Analyzing ISIS’ Photography

A foreign fighter enjoying a kebab at a post-battle celebration in Iraq. September 2014.
A foreign fighter enjoying a kebab at a post-battle celebration in Iraq. September 2014.

In November last year, Aperture published a fascinating article about the use of photography by ISIS (aka Islamic State, ISIL, DAESH, Da’Ish. See this wikipedia section for the various names) by Sam Powers. I’ve been meaning to link to it since then, but am just now getting to it.

The article looks at images in ISIS videos and publications and speaks briefly about the almost journalistic infrastructure across the world that produces and disseminates these images, often for a Western audience. The article examines themes used in recruitment and publicity materials and echo other media outlets’ efforts to analyze the production of ISIS propaganda. Vice looked at video production and branding, PRI examines video production and especially the speed at which videos are released and the quality of their translations, Slate compares the imagery to Homeland and addresses the history of jihadist propaganda, and the Daily Mail (I usually try not to link to them, but this seems like a decent article) reads various ISIS videos in a method reminiscent of the Kremlinology of the Cold War (and more recently). This sort of analysis, looking for clues beyond what is most obvious in ISIS’ communications, is particularly interesting with the videos featuring British hostage John Cantlie as a news presenter.

GuruShots changes contest terms in favor of photographers, removes rights grab

Screenshot of GuruShots website - 24 Feb. 2015
Screenshot of GuruShots website – 24 Feb. 2015

Kudos to GuruShots.com for changing their terms and conditions to language that supports the rights of photographers. They’ve eliminated a rights grab and should be commended. I remain wary of the site as a whole, but they are now much more limited in what they and their sponsors can do with submitted photos. Read on for more.

We normally don’t highlight contests aimed at photo enthusiasts; our deadline calendar only lists contests aimed at working and student photojournalists, photographers, and artists. But when I heard about GuruShots in a PetaPixel post, I was intrigued enough to look at the terms and conditions of the site. It’s an investor-backed startup whose main business is running free contests. They’ve already had tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of images submitted, making them a serious player in the photo contest realm.

The adage is that if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product being sold. I figured the site was basically a way to monetize rights grabbing contests. The travel industry does this a lot: images submitted to an airline’s photo contests often end up in advertisements.

When I looked at the Terms for submitting to GuruShots, I wasn’t surprised to find a rights grab. Until last week, the language said that the company and its partners and sponsors had unlimited rights to publish and distribute submitted work.

When I encounter terms like this, I usually write an email to the contest organizer and explain why their contest is bad for photographers. Sometimes they respond well (as Filson did last year) and sometimes they say they won’t change (FeatureShoot’s Emerging Photographer contest last year) or don’t respond at all (National Geographic Traveler a few years back). In this case, GuruShots responded and changed their terms positively.

I wrote an email to GuruShots explaining the rights grab and sent a link to the Artists’ Bill of Rights, which provides guidance for contests. GuruShots’ CEO wrote back quickly wanting to know a bit more about the issue, so I gave some examples of how the terms could be changed. He said he’d talk to his legal team and work on a solution. Just a few days later, he wrote back saying that the terms had been changed. Now, the Intellectual Property section of GuruShots’ Terms reads that by submitting to a contest:

"you hereby grant GuruShots, as well as its partners and sponsors, the right to display the Content and the right to use the Content to promote the challenges(s) on social media and other websites." -GuruShots Terms, Intellectual Property section

By adding “to promote the challenge(s),” the company and its sponsors are much more limited in what they can do with submitted images than they were before. That is, they can only use them to promote the contest they were submitted to rather than as collateral for a marketing campaign, etc. This is standard for all good contests, and GuruShots deserves recognition for changing their submission rules to support photographers and their work.

There’s an open question of whether it’s valuable to photographers to participate in these contests. It remains to be seen how sponsors and partners will use images to “promote the challenge(s).” Social media usage of images by brands is still a viable way for photographers to make a living, so perhaps a brand’s post promoting the contest should involve a licensing fee. Imagine a photo on Coca-Cola’s facebook page with a link to go check out the contest. That’s probably not where I want my photo to be used without substantial payment.

I still probably wouldn’t recommend participating in GuruShots contests. Winning has questionable value to working photographers, and there’s still room for photos to be used to promote companies. Nevertheless, the terms are a marked improvement over what they were.

A lot of people look at our deadline calendar, and we strive to only show contests that are good for photographers. This means contests that are valuable to participate in, which have no or reasonable fees, and, importantly, that have submission terms and conditions that respect the rights of photographers. The Artists’ Bill of Rights is our guiding principle on that last point.

Covering a violent weekend in Chicago


“I found myself barefoot, ankle deep in water, holding the hand of a 17-year-old boy who had been shot during the downpour. I told him to hang in there and that the ambulance was on the way.” -Vincent D. Johnson, He was motionless with his big eyes staring up into the rain

It was a particularly violent weekend in Chicago, with some 82 shootings in 4 days. Vincent D. Johnson, a freelancer for the Sun Times, wrote a moving piece about the watching one of the weekend’s victims die while Johnson kept him company waiting for the police. The piece is well worth a read. It’s part of the Sun-Times’ Homicide Watch section.

Huffington Post has collected tweets and instagram posts of two Chicago Tribune staffers, reporter Peter Nickeas and photographer E. Jason Wambsgans, as they covered the violence, too. As you progress down the sequence of events, the victims keep filling up lines in a notebook.

In his piece, Vincent D. Johnson said he remembered advice from one of his teachers, “You’re a human first and a photojournalist second.” The Columbia Journalism Review just published an article about this very subject, which is more contentious than you might think. I was glad to see LA Times’ Clarence Williams’ toothbrush picture lead the article; before I considered myself a photographer, I attended a lecture by him at my university and the story of that image and what effect it had has always stuck with me. There was massive backlash against the phtoographer and writer for not intervening in the situation, and they won awards for the work. Williams’ work on the story won the 1998 Pulitzer for Feature Photography. The story had a real impact, though. The subjects’ lives were improved as a result of the reporting and Los Angeles and the state moved quickly to reform child protective services there.

Make sure to read CJR’s Are we journalists first? It’s a good survey of the issue.

And while you’re at it, revisit Daniel Shea’s Chicago Fire for Fader from last year.