Billy Name speaks with photographer David Shankbone about hacktavism, Wikileaks, and the cultural revolution of new media.
Wikipedia has amassed what is arguably the largest collection of knowledge out there, and a group of artists and graphic designers have grown up on that website. The most well-known is David Shankbone, whom I met in 2006 when he was first starting out with what is now a massive photography collection licensed so that anyone can use the images. There’s a lot he doesn’t like about copyright. When he said he was photographing for Wikipedia, I thought that was big time and I expected a circus to show up in my home—umbrella lights, tripods, flash meters, assistants. Instead, a tall, thin handsome guy walked through my door alone with a two megapixel point and shoot. He apologized for his cheap camera and said that it was all he could afford, and I told him to get over himself. Necessity breeds creativity. Since then I’ve watched him grow, buy better equipment, learn the skill and confidence that it takes to photograph publicly, and spend years on something that makes him no money.
He’s been controversial, with some of his work banned in Australia as obscene, and yet he was invited by the president of Israel to discuss Middle Eastern politics and photograph the country. He asked Al Sharpton how he wanted to die, and Billy West called him the Barbara Walters of his generation. His images are everywhere, on hundreds of thousands of websites and in every language. He is possibly the most viewed photographer in the world, and chances are you’ve seen his work. From urban landscapes to A-list celebrities David captures reality how it is, not necessarily how people wish it to be, in a way that reminds me of Diego Velázquez. We live in an age of over-stylized everything, and what David reveals is the natural beauty and humanity of his subjects and the world around us. I watched that guy with the point-and-shoot morph into the people’s photographer, everyone did, because it all happened on the most public of venues.
Billy Name On PBS you were cited as the “most influential new media photographer in the world”—sorry, arguably the most influential. They called you a photojournalist, but you called yourself an artist.
David Shankbone I do a lot of documentary photography licensed Creative Commons that I give away to the public to use, but my work spreads because of my celebrity portraits. Authors, the independent press, the mainstream media, universities, anyone who wants to use them. I think it’s impossible to wash your view out of everything you do, so I call myself an artist because journalism is a realist art, and candid photography falls in with that. My interviews with leaders throw me in with journalism.
BN What does “new media” mean to you?
DS New media is an umbrella term that describes all the new ways that the Internet created to bring people information. Old media is The Washington Post and new media is Wikipedia, or blogs, or even Facebook. I think in new media you find more people who are pure ontologists. They are so thirsty for knowledge that they’ll blog or spend incredible amounts of time Twittering links or contributing to Wikipedia or Amazon reviews for little or no money. Just because they enjoy sharing what they know.
BN I think you’re in an advanced state as a photographer. When I started photography it was still the old school black and white, rules were formed, color wasn’t serious. Your take on how you deal with photography is very advanced because you focus on creation and not on money or rules. You got to that state after all the various stages photography went through. You’re like Life magazine.
DS The photography was supposed to be stark, real. In 2006 and still today I feel things are so photoshopped and airbrushed that I don’t know what everything really looks like. I wanted to see people for myself. That’s why I contacted you oh so many years ago.
BN Initially with my photographs I gave them away in the 1960s. It was a reward to me to make people happy and it was a reward to them to have it. It was lovely! That’s what I see in your work.
DS That’s the online free culture movements. The joy of creating good art for art’s sake, and it’s a statement to say you don’t expect to make money from it. There is more wit and art that goes into some Internet memes than what sells in some Williamsburg galleries.
BN Do you feel your impact?
DS I don’t.
BN That seems to be part of the syndrome—after you’ve impacted the culture and you know it, then it seems like you haven’t.
DS My work is influential because it’s widely used all around the world, but it’s not art photography. I broke copyright barriers, not artistic ones. Wikipedia required I take “encyclopedic” photos. Good photographs of celebrities are the most difficult photographs to get. I photographed maybe 2,000 people over five years, but I didn’t have the money, equipment nor connections to arrange studio time with people like Madonna and Gore Vidal. Red carpets were a godsend because in a matter of minutes so many people pose for you—hello Sting, hello David Bowie, hello Iman—and they paid for their stylists and the make-up and the hair and the outfits. They look their best and they are there for you to take their picture. It’s also difficult to take myself seriously because I have an $800 Pentax and I’m photographing Robert De Niro next to a guy with an $8,000 Nikon. I can tell you that they don’t take me seriously! My camera is so slow I can have trouble taking a good picture before they walk away. So I don’t feel any impact, but I know that what I do is appreciated. You don’t feel your impact when every college student in the country owns your Velvet Underground album covers?
DS Of course not, but people tell me and it makes me feel accomplished, like I left my mark, and it’s ethereal. You’re more informational. At the Factory we started that way, giving things away. Like information, photos, or if someone came in and liked something sometimes we’d give it to them. Here you go! But after Andy was shot the whole thing changed. He became more possessive, and that’s when I had to leave. Things change, just look at the Middle East.
DS Right, what everyone is calling the “Arab Spring.”
BN I just love it. They are telling the dictators to cut it. Cut the abuse, cut the imprisonment and torture laws, and get out. We’re tired of you and we don’t want you anymore.
DS And nobody expected it. Americans bought into this narrative that the Arabs were complacent people, who almost preferred dictators—
BN —their tribal leaders had always been like this. . . it’s always been part of their cultures. . . .
DS Yeah, it was this narrative we were fed by politicians, the media, to make us feel more comfortable dealing with these dictators whose people hated them.
BN It’s sort of how we are subservient to the oil industry.
DS But anyone who has the oil is going to sell it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dictator or a democrat in charge, they will need the cash and they will have to sell the oil. Citgo sells gas here and that’s Chavez, and he hates us! We’ll get the oil either way.
BN Everyone heard about Facebook and Twitter, and how the web had an impact on the Arabs, but the Arabs had an impact on the web, wouldn’t you say?
DS It hit everyone that social change is happening and happening rapidly. The new Internet tools were the perfect catalysts and it was incredible to watch. The Arabs obviously played the central role, but without Wikileaks, Facebok, Twitter, Google, I don’t think it would have happened. The Internet became the needed catalyst; The Wikileaks cables didn’t tell the Arabs much they didn’t already know, but they had to face the international embarrassment of their complacency because the cables didn’t mince words about their leaders. Exposing knowledge to correct problems is what hacking culture is all about, so it was very inspiring on the Internet to watch it all play out that way. It inspired Anonymous, and they hacked Qaddafi.
BN Open copyright, open government, hacking, Anonymous. Where do you think all these movements are coming from?
DS It’s seems like an impossible task to try to change the absurd corruption in our politics, no matter who you vote for. That was the point of Anonymous’ attack on Scientology, because of its tax status as a church. That’s what Wikileaks attempted to expose in the cables, and what LulzSec, who broke into the CIA and Senate computers, seemed to want to do. All of those groups are only the first wave of these kinds of hacktavist groups. They’re still learning how to operate and what their limitations are.
BN It’s happening with the kids, the young adults. They see what their parents are doing and they don’t like it. They’re online sharing links about the mess they’re going to inherit and they’re online making some points that they are mad as hell about it.
DS These are the people who are defining hacking culture now. Look at how they took down HLB Gary executives without mercy, exposing love letters between spouses. They leave jokes when they hack, they have press releases and logos. They don’t think the system’s legitimate, so they are going to have fun when they break the law. They know they might get caught, but many of them don’t care because they have agendas and they operate from safe havens. In order for the government to stop all of them it would have to trample on so many civil rights that people wouldn’t stand for it. The new hackers aren’t just screwing around. It’s a daring “catch us if you can” subversion.
BN Is it U.S. based? We have more prisoners than anyone else in the world, we say one thing and do another, we lock people up for petty drug charges. The Iraq War—from an outsider’s view it seems like American issues are driving them.
DS Well, the United States drives the world and the Internet, so it makes sense. Otherwise they are international. Many are late teens and early twenties and they are just forming their own worldviews, and don’t like what the current order is going to pass onto them. They are far less patriotic than any other generation, because the Internet has no borders and they meet people around the world daily. Foreign people aren’t mysterious, they’re a mouseclick away, and how much we all have in common becomes apparent. It’s hurt the media narrative of “The Other”. Everything that Wikileaks, Anonymous, and whatever other group shows up shows you that they care more about ideas than they do about patriotism to a geographical border. The idea of ‘my country right or wrong’ sounds ridiculous to them.
BN It’s funny how hacker culture is seen as so negative when it originally wasn’t, but hacktavism is almost different, like it has a Robin Hood vibe.
DS Hacking was about taking the world apart to figure out how to put it back together better. Not to do bad things like steal credit card numbers. It was honorable and you see remnants of that left with groups like the Chaos Computer Club. Otherwise hackers went through any barrier to whatever knowledge they wanted. That’s what Wikipedia is about.
BN That’s why the hackers hated Bill Gates and Microsoft. Gates and all of them grew up in this culture where they’d swap code openly, and suddenly Gates was like, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I want to make money,’ and they were like, ‘screw you, this goes against how we grew together.’
DS Right, and we saw responses to that where hackers and programmers openly wanted to defeat Microsoft products.
BN But artists, programmers, everyone still needs to make money and pay rent. How do you answer that?
DS Right, but we’ve gone to an extreme. People think everything they do has value to others. A fan takes a camera phone shot of Lady Gaga outside of Madison Square Garden, and he suddenly thinks he’s sitting on some money simply because he created a low grade photo of a pop star. He’s created no value outside of his head, but if he licensed it for the public his moment might resonate with a couple hundred people, maybe millions, who knows?
BN But with copyright it still comes down to being able to pay the rent for artists. You can argue no copyright because you personally didn’t set out to make money with it, but for most artists they don’t have that luxury.
DS Nobody serious in the movement says, “No more copyright”. That’s my other point, that so much of our culture is battened down and owned by someone, to be enjoyed for almost a century in the way they say we have to enjoy it. That’s not the purpose of copyright, which is to let people make money on their work for a little while, not to protect it forever. Every time they increase restrictions on copyright they sell public property.
BN People want to protect their interests, their future interests, in case something happens. They default to protecting their money, and they see they have money with copyright.
DS But it’s become corporate welfare. The act that increased copyright from 50 to 70 years was called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act because Disney lobbied so hard for it. Mickey was destined to be owned by the public in 2003, and now it’s 2023. Walt’s drawings are part of world culture as much as Picasso’s, but instead they’re a Congressionally-guarded business model.
BN Andy Warhol was sued for one of the Flower photos. The lady who took that photograph did it for the cover of some magazine, and she went after him after she saw the paintings. He settled with her out of court. I think she got some paintings and a percentage of something in return.
DS I wondered that with his Disaster series when he used newspaper photos of car accidents and electric chairs. Harassing someone for creating a derivative work like Warhol did is wrong.
BN Look at Shepard Fairey and his trouble with the Obama poster and the whole derivative work issue.
DS He did one of your Nico portraits, didn’t he?
BN Yes he did one of my Nico portraits, and he won the Obama photo case, but lawsuits like that intimidate other artists.
DS It was the AP not the photographer who sued Fairey, but why be so greedy, why horde your art to a degree it can’t even inspire other people to build upon it in their work?
BN I find the ballot box is still the critical instrument that determines how you will live.
DS I’m not cynical about the hackers because I think they want to force a cultural shift, not really a political shift. They think the politics will come after the culture is moved forward. But seriously, there is absolutely nothing going on with the young, no social movement happening with them that is more interesting than Anonymous and LulzSec, and whatever comes after those. They’re today’s Dadaists and 4chan, Encyclopedia Dramatica are like their Club Voltaire. There’s quite a bit of social and political commentary in their Internet memes, though obviously a lot of what they do is just for lulz.
BN It must be an amazing feeling of empowerment. We weren’t empowered in the 20th Century. We are waking up, it was a waking up century. That’s your free information movement.
DS What’s happening now is more subversive. You talk about votes, but people are starting to feel like no matter who they vote for we’ll always get the same thing. Maybe there is all this secret knowledge that makes Obama continue Guantamo and the Patriot Act. People are tired of all the secrets that have us acting in ways that are seemingly against core American values. So, to many people, the ballot box hasn’t been very effective. It’s not just kids who feel that way. Look at the Tea Party and the way they talk.
BN Quite a few people see the ballot box is ineffective, because complacency in American culture allowed things like Iraq to occur. It’s a deck of cards—you end up being on the wrong side of the log. That’s why people hate politics so much, because you realize people don’t care as much as we need.
DS That’s where Wikileaks came in, to try to expose people to unadulterated truth to allow people to make up their minds informed. I remember when they came online I was at Wikinews doing my interviews, and it was a big deal to us because of the promise of open news source, it was exciting. Back then they weren’t putting up anything interesting though.
BN Now they’ve made revolution seem easy.
DS Today all it takes is one Bradley Manning, and suddenly revolution seems easy. Subversion is at the fingertips of young people who are unconstrained by our mores.
BN I say show me. I can only go by experiential knowledge. Let’s go if we can achieve that level of transparency, but do you really think it can go very far?
DS They’ll expose a good deal of problems if that’s what they want to do. There’s already alternative currencies like Bitcoins popping up, where you can buy drugs or guns with them, and nobody can trace the money. People are adopting their own monetary systems outside of governments! You see where it’s all headed. It can only be as effective as the exposure of what’s real will motivate people to act. If people don’t care then that’s the end of the tether rope for free information.