:

I was still very skeptical but when the producer called she talked me into meeting her at BBC Manchester. When I arrived she had it all planned out and hit me with a pitch:

I still had doubts but this producer has the gift of the gab and convinced me that this would be a worthwhile thing to do, both for my own project’s profile and also to get this important story out to a wider audience. I agreed to get involved, against my better judgement. As it turns out I should have followed my gut instinct and run a mile.

The producer wanted to use my Streetfighters photos and three of my cases studies, which represented some of the different outcomes residents have experienced – an elderly man (Elijah) who doesn’t want to move from his home, a family who have been forced to go and left in debt, and a lady who is still living in limbo. These would be reshot in video and turned into a five-minute report, which I was led to believe I would get some credit for. I received a (small) payment for the use of images.

A few days later I spent a full day with her, both at BBC Manchester and visiting two of the three case studies to make initial introductions, losing a day of work/study.

From that point, for me, it went swiftly downhill. I went with the One Show people to Liverpool when they did their third interview a week or two later and felt like I shouldn’t be there. I was told they no longer wanted me to do the ‘comm’ (voiceover) and finished that day with the distinct feeling that I was being stitched up. My work was simply being lifted as a cheap, pre-researched story. When I asked the producer whether I’d be credited for my material, I  wasn’t surprised when she said no. Apparently the One Show ‘just doesn’t do that.’

The report

The report went out last Monday and was pretty much what I expected. INFURIATINGLY, the voiceover woman got the credit for ‘investigating’ the issue of regeneration.

One thing which isn’t shown in this clip (below) is the short discussion on the sofa afterwards with Gok Wan of all people. In it the presenters made an inexcusable error. They said Elijah’s home in Oldham was now safe from the bulldozers – which is completely untrue, and the report producer knows it as she and I had discussed it on the phone. Elijah’s home is technically owned by Oldham Council following a CPO and while other acquisitions are on hold, the authority is committed to getting and clearing all homes currently in the legal process, ie his.

Lame, lame, lame from top to bottom. I’m not impressed.

* I understand that at the BBC the number of executives and editors who get involved in current affairs reports can sometimes make them morph into something different from what was planned, but I don’t feel that’s what happened here. I also think the researcher – who I know a little, having worked with her in the past – had nothing to do with this. My complaint is not really about money, but more about receiving due credit for providing much of the content of this report.