Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/6/2016 (1321 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
On Monday, something strange happened: a completely innocuous, four-star Winnipeg Free Press review of a Guns N' Roses concert from six years ago started getting tens of thousands of hits.
As it turns out, Free Press photographer Boris Minkevich's shots of lead singer Axl Rose had been lifted and turned into Internet memes — you know, those highly shareable captioned images that clog your Facebook feed. And now, Rose is trying to get those images scrubbed from the web.
The memes themselves target Axl's weight, and consist mostly of embarrassingly unfunny riffs on GN'R lyrics. "Welcome to the bakery, we've got pies and cakes," is one. "Oh, oh, oh, oh, sweet pie o'mine," is another. The least creative is a close-up of Axl's face with just "Diabeetus" written under it in all caps. Har, har, har. Good one, Internet.
Rose issued a Digital Millenium Copyright Act takedown notice to Google, claiming copyright infringement.
So who owns these photos? According to Web Sherrif, the anti-piracy company who filed the notice on behalf of Rose, the singer owns the photos.
Free Press photographers often sign agreements for big concerts they photograph. The agreements are never the same and, in recent years, have become increasingly annoying. Many artists have started requesting pre-approval of photos, which is both a logistical and journalistic problem. Many other artists have stopped allowing live photography at all.
While it's tempting to write the latter off as petulant diva behaviour, it's hard to argue with a no-photo policy when fat-shaming memes such as these appear. The Internet: ruining everything for everyone.
The photos in question were definitely used without the permission of Rose, and they were definitely used without the permission of the Free Press. Ownership aside, in the tricky-to-regulate Wild West of the Internet, trying to find and take down every photo stolen and used without permission is all but impossible.
Everyone, famous or not, has photos of themselves they feel are "unflattering" — which, of course, is completely subjective. Take-down campaigns, especially those that can become news, inadvertently give new life to so-what photos from who-cares ago. This story, originally reported by TorrentFreak on Sunday, has since been picked up by outlets all over the world, from Spin and NME to the Austrian newspaper derStandard and the New York Daily News.
More people have seen Minkevich's Axl Rose photos this week than when they were published 2,335 days ago. Only now, they are accompanied by headlines talking about how "fat" and "bloated" he looks in these "unflattering" photos.
Photo theft has happened to me. A beautiful Free Press photo of me and my family that ran with a feature about the evolution from pet ownership to pet parenting was stolen and used to illustrate an unfortunate blog post titled Dog's Mommy Applauds Human Abortion. I would never had seen it if I didn't happen to Google myself in a moment of vanity. The author of the post will get hits when people inevitably Google that see-it-to-believe-it headline after reading this column. It's the circle of the Internet. And I'm not a famous person.
But the problem with this kind of theft isn't just one of copyright. Minneapolis actor/writer and Winnipeg Fringe Festival favourite Amy Solloway wrote a heartbreaking 2015 essay titled I Am The Woman You Laughed At On the Internet. A photo of her, taken without her consent, made it onto the site Youredoingitwrong.com, in which users can upload photos of anyone doing something in public. In this case, Solloway was at a gym, and she was photographed sitting on a chair on a treadmill. Solloway happens to have a larger body. "I should have realized," she wrote. "The comedic gold, of this body, sitting in a chair on a treadmill, staring glassy-eyed up at a screen."
The context stripped from the image was that she had already walked for 80 minutes and pulled up a chair to catch the end of the House episode she had been watching. Nothing more, nothing less. She didn't think about this life choice as being particularly hilarious. She was just living her life, only to be fat-shamed later on social media.
There are endless "fat" memes online, many of them featuring little kids. Some are stock photos. Many are just regular pictures of real people, taken off Facebook or Instagram and repurposed for cruelty, a target for other people's fat hatred and insecurities.
Rose's photos were taken with his permission, but society tends to think about famous people's bodies as public property, to be evaluated, commented upon and mocked — which is actually not all that different from how society thinks about fat people's bodies.
What does it say about a person who creates memes like these? And what does it say about the people who laugh and share them? Who gets hurt?
A meme making fun of fat people using stolen photography to do so. Talk about unflattering.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.