Photographer discovers his image plagiarized, hanging in an art gallery

A renowned American artist has been accused of plagiarizing an iconic image by a South African photographer.

When Graeme Williams attended the opening of the Johannesburg Art Fair last month, little did he expect to see one of his own photos on exhibit with credit to American artist Hank Willis Thomas.

The original image—captured by Williams—shows a group of black schoolchildren taunting despondent, armed white policemen sitting on an armoured car shortly after Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990.

Original image by Graeme Williams 1990

However, the image hanging in the gallery had been “remixed” with relatively little change, except that it was drained of colour and lightened in parts, under the name of Hank Willis Thomas. What’s more, Thomas’ version was selling for US$36,000—25 times the amount Williams had ever received for the original photo, which he says has never been sold for more than US$1,200.

Remixed or plagiarized?

Justifiably upset, Williams called out Thomas in a Facebook post with a side-by-side of his plagiarized image and caption that you can read below:

Thomas is known for artworks that take advertising, strips away the sales pitch and leaves the remaining images to speak for themselves. His work also includes a permanent installation at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, depicting black people emerging from the top of a wall with their hands raised in surrender in a comment on police violence.

Plagiarized image by Hank Willis Thomas

In an interview with The Guardian, Williams explained that the alterations were “absolutely minimal,” adding that it’s considered “theft, plagiarism, appropriation.” Thomas, however, defended his use of the image in part by questioning whether Williams can lay claim to ownership.

“I can empathize with his concern and frustration but there are critical questions about who has the right to the image and whether it be subjects of the image, who I am most interested in. If the subjects of the image were compensated or remunerated. If they were asked. There’s a lot of questions related to representation, objectification, exploitation,” he said.

Through Facebook Williams shared that Thomas offered him his ‘artwork’ and proposed that he keep it for a year, after which they could reconnect to discuss the issue further. In his interview with The Guardian, Williams called the proposition “utterly bizarre.”

“I take this artwork and keep it for a year and then we’ll chat after that? Fuck knows what that means. Perhaps that after a year I’ll understand the complexity of his artwork. I said no thanks. I have my own version of the photograph and I really don’t need an American to give that image some kind of significance and meaning.”

Still, Thomas feels that his artwork is “sufficiently” different from the original photo and apparently left it up to Williams to decide what he wanted Thomas to do with the artwork. And a day after Williams’ complaint, the gallery removed Thomas’ work.

What do you think? Is the remixed image different enough to not be considered plagiarized?