Shepard Fairey on the Obama Photo Controversy

Shepard Fairey has addressed the controversy surrounding the Associated Press photo of Barack Obama, and the famous poster he created which references that photograph.
I’m sure a lot of people are wondering about my case with the AP over the Obama HOPE poster. I can’t talk about every aspect of the case, but there are a few things I want to discuss and points I’d like to make.

Most importantly, I am fighting the AP to protect the rights of all artists, especially those with a desire to make art with social commentary. This is about artistic freedom and basic rights of free expression, which need to be available to all, whether they have money and lawyers or not. I created the Obama image as a grassroots tool solely to help Obama get elected president. The image worked due to many complex variables. If I could do it all over again, I would not change anything about the process, because that could change the outcome. I am glad to endure legal headaches if that is the trade-off for Obama being president.

No disrespect was intended to photographer Mannie Garcia, but I did not think (and do not think) I needed permission to make an art piece using a reference photo. From the beginning, I openly acknowledged that my illustration of Obama was based on a reference photograph. But the photograph is just a starting point. The illustration transforms it aesthetically in its stylization and idealization, and the poster has an altogether different purpose than the photograph does. The AP photo I used as a reference, which I found out much later was taken by Mannie Garcia, (which was actually this one, not the one being circulated in the press) was a news photo that showed George Clooney and Barack Obama attending a 2006 panel on the genocide in Darfur. My Obama poster variations of “HOPE” and “PROGRESS” were obviously not intended to report the news. I created them to generate support for Obama; the point was to capture and synthesize the qualities that made him a leader. The point of the poster is to convince and inspire. It’s a political statement. My Obama poster does not compete with the intent of, or the market for the reference photo.

The AP, OBAMA, & Referencing (obeygiant, thanks Sean Bonner!)


  1. Mr Fairey seems to think he single-handedly got Obama elected with his little picture. Lets hope the electorate is not quite that brainless yet. Obama’s ideas may have had something to do with getting him elected.

    Personally, I would like to see Mr Fairey sitting in jail. Not for the use of the AP photo but for the thousands of dollars of damage he has done to private property with his “art”.

  2. This is so stupid. It’s obviously a derivative work, but the artist created it himself and that’s his right.

    He is obviously not distributing someone else’s photograp.

    If you were to digitally compare the two images they’d be as different as apples and bananas at the array level.

    Copyrights are dumb and limit the spread of great ideas.

    thanks Xeni, this type of thing fuels me.

  3. I think one of the most interesting parts of this article is that the majority of media outlets are getting the actual reference photo WRONG. Hmm… makes me wonder how many pictures there are of Obama with a similar facial expression pose that could claim to be the ‘original’ work that was stolen?

  4. “but the photograph is just a starting point. The illustration transforms it aesthetically in its stylization and idealization, and the poster has an altogether different purpose than the photograph does. ”

    In other words, “I applied stock photoshop filters and posted it. Sure, I could have gotten permission, or even took my own photo, but instead I used a copyrighted one I downloaded off the Internet. Anyway, it’s much cooler now, and my rights as a hip[ster] artist to get paid (albeit indirectly in this case) trumps what’s-her-name’s rights to get paid.”

    I used to like Fairely back in 99 or so. Then I ended up realizing that I owned the very same “reference” images that he had, and that all he did was just apply photoshop filters to someone else’s original work.

    Yes, art has always had one generation reinterpreting the art of the previous, and making references and allusions to it, but it’s something else when you’re incorporating the image wholesale.

    I fully expect him to go down as this generation’s Andy Warhol, and I don’t mean that in a good way. They’re both hacks.

  5. @bdgbill

    so because you don’t like or agree with Shepard’s Fairey’s “art” as you call it, or the way it is distributed, he should go to jail?

  6. BDGBILL: Boo hoo for private property “defiled” by art! Yes, we should have everything papered floor to ceiling with advertisement, but street artists are miscreants that should be locked up with murderers and rapists. That’ll teach ’em!

    I didn’t see anything in the article that said SF single-handedly got O elected. He was merely explaining the purpose of the piece because it is relevant in that it contrasts to the purpose of the original photo. One cannot deny that his iconic image contributed to the O campaign, so why so damn bitter? Did your horse lose?

    QAnd what have you contributed to any cause you believed in enough to stick your neck out? It’s easy to take pot shots from the sidelines for risks others take.

    Let the SF haters continue with their regularly scheduled trolling…

  7. I guess to paint a picture of a presidential candidate and senator you need to see him in person and have him sit for you, because if you use a picture of him to go by it’s theft.

    He deserves to get sued by a lot of people he directly ripped off, but not the AP.

  8. I wouldn’t have noticed it was based on someone’s photo if the original photographer hadn’t said something.

  9. @coaxial – actually Shepard only recently started using photoshop for overall designs, he does his illustrations by hand.

  10. COAXIAL, you claim it’s as simple as taking a source photo and applying stock photoshop filters. It’s not. Take a look at this image that lines everything up.

    I created this image to illustrate the differences between the two images. Most notably, the position of the lips. As one who has experience with “vectorizing” portraits down to a very limited number of colors, I can say that it’s no simple job. There’s a lot of interpretation and illustration that must be done to reduce a photo to a 4 or 5 color vector image.

  11. Photoshop filter is an oversimplification, but it is admittedly a derivative work that would not exist without the reference photo.

    Those that don’t believe in copyright can rail against the system, but your feelings will not make the work any less reliant on the work of another creator.

    No, it wasn’t nailed down, but it isn’t free.

  12. okay, i stand corrected. I compared the wrong photograph. Big oops. I will continue to stand by my comments regarding interpretive illustration!

  13. BdgBill and others.

    As I have learned the hard way..alot of commenters here at BB are very pro-tagger/vandalism and will rally against anyone who speaks ill against it. It’s kind of sad.

  14. It should be noted that Shepard Fairey started the lawsuit and not the AP. That’s not to say the AP was not overzealous, but just a point of distinction.

  15. What a funny thread. It almost sounds like nonsense. The original photo was nothing more than the photographer pushing a button on a camera – the photons (and obama) did all the work.

    It is awesome that it was based on the work of another creator. Everything is – all the way down. And, as a consequence, he created something good. As close as art can come to being empirically validated as good – since it was “selected” entirely by the grassroots and up-promoted entirely by its actual success.

    I think that folks who get caught up in questions of ownership, control, derivative, etc. have lost sight of meaning – the “why” we do this at all.

  16. Would it have killed Fairey to have paid whatever fee the AP asks for using works in this way? Like, both parties just couldn’t have been satisfied somehow, and the needs of both art and commerce met? No compromise, we absolutely needed to get to this ideological “heroickall copyfighters versus the dastardly corporatist Pigs” impasse and litigation? This all seems quite ridiculous. What does the AP charge to let you make crap art from its stock photos, anyway?

  17. In my introductory oil-painting class our teacher stated from the get-go that if you used someone else’s photo as a reference that you had an obligation to credit that person. Even if it’s not a matter of law it’s the ethical thing to do and shows some respect for someones work.

  18. While I’m not a fan of his, he’s right insofar as he doesn’t have to pay for this, any more than a photographer has to pay the architect of a building he’s taking a picture of.

    There is a huge differance between reproducing the original and producing something new and entirely differant based on the original.

    He probably should have asked the photographer or whatever, but that’s common courtesy, not a legal requirement.

  19. fairey made NO MONEY on this piece! he hand silk-sceened the posters on his own dime, and gave all rights to the image to obama’s campaign, when o took an interest in it. anyone who says it’s just ‘shopped is full of shit. i counted on an original, and there are at least a dozen different screens in various shades and hues of red and blue w/black. and his registration seemed perfect, to me. and akbar56, ummm….kiss my shiny metal ass?

  20. While I think that Fairey’s use of the image certainly counts as Fair Use, he should have just done the right thing from the beginning and cited the work he used. That was still Garcia/AP’s work, no matter how generic it was. The fact that the derivation was so much bigger than the original does nothing to alter the fact that the seed of the image was a simple act of plagiarism.

    Like any fifth grade teacher will tell you, you can avoid plagiarism just by naming the source.

    @ Davin #4 & Phikus #7:

    Actually I clicked to comment to say essentially what BdgBill #1 said. Mr. Fairey does certainly seem to think that he had a very major role in getting Obama elected:

    I created the Obama image as a grassroots tool solely to help Obama get elected president… If I could do it all over again, I would not change anything about the process, because that could change the outcome. I am glad to endure legal headaches if that is the trade-off for Obama being president.

    That ism “if I had worried about the legal headaches, that might have changed the outcome, and Obama might not have been elected president. As it is, I’m happy to bare the consequences of my sacrifice, now that I got Obama elected

    … or at least that’s how he makes it sound…

  21. … that said, I really do like Fairey’s image. I printed out several versions of it back when it first came out sometime early 2008, and almost got a friend to silkscreen it to a pair of Converses. But he does seem to have a problem with appropriating other people’s work and not giving them credit.

  22. The original photograph is eminently forgettable and would have gone into deserved obscurity except for this controversy.

    Fairey’s illustration is an original work of art, and it was compelling enough to become an iconic image for the campaign and Obama supporters. That iconic status alone attests to Fairey’s creativity and his ability to create a powerful image based partly on a mundane new photo.

    If any of the “paint by numbers” cynics think they can create an iconic image that has this much cultural impact, I challenge them to put up or shut up. Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Marilyn Monroe posters are also based on mundane source material. Distilling the essence of an idea isn’t easy. Creating a cultural icon isn’t something you can do by formula.

  23. Oh yeah, Fairey thinks he got Obama elected. Do not make yourself sound any more ridiculous please.

    He as an artist did some art.

    That’s all he did, the important bit was it was really GOOD art, and he made it public and took no money for it.

    And also he is not a graffiti artist nor a tagger.

    He makes posters.

    The AP and the snapper are suing because they thought they could make some fat money.

    Now they are locked into this ridiculous lawsuit so they look they are doing it for the principle of the thing rather than just being grasping shit heels who are out of luck.

    So, no case no money no dignity.

    great work AP.

  24. i say everyone should just go back to your everyday life. you werent worried about what shepard was doing a year ago so dont worry now. none of you are probably even artists or understand what goes into the creative process. for that matter probably dont understand why artists like shepard do what they do. so go comment on the state of this countries finances or lack of and stop worrying about the little shit. maybe pick a fight with your wife. viva la shepard fairey and all the other propaganda artists in the world. thanks for keeping it real.

  25. @#2
    “If you were to digitally compare the two images they’d be as different as apples and bananas at the array level.”

    Check out the page done by the TineEye people. It’s obvious that he traced it.

    “In my introductory oil-painting class our teacher stated from the get-go that if you used someone else’s photo as a reference that you had an obligation to credit that person.”

    Yep, especially when you are straight up tracing a photo. Artistic license is one thing, but they are virtually identical, with very minimal stylization.

    “fairey made NO MONEY on this piece!”

    Ha. If you believe that, I have a great investment opportunity for you!

  26. @30 – Error404


    Fairey turned a photo into an art piece.
    He’s an intelligent artist with a great eye for iconography. He’s overblown and somewhat full of himself but if you don’t think that poster was an influential image (one he earned little to no money on) then you’re just ignorant.
    As previously illustrated, he does postering, wheatpasting and stickering, and does elaborate design work.
    All street art = vandalism?
    Feel free to start thinking for yourself, any time.

  27. fairey’s interpretation has different lighting, that he had to invent. i don’t care how closely the major facial shapes match up; inventing new lighting on a subject is a pretty significant re-imagining of any image.

    that, and he did it well. so well, most people think it’s mathematically derived via photoshop, if they think about it at all. that is skill and artistic judgement at work, right there. when someone does what they do at a level where they make it look easy, you gotta respect that. much experience is evident, there. fairey’s been at this game for a long time.

    the thing about this case, really, is the precedent it would set. i don’t feel one way or another about fairey’s work, but he should be able to keep doing work in this way, as should anyone else who wants to make stencils, without interference from the law.

  28. hey, thomas wincek, HE MADE NOT PENNY ONE from this image. he spent his own time and $ doing the ‘tracing’ or whatever, finding the source material, doing the graphic layout, choosing font style, etc…. then he had to do the multiplicitious color separations, then make silkscreens of each color and color variant. then print the posters, making sure to dry them separately so they dont smudge, each color printed then dried before printing the next color, then he went out to different cities and municipalities in the u.s. and put them up himself. then, after they became an icon of his campaign, obama had a staffer call shepard to say they were interested, and s.f. gave the image to the obama campaign, free of charge. after all that out go, where is the income? and i know what u are gonna say ” oh, the controversy made the cost of his other artwork go up” or somesuch bullshit. but the reality is, his work went for a goodly amount long before he ever did this poster, and if obama didn’t end up using the image, or mccain had been elected,or several other things that did happen, hadn’t, then shepard would have been out all that time and expense for basically nuttin. and EH @27, u r just rong on so many levels.

  29. My wife is a photographer, and she has had to go after several ‘artists’ who have appropriated her photos for derivative works without permission. She usually finds these either when she trips over them on the Internet, or when somebody gives her a pointer to them. These works have always been immediately deleted by the hosting service when she’s complained.

    In the past, when somebody has asked to make a derivative work, she has usually given permission. However, the original work is hers, and this is entirely *her* prerogative.

    These incidents have involved NO monetary exchange whatsoever. Rather, this is about creative control and simple courtesy.

    Fairey’s art is obviously a derivative work, otherwise this discussion would be a non-starter. Barring an already-accepted First Amendment argument (e.g. satire, or other protected speech) he should have obtained permission from the original copyright holder — either Mannie Garcia or AP, depending upon who now holds the rights — BEFORE publishing.

    Now, after the fact, he is clearly guilty of infringement, IMNSHO, and should be found liable. Even if no damages are awarded, this should be a message: respect the work of other artists.

  30. and, for what it’s worth, there was a rather excellent (and inconclusive) harper’s article on this subject in the february 2007 issue, entitled “On the rights of Molotov Man” and available in full here (you’ll need a subscription to the magazine to read it, and while i think such a subscription is worthiwhile, if i could get around it to link to relevant articles i certainly would). joy garnett made a work of art from susan meislas’ photo without permission, both pieces have their own merit, their own purpose, their own life. they needn’t be in conflict.

    on the artistic merit arguments, the article is certainly more worthwhile and thorough–the work in this case is an oil painting of a photograph, no photoshop involved–but there’s no difference between this and the fairey case as far as the law is concerned.

  31. @#24

    Contrary to your assertion, architects can (usually) require that their photographed buildings be credited or that photographers receive permission before publishing photographs of the building.

    As one in the architectural profession, I kind of understand why that is, but at the same time, as asserted before by others, no one would have realized the Fairey image came from the photo because it was altered/cropped, just as a significantly altered image of, say, the Guggenheim Bilbao might not be recognizable as such.

  32. Gilbert Anonymous here:
    If I take someone else’s work without their permission, I’m a thief. If I build on that person’s work and pass it off as my own “re-imagining” then I am a plagiarist and a fraud.

  33. Don’t call this guy an artist.

    He is a hack who rips off other peoples art to make money and promote himself.

    In fact he has made a career out of stealing other artists work and claiming it as his own.

    And if that were not bad enough, he is a hypocrite who sent his lawyers after another artist who heavily modified one of his images.

    So when you read quotes from him like this:

    “Most importantly, I am fighting the AP to protect the rights of all artists, especially those with a desire to make art with social commentary.”

    you really just have to wonder.

    The whole story is here

  34. Interesting to see that Fairey’s statement is a point by point argument for his use of the image qualifying as fair use.

    I’ve enjoyed his work for a long time, and hope to see him successfully defend his position. Given precedent — particularly the two Koons’ cases — the outcome should be illuminating as to the scope of fair use.

  35. It’s not theft of ideas, it’s social commentary. Don’t you people understand anything? It goes right along the same lines as satire. When you change context, which he ALWAYS does with every image, you change everything. work is not created in a bubble, it is impossible to create a piece of art that does NOT reference the things you’ve seen and experienced before you created it. The fact that images and works of art are now readily available for everyone to see and reference all the time only makes it easier for people to make very direct references. but it also allows those people to make works that would otherwise not exist. If you want Fairey to pay the photographer, why not have the photographer pay Obama? It was Obama’s face that allowed the photographer to take the picture. In fact, let’s do that. I’m sure Obama would be happy to give the money back to Fairey. And then it all comes out even in the end.

    In design, you must change 30% of the design to “copy” a patented object. Is Fairey’s image 30% different from the original photograph? If you think the answer is no, then you have absolutely NO concept of art and creativity, and I pity you.

  36. Oh, that’s right — Fairey made NO MONEY on the piece.

    Isn’t that how Hollywood’s creative accounting works? “yeah, it took in $150 million at the box office, but after expenses, we got doodley squat. So, no — we’re not paying you for the use of your novel, Mr. King: we didn’t make any money.”

  37. Should he be sued: no.

    Is he a hack: yes.

    He’s never been so much a political artist as he is a commercial artist who turns meaningful political art and imagery into his own p.r. machine.

    He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Actually, he wants two cakes, one that he can eat and one that he can throw at the baker who gave it to him.

  38. Well there’s a caveman turning in his grave right now cause he would love to move to California and sue Firestone for making tires that are obviously referenced from the very wheel that he created!

    Practically EVERYTHING you ever see or use is “referenced” from something.

    Who ever is suing Fairey needs to get a life, and stop wasting his time and ours. Fairey’s poster doesn’t look like ANY photograph in existence cause cameras have yet to implement a “live trace” tool. Until then, stop being a car salesman trying to judge art.

  39. Whether Fairey is a valid artist, a political provocateur, or poseur (no, no, yes) he IS a vomit inducing, self righteous hypocrite. Forget about the AP thinking they own an image they photoed, Fairey thinks he owns the word “Obey”! A word-image he stole from They Live and inserted under an image he stole from the WWF. The difference? Mr. rebellious street art got a trademark on “Obey,” so he can call on the muscle of the state to protect his “trade” on our culture.

    Hatin’ him.

  40. I’m doing a perfect 180 on this issue about the Shepard Fairey poster. I think his statement about this AP thing is totally perfect and uses sound logic. I completely agree with the use of his word ‘reference’ to the photo. Sure, artists have been looking at photos and painting them for at least a hundred years.

    I am consistently impressed with the art of Mr. Fairey. I began my awareness of him with liking his Obama poster. Then was outraged at hearing he ‘stole’ the image. Then felt that his image was ‘fascist.’ But now his art is winning the battle with my little opinions and I like him.

    He’s cool. His art is just f*king gorgeous.

    There’s an LA Times review of his art show in Boston that makes a pathetic attempt to refer to him as a ‘designer.’ That’s horse crap. He’s an artist. Artists upset people all the time. That’s how you know they’re good. So I’m glad he upset me for a while. That’s fine by me. I’m letting him win now and I’m enjoying it.

  41. Poster #48 said it best. He is a commercial artist making a profit from stolen art that once had a message. A message he seems to care nothing about.

    This Obama controversy aside – I think it’s pretty ridiculous…but it’s hard to make excuses for all of the other art he HAS blatantly ripped off and made a profit from.

    All he had to do was give credit. No money exchange, nothing. JUST NAME THE “REFERENCE”. You have to do it in writing papers all the time in school. If you don’t, it’s called plagarism and you can be expelled.

  42. WHYY Radio’s “Fresh Air” program had a recent interview with Mannie Garcia, who said he took over 700 photos of the Darfur event that day, and couldn’t even identify the one that Fairey used for several weeks, because he had to go over so many images trying to match the one “appropriated” for the HOPE poster. And he wouldn’t have even bothered doing that if the AP hadn’t ordered him to document the “theft.”

    When I was editing a newsletter for a non-profit, and wanted to re-print an article or photo or cartoon, I always tried to contact the writer, photographer or cartoonist (or his/her syndicator) to get permission to re-print. Sometimes it was a pain in the ass, and some syndicates wanted outrageous re-print fees of hundreds of dollars for comic strips or cartoons, so I simply didn’t use them. I had much better luck contacing artists directly, and if they wanted payment, it was usually very reasonable (anywhere from $20 to $50 per cartoon). I loved corresponding with geniuses like Bob Thaves (Frank and Ernest), Joe Martin (Mr. Boffo) and the incredible Tom Tomorrow (This Modern World), all of whom either asked for nothing in return but printed credit, or a fee that I could easily pay out of pocket. And I knew the money went directly to the artist, with no middle-man in between skimming off a fee.

    Really, Shepard, it’s not hard at all, and could have saved you lots of grief in the long run. Then again, if the general rules of courtesy had been followed, none of this would have happened and we’d have nothing to bitch about, right?

  43. As I have learned the hard way..alot of commenters here at BB are very pro-tagger/vandalism and will rally against anyone who speaks ill against it. It’s kind of sad.

    you misunderstand. We’re anti-whiny-ass-titty-baby.

  44. Forget Shepard Fairey and his “appropriation art”. Get on over to within the next 24 hours for some real Obama-action! I’ll show you how to rework someone else’s art with some sass! No photoshop filters or lightbox tracing here — it’s hand-drawn madness done right!

  45. Remember: “Art, like the Alamo, has to draw the line somewhere.”
    —- Gene Elder, San Antonio, Texas

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