Joe Carrow is a cool guy who comes to a lot of the readings in the Bay Area and takes photographs of local weirdos and does it all for the love of it. In this interview we talk about his photo work and an incident he had with a Canadian website and I pretend that I’m not sure who I’m talking to at first for a pathetic attempt at comedy.
Hey, so first question: who are you, what do you do, and how do we know each other?
I’m Joe Carrow. I work as a mechanical engineer by day, and I do more creative things at night to stay sane. I used to play drums before I moved to the Bay area in 2004, but when I got out here I found that all of the apartments were really tiny and I didn’t have a way to keep playing. I loved drums, but my girlfriend at the time needed floor space for her wheelchair and the apartment walls were too thin for so much noise. I started getting pretty serious about photography around 2008, and in 2012 I became the show photographer for Oakland Nights Live.
I was invited to take some pictures at a poetry reading in an abandoned apartment in 2012, where I met you and a few other local poets. I put out a Facebook call of “Who wants to do a shoot?” in 2013 and you wanted to do a shoot, and we’ve been doing photo stuff and going to each others events ever since.
Ah, yeah. I’m remembering now. We did a photo shoot. You’re the guy with the beard holding a camera, right? Yeah, I think you’ve shot the covers for a few of my books or something. What kind of photo work do you like to do? What do you find inspiring?
That’s right! I’m the guy with the beard and camera. I was pursuing competitive beard growth for a while, but eventually it felt ridiculous and I trimmed it off.
The kind of photo work that I like to do is to show people having cool experiences. Really, it’s the look on somebody’s face that does it for me. What’s going on? What are they up to? Who are they? Is something cool happening? I can appreciate and enjoy pictures of landscapes and skies and inanimate objects as well, but I care a lot more about people pictures. I like to catch those candid moments when people aren’t posing, when they’re having a genuine moment. Here are a few favorites:
I guess those are the kinds of pictures that I like. I like to find the cool moments and connections that people have. I’m inspired by the people. If they’re my friends, or some people who are doing something rad, then I want to catch it and share it. I like to think that I can help make the world a little cooler by shining a light on those moments and spreading it around. It’s work, but most of the time I do it for free just for the joy of it.
I heard something about some random canadian website stealing a photo of yours– can you tell me more about that?
Thanks for asking about the canadian site that stole my photo. It’s something that I’ve been feeling some real irritation over lately, and I reached out to friends for advice and support. It happened a couple of weeks ago. I woke up one morning and saw an email asking me,
“Hey, can I use your photo on my blog? Here’s a link, let me know if you want me to to take it down.”
At first I thought I’d be OK with it, and 99% of the time I am happy for people to share my photos with just a link back, but this time I saw that it was a commercial site. It looked like a Buzzfeed ripoff with more of a ‘frat’ vibe. My photo was the headline shot for a story surrounded by sleazy advertisements, next to a bunch of clickbait listicles about where to get poutine and when “steak and blowjob day” is celebrated in Canada. I wrote back to let the guy know that I wasn’t OK with him using my photo there, and that he needed to either take it down or pay for it. I watched the site, and 30,000 shares later he still hadn’t responded to my email or followup email. I tracked down a phone number and called their advertising department to see if I could find somebody responsible to talk to. They wouldn’t put me through to the guy that had initially emailed me because he was “very busy”, but I was told I could send an email about it. I could tell I was getting brushed off, so I asked point blank how much they’d typically pay for a headline photo like this. They told me, “We don’t pay for photos. That’s how the internet works.”
I was pretty pissed. It was the most popular article that they’ve run for the last few months, and their most popular facebook post of all time. They didn’t even credit me on the Facebook post. I don’t mean to make my photo sound more important than it is, but I don’t think their clickbait headline would have had 3,000 Facebook shares and likes if it didn’t have a sweet picture to go with it. They were making money on my work and didn’t even want to talk about paying for it. What really makes me mad isn’t that they did this to me, it’s that they’re doing it to everybody. This is business as usual for them and a hundred other sites.
Geez. That sounds hella annoying.
Why do you think so many people feel this way about art? Like, I feel like creative works often gets taken for granted, people don’t realize that it takes time and effort and money to produce creative work. It’s so nuts.
What have you done with this situation since those emails.
It was super annoying. I don’t know why people feel like they don’t have to pay for art, or can use it whenever and however they want just because they found it on the Internet. Maybe it’s because we have a generation that grew up with Napster.
I remember when I first heard about file sharing, it was still a fringe sort of thing and kind of illicit. Before Napster you could trade MP3s and stuff online, but you had to be savvy with things like IRC, FTP, and Usenet. It tied up your phone line whenever you were on the internet, and songs took longer to download than listen to, so downloading multiple albums required you to be a really massive nerd with a dedicated line. More than that, sharing very much at all required you to go to extra trouble of staying online for strangers to get files from you, and you were at risk of being caught. You really had to make a decision to take action and jump into piracy. Napster and prevalent broadband changed that. After that, and after Gnutella, Limewire, Kazaa, Grokster and all that, it started to seem like the majority of us were stealing albums. Hell, I’m guilty of it. Who isn’t?
I don’t know if that’s why people started treating art as something that’s OK to steal. I drew a line for myself on what I would steal online. The two questions are, “Would I buy this if I couldn’t steal it?” and “Will I make any money off of having or using this?”, and my hope is that it minimizes any harm done to the artists. Maybe I’m a huge hypocrite by coming up with a way that I can justify downloading something, but I feel like I’m at least true to it. As I’ve grown up, the answer is increasingly “yes” to at least one of those questions, and now I don’t do that. I don’t have any software that I didn’t pay for (or isn’t free), and I buy physical CDs. I do skirt the law for a very popular TV show that will remain nameless, but I could easily watch that at a friend’s house legally.
The point of all of that is that I think that there is a line, and this canadian web site is blatantly crossing it every day. Traditionally they would have to pay for stock photos, and they are making buckets of advertising money by running them on their site. I would have had zero problem with it if they only shared a link to my picture from facebook. I love it when people share my pictures on facebook, and I’m really flattered when they end up as their profile pictures. I also enjoy collaborating on photo projects with friends for free, but the difference is that nobody’s making any money there. If people work to bake a pie, they deserve a slice. It would be great if people would start buying pies again (metaphorically speaking) so that artists would be in a better place right now.
Since my original email to that Canadian site, and my phone call to chew them out, I got an email offering payment. I gave them a price based on stock image company pricing, they lowballed me with a counter offer, I accepted because I couldn’t stand the aggravation of dealing with them, and then they retracted the offer… That was after 75,000 shares. It was their most popular facebook post of all time. I started looking for a lawyer, and contacted California Lawyers for the Arts. I had a consultation with a real lawyer, and he told me that since I hadn’t registered my image in advance (which costs $35, or $50 for a DVD sized batch) the damages that I could be awarded would be significantly less than the cost of legal fees. Furthermore, since they were in Canada things were even more complicated. Next I found an organization similar to CLA based in Canada, and I have an appointment next week to talk to somebody there.
I also went on their page and tracked down the photographers of a few other images they used. I emailed and asked if the site had permission to use their images, and sure enough the photographers hadn’t even been asked. They weren’t happy that they were being used, but it didn’t sound like they were going to do anything about it. The photos are still up a week later.
What can artists do? I feel like one of the solutions to dealing with this type of theft is to talk about it publicly, but what else can we do?
I agree that talking about this publicly is important. The reason that companies keep getting away with stealing content is that the majority of the time they don’t meet any resistance. I think that the more we can make it difficult for them to base a business on stealing value from artists, the better off we’ll all be.
Speaking just for photographers, most of us can’t really sue unless we register the work with the copyright office before it ever sees the internet. If you don’t register then you are still protected, but in a lawsuit you would only be awarded damages based on the value of what was stolen from you, which is typically in the low thousands of dollars. That’s not enough to cover the legal fees in going through with it, and these companies know it. Unless they come across somebody who *is* a lawyer, or who is just rich and wants to make a point, they’re not going to get sued for a work that wasn’t registered in advance. If the work is registered then you can get statutory damages that can range into the six figure range, and a lot of lawyers will consider taking that case on contingency. I didn’t know that before, but now that I know it I want to start registering images before posting them. I don’t know if there is an equivalent if they plagiarize an article that you wrote, though I’ll keep an eye out for any CLA workshops that cover it.
So, suing is a pain and it doesn’t work very well. Another avenue, if you just want them to take it down, is a DMCA takedown. These are supposed to be quite effective at getting the content removed, but it doesn’t do a lot of good if they already got all of the web traffic that they were going to get out of the content. I sent a DMCA takedown to get my picture off of facebook. It worked, but it was not very satisfying.
Knowledge is paramount, I guess, and sometimes you have to get burned by shysters in order to know that they’re out there and need to be watched for. Anyway, I’m sorry this happened to you.
Do you have anything cool coming up? Wanna do some shoutouts?
Thanks, it was definitely a learning experience. I guess that’s the world we’re living in now.
One cool thing that I have coming up is a series of conceptual portraits- it should be pretty surreal! This is my first time planning shots quite this elaborate, and I’m pretty excited about it.
I’d like to give a shout out to Scot Goodman, Charles Kruger, and Hollie Hardy, for going out of their way to give me referrals, pep talks, and sending me links (especially Scot, thanks again!) and giving me support to keep fighting this. Thanks to all my friends who also gave kind words and advice, a big shout out to people who bought my calendar, and everyone who’s been there to make the Bay Area so much fun to live in! Also a huge shout out to my girlfriend, Kaitlyn Morse, who kept encouraging me and is so patient with all my shenanigans. Love you babe!