photography politics

The Libyan Secret Service Archive photographs: the importance of context


Last week I asked Magnum Photos some questions about the Libyan Secret Service Archive Pictures on their site. I had been thinking about these images after conversations with Olivier Laurent of the British Journal of Photography about general issues arising from the use of found photographs. I recalled a Guardian report from earlier in the year reporting on the Libyan archive, which included a 9 minute video providing more background.

The video has Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch recounting how he and Tim Hetherington were given still photos by a Benghazi resident (Idris) who had rescued them from a secret service building that was being ransacked, and video footage from a man called Ibrahim who had received tapes of his brother’s 1984 show trial and execution from other residents who felt free to pass them on after Benghazi’s liberation. What struck me was that although the Magnum-hosted images seemed to be the same as the ones discussed in The Guardian report and video, the text accompanying those Magnum images, and the attribution attached to them, did not reference the Bouckaert/Hetherington role or much about the wider context.

To find out more, I composed three questions about context, ethics and copyright to @magnumphotos, and an online debate ensued, the most important features of which I curated and annotated using Storify, given Twitter’s unavoidable constraints on conversation. Because I thought the questions pointed to important issues, I didn’t want the debate to be a 24 hour ‘flash in the pan’ that was soon to be forgotten. So I then wrote to Alex Majoli as President of Magnum, and Susan Meisalas, President of the Magnum Foundation (Susan being the only senior Magnum person I know personally and a photographer I have enormous respect for) making them aware of the questions, debate and concerns. Both were prompt and engaging in their replies, and I was soon told that Christopher Anderson, as Vice President in New York, would be checking the details over the weekend and making a statement. Yesterday, Christopher Anderson emailed me the official public statement, and provided it to the British Journal of Photography who published it.

This is the statement in full as provided, on which I will make some general comments at the end:

While covering the war in Libya, Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch came into the possession of materials (video, photographs and other documents) that appeared to document evidence of torture carried out by the Libyan Secret Service. Bouckaert approached Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak and freelance photographer Tim Hetherington, who were also covering the conflict in Libya, to help him digitize the materials (Which, under the circumstances, meant photographing them.) The reason for this was because HRW did not wish to remove the documents from the country. The two photographers’ understanding was that they would be performing a favor of technical service to Human Rights Watch — they did not view the material as their “work”. Together, the three discussed how best to distribute and archive the material, and Bouckaert asked Dworzak if Magnum could distribute the material on behalf of HRW.

Dworzak did the initial copy work, using a small digital camera with pictures laid out on a bed — so the quality was not ideal. Bouckaert later asked Hetherington to photograph a second batch of materials, which may have included rephotographing some of the materials originally copied by Dworzak. No one was focused on this point, as both photographers were simply trying to create a digital archive for HRW under tight conditions.

Hetherinton handed his files over to Bouckaert and told him to put them with the rest of the material that Dworzak had copied. Bouckaert, Hetherington, and Dworzak understood that the files were all to be lumped together for HRW’s purposes and neither photographer ever considered being compensated for any distribution or claiming that he had authored the material. It was simply a favor to a colleague.

Shortly after Hetherington’s death, Bouckaert delivered a bunch of materials to the Magnum offices in London: The digital files that Tim had given him as well as additional, hard-copy materials. He asked Magnum to scan the new materials and include this with the files that Dworzak had created. He again asked if Magnum could distribute the material on behalf of HRW. Dworzak discussed with HRW and the Magnum London staff how best to label the material for cataloguing purposes. Some of the material (though it is not entirely clear which part of the material as it had all been lumped together at this point) had been copied by Hetherington, whom Magnum did not represent at the time. Furthermore, given the legal ambiguity of the copyright in the underlying materials, and of photographs of photographs, all parties decided that the credit would read “Collection Thomas Dworzak for Human Rights Watch.” Credit labels are necessary for the logistical reason of the searchability of the Magnum archive, but more importantly, the credit label serves an accountability and vetting purpose. The word “collection” was used to make clear that this was not a work originated by Dworzak as the author, but rather an archive of found materials, curated in some sense by him to the extent distributed by Magnum, and also for which he was responsible. The caption of each individual image provides further clarity as to the origins of the “works”. The red font credit note that appeared on, stating inartfully that credit must read “(c) T. Dworzak Collection,” was meant by Magnum staff as a reminder not to credit the work as authored work of Thomas Dworzak — but it seems to have been misinterpreted as some as the opposite, i.e., a claim of authorship. The language is being fixed.

Magnum staff was instructed to distribute the material with the “collection” credit on behalf of HRW, most notably a publication by the Guardian. Magnum acted only as the delivery and storage mechanism to distribute the material to the Guardian – including extensive scanning and retouching — but not to “sell” the material originally. To be clear, however, as a general matter Magnum does not think there is anything inappropriate about passing along to publishers scanning and other costs associated with producing high resolution images, when appropriate. It has come to my attention today that Magnum offices in London did “sell” in at least one case after distributing the materials free of charge to the Guardian and the CBC of Canada. As I understand it, some 550 British pounds were put into the account of the Tim Hetherington estate from that sale and 50 pounds were credited to Dworzak. I assume this amount to Dworzak is to recover the scanning and ingestion costs.

In good faith, Magnum, Thomas Dworzak and Tim Hetherington provided a professional courtesy to HRW and Peter Bouckaert. No parties involved sought financial gain from this material. It was the goal of Magnum, Dworzak, Hetherington and HRW to get this material before the public in an efficient and responsible way.

While this matter highlights questions about the legal ambiguity of copyright and authorship in the photographic industry (particularly when photographs, paintings, property, likenesses etc are visible in a photograph, or when working with found materials), Magnum has made every attempt to conduct this service on behalf of HRW as transparently and correctly as possible. Magnum regrets that this attempt to be of service to the public record has been misunderstood by some as an attempt to exploit the the files of the Libyan Secret Service for economic gain. Magnum has no intention to profit from this material nor to claim it as authored by one of our photographers. (And those who think there is big money on offer for such pictures deeply misunderstand the industry today.) Magnum continues to stand behind the decision to distribute this material and fully accepts responsibility for how that distribution is conducted.

Christopher Anderson

VP Magnum Photos New York

Together, The Guardian report/video and Magnum’s statement help provide the political and logistical context to these important photographs. As I noted during the debate, the fact that Magnum has worked with HRW to make these images available for public viewing is important and commendable. I have no doubt they acted in good faith, and have never claimed that their efforts were “an attempt to exploit the the files of the Libyan Secret Service for economic gain.” Nonetheless, I think that the distinction between “licensing” the images for distribution and “selling” them was lost by the pictures’ presentation with the green “HI-RES AVAILABLE” tag that appears on all Magnum photographers’ pages. Perhaps that is a function of inflexible web site structure rather than the outcome of a conscious decision, but given their content these are not images that should be sold like any other, and I hope that Magnum will clarify this ambiguity relating to how they can be obtained.

Copyright in relation to found images, as the statement observes, is a difficult issue. This morning @sourcephoto offered a link to an article by law lecturer Ronan Deazly discussing domestic “collect” photos that might have some relevant points for this larger question. I am not qualified to comment on the intricacies of copyright in this case, but I very much agree with the Magnum statement above that the “inartful” crediting of the images in terms of copyright contributed to confusion, so it’s good that this misuse of the language is being corrected.

For me, the big lesson to learn from this controversy is the importance of context. If the Magnum-hosted images had appeared at the outset with a narrative based on a combination of The Guardian report/video and the first four paragraphs of yesterday’s statement, everything would have been much clearer to everybody. Instead, the images were accompanied by this opaque text:

It reads:

Libyan Secret Service Archive Pictures (ARCH155P). Many of these photos were part of a film that was labelled, in Arabic: “Celebration of distribution of farmland from …. Photographer, Mohammed Abdel Salam”. These files photos were part of a series of photos, films, video and documents that were reportedly rescued from a Secret police building in Benghazi, Libya, before the building was set on fire around Feb/Mar 2011.

That is just not adequate as the only description or explanation of these images. I think all agencies have a responsibility to provide as much context as possible for any photographs they make public online, and the helpful details in the Magnum statement and the stories in The Guardian/report video show what information was available. I know that Magnum are now considering revising that text, and I very much hope they do so.

There are lessons beyond this case. Agencies might argue that they don’t have the resources to write detailed stories to go with their archives, but especially when handling what are obviously controversial and sensitive issues, that’s not a defence. At the very least, much can be achieved by linking to other sources.

Moreover, I think agencies miss an opportunity when they don’t make an effort to provide the fullest context at the outset. The challenges of the media economy mean that its going to be increasingly difficult for agencies to be just content providers and distributors for others in the media. They need to be thinking in terms of also being publishers and broadcasters, actually creating new and substantive content on the issues their photographers are covering.

With the story of the Libyan secret service archive, Magnum had a great opportunity to compile an incredible story. With yesterday’s statement they offered some of that. It’s just a shame that story was not there when the pictures first went up.

9 replies on “The Libyan Secret Service Archive photographs: the importance of context”

I think Magnum’s statement is a good moment for transparency. Neither you nor I have the detailed evidence to offer conclusions about what does nor does not happen internally with regard to Magnum’s accounting. Nonetheless, they conceded that while licensing/cost recovery was what they intended there had been at least one sale, and that voluntary transparency should be applauded. We both agree that these images should not be for general sale. I’ve argued they should not even appear to be for general sale, and, to repeat, I hope Magnum alters the archive site to remove that appearance. We don’t know which image had been mistakenly sold, so again we have to be very careful about drawing strong conclusions. I too have been involved in the management of large budgets – running into the millions in fact – and from that experience I don’t underestimate the challenge of matching implementation with intention. Again, its cock-up rather conspiracy, and there is no cover up here. My main point is that better presentation of context would have confirmed that.

Thanks for reading and commenting Frank. You’re right, the role of HRW in telling or not telling the full story is worth closer examination. As I note in the concluding paragraphs, I wonder if the mission of (at least some) photo agencies should be changing to embrace direct storytelling? That doesn’t mean they take on the NGO mission, but it might mean they take on a more overt role as publisher and/or broadcaster. For those largely concerned with photojournalism and documentary work, that would in my view be a step forward and a good contribution, both in creative and business terms. In this case I think Magnum got stuck between two stools, and moving more clearly to one side or the other – either just technical support and no public presentation of the images, or more context and the public presentation of a more complete story – would have perhaps been more productive for them.

The copyright and ownership issues here are important, but miss the mark as far as I am concerned.

Why is this story even being distributed by Magnum, if it is HRW story? I get that they helped digitize the work, but that is a technical role, not a storytelling one. Now, they are left holding the bag on a story that they didn’t even author and distributing a collection that they don’t own…this whole thing makes no sense.

HRW have their own methodology and platforms for getting stories out to the public and press, which I would argue is FAR more effective than Magnum’s at getting HR abuse stories out into the world. HRW don’t need Magnum to distribute this story (all someone has to do is click a download button from any HRW webpage). Since Magnum are disclaiming any authorship here, and Magnum is all about authorship, if anything, they should just pass the digitize work back to HRW and be done with it. Mixing a photo agency’s mission with a NGO’s mission in this way is highly problematic, and I see no benefit for Magnum in blurring these lines.

Just my honest opinion…


Hi David, your first boss was bang on about cock-up’s but that’s only half the story. Isn’t it true that the problems almost always arise (in politics and elsewhere) not from the cock-up but how they are explained, or covered up?

‘Its not contradictory for them to say the purpose of posting the archive was something other than financial gain but to admit that a sale occurred.’

There can, of course, be dual purposes in posting something on a website. But I am perplexed how Anderson and now you are arguing that to advertise something for sale, and then to make a sale of that item, and then to distribute a cut of that money from that sale to a third party is not acting in your own financial interests?

We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. Even if the hand doesn’t know what the mouth is doing they are all part of the same body.

In relation to my dysfunctional comment I was not talking about the organization as a whole but the tracing of sales from a specific office. The suggestion and acceptance that Magnum cannot track the sales of its digital archives on the web through a specific office goes beyond dysfunctional. You are then talking about a company whose accountancy system is open to fraud, particularly of its own members. I know this because I once managed a large budget which led me to become aware of how money can travel in all sorts of directions for work not done and goods not received. At the point where payments cannot be traced to goods you have a very serious problem.

If you cock up, put your hands up. No big deal. End of story. But Magnum haven’t done that. So whilst I applaud them for at least making a statement, I think Anderson should stop digging and just admit the mistake. Afterall it is a fact that they’ve ended up selling stills from a video of a man begging for his life and then being hanged. That video comes from the man’s brother (Ibrahim) who just wanted it digitized so that he could view it after all these years. Probably because he is seeking justice and thought HRW and Tim Hetherington could help. He doesn’t even get named in Magum’s statement. He should. Alongside the word ‘sorry’ and ‘we’re returning the money from where it came, because we don’t deal in snuff’.

Ben, in my first serious job, working in politics in Australia, I learnt from my boss a good motto – when faced with the option of cock-up or conspiracy, at least nine times out ten cock-up is the better explanation. I think much of this case confirms that for me.

Overall, I think Magnum acted in good faith in terms of making an archive available. I do not think having the images on general sale is ethical and, as I’ve written above, I hope Magnum corrects that impression. I accept the explanation about licensing and cost recovery being the primary way the images have been handled, and its good that they have been open and admitted that despite that intention there was at least one sale. Its not contradictory for them to say the purpose of posting the archive was something other than financial gain but to admit that a sale occurred.

Can we believe that an organisation with four international offices that tries to run as a collective of 60+ members with voting rights is “dysfunctional” in conventional management terms, at least with respect to coordinated decisions and policies? I don’t have any trouble believing that.

There are numerous contradictions in this Magnum press release and I’m surprised David that you don’t feel it demands more rigorous attention?

Lets just take the contradiction that must be the most obvious to anyone reading this post.

You say

‘I have no doubt they acted in good faith, and have never claimed that their efforts were an attempt to exploit the the files of the Libyan Secret Service for economic gain.”

But in the press release Christopher Anderson writes,

‘It has come to my attention today that Magnum offices in London did “sell” in at least one case … As I understand it, some 550 British pounds were put into the account of the Tim Hetherington estate from that sale and 50 pounds were credited to Dworzak … No parties involved sought financial gain from this material.’

What am I missing and why are people so frightrened to point out how asburdly contradictory this statement is?

Anderson writes ‘at least one case’.

Are we really meant to believe that Magnum so disfunctional that nobody in the London office can actually tell Anderson definiteively how many copies of the images were sold and how much of that went into Magnum’s coffers? What was their cut?

And what logic does Magnum operate in that they can on the one hand put up for sale/liscense images and then on the other hand claim they were not seeking to profit from them, all in the same statement?

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