Copyrighting Culture

I read a really interesting article on the BBC news website this morning about copyrighting cultures. In the article, the Maasai people - a semi-nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania are considering seeking copyright for their image. They have set up an organisation to take care of this called the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative. Hindu in Nepal

I think this is most intriguing, because in a world where imagery and branding are extremely valuable and highly protected (think of Microsoft and CocaCola for instance), it's surprising to think that people and cultures have not set about this sooner.

"We all know that we have been exploited by people who just come around, take our pictures and benefit from it," - Isaac ole Tialolo, Massai leader and elder.

I do think there is a lot of exploitation and theft of other people's cultural heritage and one way this is done is through the act of making pictures where the tribes or peoples do not benefit as well as they could. It could be argued that whenever a professional or amateur photographer captures any images with cultural reference that they are aiding tourism to the place. I know for sure that all of the places I have visited myself were fuelled by seeing images by others which captured my imagination. I do however think there should be some form of protection for cultures and peoples. A kind of cultural copyright whereby we all pay towards the protection and acknowledgement of the 'brand' in some way.

I met a photographer in Lalibela, Ethiopia, a few years back. He had raised around £2,000 for an NGO based in Addis Ababa, before he came out to do his photography. I remember him explaining that he felt he could now make his own images, because he had contributed towards the people of Ethiopia. It was a really great thing for him to do.

I do think we need to be mindful and respectful to others on our travels. Treat others as we would wish to be treated. I do think however, that when there is no price put upon something, it is valued less for what it is than it should be. Simply turning up to make images and feeling that you are contributing to the local people through your own tourism is perhaps not enough.

Tibetan exile in Nepal

But there has to be a way forward for tribes of people to gain something of value back for their heritage, while at the same time allow photographers to work unconstrained by hefty fees, or heavy restrictions. And this will be difficult to do, because I've been thinking that in the past decade since I started making images, what used to be a relatively minor activity has now turned into a major one: everyone has a camera, and everyone is looking for that special photo. This perhaps leads this posting into other territories that I do not wish to discuss - namely that of photography etiquette, or the lack of, shown by many who are tourists first and foremost and photographers by the very nature that they are there as tourists. The world of photography is growing as everybody has a camera, but with it too, social graces are being challenged: there are more people pushing cameras into someone's face just because they are on holiday.

But I do not wish for photography to become policed in any way. Surely though - it is inevitable that it will? Surely as photography becomes more and more widespread and commonplace, that laws will be created to protect peoples rights to privacy? Whether this happens is one point, but in the case of the Massai people, protecting their cultural image and ensuring they benefit from what is rightfully theirs is just as vital.

I think copyrighting a cultural image, or imagery associated with it is a really good way forward because it generates an income for many peoples and tribes. What they have is of value, and that value should be acknowledged. By copyrighting it, we not only give it protection, but we also ensure that it is sustained. And maybe, just maybe,  the erosion of any culture with this protection will be stopped as a result.

But one thing is clear: give a culture it's own copyright, and you give them a more recognised value in a global sense.

Cultural heritage is a rare and precious thing and should be respected and valued accordingly.