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Creating Can Build Empathy

Creating Can Build Empathy

Cover image by Nguyen Ngoc Vu for Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

Creating artistic work that contains original thought that the artist highly values can encourage empathy when faced with decisions regarding respect of intellectual property.

This week in COETAIL Course #2, we have been asked to consider responsible use of others’ intellectual property and I immediately went in my mind to a time and place when I had some of my work used without my consent. About 6 years ago, I quite my job as a teacher; it was a bit of a wide-eyed and naive moment in my late 20s that I decided I wanted to try exploring a dream of mine– being a professional photographer. I was snapping photos on the streets of Vietnam and taking any event that would hire me. When I was lucky, I would get commercial jobs in studios that would ask for products or models to be photographed for an ad agency.


While doing advertising work, people never attributing the work to me. I was an anonymous artist! Man, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting and honestly, it hurt my ego. I had my picture on the side of every Mai Linh taxi in Saigon for about 4 months, but nobody knew it was my work. This happened time and time again. Recognition for my work would have meant that my expertise, hard work, and achievements were recognized by others which I realized I highly valued.

Take this picture by McDonalds for example. Who was the photographer? It was likely an entire team of people that worked very hard on this image, none of whom were attributed. Image property of McDonalds(c) 2017-2019

Getting recognition was also highly valuable to me because of the potential for people to see my work and want to hire me; on social media, I liked to share my work regularly to garner interest from potential clients. I would put a large watermark in the corner of my pictures to indicate that it was my work; it was a sort of copyright stamp that implied “all rights reserved, this image belongs to this photographer.”

Watermarks: “a ridiculously over-egaggerated example” by Nate Zeman who has a great blog post about watermarks on his site and their implications for photographers.

When Someone Borrowed My Work

One day, I had someone take a picture of mine from some of my street photography, crop my watermark out of my picture, and post it on his Facebook account as if it was his own. I was so angry! There was a component of recognition being taken away, but then there was also an element of someone else taking credit for my work; he had removed my name, posted it on his social media implying that he had taken it.

From these experiences, I learned some important lessons when it comes to intellectual property. When an individual knows how it feels to create something that s/he highly values (i.e. there has been significant work put into it, the creator is proud, or it has a societal impact), then they will know the importance of the form of respect that is attribution or observance of copyright law. It’s respect for others’ ideas, expertise, and time/monetary investments in his/her craft. For example, in my case as a photographer, I felt as if I had spent the money on the professional equipment, spend hours on a weekend walking the streets, spent more money on Photoshop, spent time working on the image and captioning it. Furthermore, I had spent hours honing my craft, learning how to utilize it to express my vision and create beautiful images. When someone came along and used my photo for his own purposes without my watermark, it felt as if this other person had allowed me to spend time and money for his own gain and my expertise that came from countless hours in honing my abilities suddenly became his.

When an individual knows how it feels to create something that s/he highly values (i.e. there has been significant work put into it, the creator is proud, or it has a societal impact), then they will know the importance of the form of respect that is attribution or observance of copyright law.

Teaching Young People in Vietnam

Shifting to my own practice as a teacher, I have noticed the areas that my students in Vietnam often ignore copyright law are with programs and apps on their devices. I have seen countless installations of “cracked” (i.e. modified programs that do not require one pay to use it) and “jailbroken” iPhones (a term used when referring to iPhones that do not have the usual restrictions on app installations).

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

That is, students often have software that was installed for free that would otherwise cost money. There are many shops you can walk into on the street that will install just about anything you like for little to no cost. I believe that for students, apps and programs are kind of abstract; it’s hard to understand the amount of work that goes into writing a program like Photoshop when one hasn’t written a program before. Do you see what I’m kind of getting at here?

No, I’m not advocating for everyone to learn to program; I am advocating for students to be creators of something that they highly value. If a student writes a program, takes a picture, illustrates a comic, etc., s/he will have ownership of something conceptual and intellectual and I believe that they will then be more likely to respect others’ work because they will understand the work and effort others have put into their work. I suppose it’s a form of empathy for creative endeavors.

Walking down the street in Vietnam, you can get just about any service imaginable, including cracked software.

Image by Alexander McMillan; Creative CommonsAttribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

In a sense that’s some strong rationale for why art is important in societies beyond the message it might convey; creating art helps us respect the ideas of others.

Let’s spend a moment thinking about what young people are doing today already. Social media and online communities are profuse in 2019. As the MacArthur Foundation writes in their report [LINK], young people today engage in “participatory culture”. That is, young people can participate in online communities of practice for just about every topic you can imagine. The main notion that the article mentioned was that today the internet provides young people opportunities to (1) easily participate in groups that (2) support one another to create by (3) providing mentorship, (4) giving meaning to one another’s work, (5) and building relationships.

After reading pages 3-6 of the report with my above experiences in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder how young people today are changing with their ideas of intellectual property. We have access to Netflix, Spotify, and various other subscription services. So it’s safe to assume that habitual piracy is on the decline, but when young people participate online communities, how does that get translated into other forms of expression? If a student writes in a fan fiction site, does she then have more of a desire to respect a photographer’s work when she sees it? Knowing how to attribute the photographer’s work aside, does she even want to because she’s a creative herself? I also can’t help but wonder about the opportunities we are giving students with the aid of school to be an online participant that shares ideas and respectfully contributes/remixes/discusses the ideas and work of others. In a traditional sense of the idea of schooling, not much.

Bringing It Together

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Philosophically speaking, being a teacher is by and large about honing the mind to be an effective thinker, right? Couldn’t we also say that it’s also about collaboratively building shared ideas with others? Creating a shared meaning or expression of thought?

Is our job as a teacher-facilitator to not be the one necessarily giving the feedback, but perhaps we are the one who helps the student to successfully and appropriately navigate online communities that might give the right feedback? In other words, can we coach students with the right questions to be successful in getting meaningful feedback from their communities.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Perhaps part of our job as teachers is to help students to create expressions of their learning. Students should be creating work for an authentic audience (e.g. community of practice) so that they can responsibly share, comment, and collaborate with others globally. And this should not necessarily be the end, part of this process should be learning to see value in the ideas and expressions of others. We show this value by treating their ideas respectfully by observing copyright law and writing attributions.


  • Thank you for your post Alex. I have a photojournalism degree, so you’d think I’d be highly sensitive to issues of copyright and licensing. Until now, you would have been wrong. I’ve just been so enamored of the ability to use the internet as a bottomless resource and haven’t given the legality of it much thought, especially since I haven’t formally been teaching technology-related issues. Obviously, now that I’m in COETAIL and my goal is to work as a EdTech specialist/digital learning coach, that’s quickly changing.

    As a photographer, I’m torn between being flattered by someone liking my images enough to want to borrow them, but certainly *with* attribution, without someone else making money off of my work, and without altering my images in any way. I’m more journalist than artist, so the taboo of manipulating images has been burned into my brain.

    BTW, great portraits! And my wife and I recently visited Hoi, Nha Trang, and Da Nang. Vietnam has been at the top of my list for the food alone and it didn’t disappoint. I look forward to visiting Vietnam again soon. Living there someday would be great too…

    • Hi Colin,

      Thank you for your thoughts. I know what you mean: it can be flattering when someone wants to use your images, but for someone who makes a living off of said images, it’s imperative to him or her that their work is respected. We live in a day and age when everyone is a photographer with camera phones in their pockets and the perception is that images come easily. It’s almost like fighting against a current with the mentality that people have on the internet with content.

      Thanks for your kind words on my portraits! Glad to hear that you love it there. It’s a wonderful place with especially wonderful food! Take care and talk soon!


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