A Student Plagiarized an African Artist. Then His Work Was Exhibited at the Milan Photo Festival.

A Student Plagiarized an African Artist. Then His Work Was Exhibited at the Milan Photo Festival.

In 2014, curator Simon Njami engaged Ethiopian artist photographer Aïda Muluneh to interpret Dante’s Inferno for an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art entitled The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists. Muluneh’s “The 99 Series” featured a model set against a light grey mottled background, with her body and face covered in white paint, and her hands dipped in red. 

In this episode of the PhotoShelter podcast Vision Slightly Blurred, Sarah Jacobs and Allen Murabayashi discuss the plagiarism of Aïda Muluneh’s work.

In arguably the most iconic image, the model places her left hand against her cheek and her right hand on her chest, while three other red hands extend from outside the frame to grasp the model at various points. The model’s head tilts slightly and her gaze extends far off into the distance. The image is contrasty, vibrant, and visually arresting. In her artist statement, Muluneh describes her Inferno as “the gray existence” of her country’s past, but also of our individual pain.

On Twitter, the African Women in Photography account noticed a far too similar image created by an Italian photo student, Andrea Sacchetti, which was a part of a group exhibition at the 2021 Milan Photo Festival. 

The Istituto Italiano Fotografia assigned students to interpret Dante’s Inferno, and Sacchetti indisputably plagiarized Muluneh without attribution nor permission, producing a series of diptychs that used a model painted in white with red hands, photographed against a gray background. Sacchetti’s images lack both an emotional intensity and technical excellence (i.e. lower contrast, less deftly styled hand position, vacant gaze) of Muluneh’s original.

After hundreds of retweets, the Festival issued a statement on their Instagram account, acknowledging the “identical” image. However, they further state that “there was no will to plagiarize against such a prestigious author and we know that the young photographer has already apologized to the author.” 

The history of art and photography is filled with accusations of plagiarism. In recent times, the late Ren Hang was accused of plagiarizing the work of Ryan McGinley, Guy Bourdin, Robert Farber and Robert Mapplethorpe. Iranian photographer Solmaz Daryani accused the German photographer Maximillian Mann of copying her work from Lake Urmia. But while specific images in those cases have either similar poses or similar scenes, none of the images share a level of identicality as Sacchetti’s plagiarism of Muluneh.

In the U.S., copyright law doesn’t allow creators to copyright a concept. And photographers have had limited success in leveraging copyright in cases of visual plagiarism. But that doesn’t mean the individuals shouldn’t push back against blatant instances.

In all art forms, imitation provides a methodology for learning. Jazz students often transcribe Charlie Parker solos, learning not only the notes, but the phrasing and subtle shifts in timing that elevate Parker’s playing. And in photography, it’s very common for students to replicate photos they admire to deconstruct lighting patterns, lens selection, etc.

But it is the height of privilege for a student who commits plagiarism against a famous African artist to have the continued support of a significant European photo festival. The continued exhibition of Sacchetti’s work gives tacit approval to others to commit the same infraction without consequence. 

At a moment in history when there is heightened awareness of uncredited appropriation from Black creators, this outcome is a sad commentary on the Milan Photo Festival’s attitude towards plagiarism and more specifically against the moral rights of an African artist. 

Muluneh, the founder of the Addis Foto Fest, shared her thoughts through the organization’s Twitter account, stating in part: 

“I take this quite personally, not just for me, but imagine for other photographers and artists who nobody knows, or who are trying to come up, who face the similar challenges….It’s still a conversation that needs to continue. Just because there’s been one post shared and a couple of messages sent, it’s not the end of the conversation.”

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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 9 comments for this article
  1. John Walmsley at 3:58 pm

    Hi, Allen.
    Have a look at this:

    It’s the story of what happened when an artist made exact hand-drawn graphite on paper copies of four photos from my book on Summerhill School in the UK, without ever contacting me. Following an exhibition in NYC, one of those drawings was bought by the Whitney Museum and two by private collectors. They were such exact copies that I felt the need to push back, as others have said, partly for the sake of other original artists who lose out but still have bills to pay. I have nothing against a second artist wanting to base their work on an earlier artist’s work but why not ask first and pay a fee if required? Let’s have a little respect between artists.

    I’m glad to say that, in the end, the (copy) artist, the Museum the private collectors and I have amicably agreed that I own the © of those drawings because, however skillfully they were done, they are still copies of my originals and I was the one who made all the creative decisions (positioning, lighting, stances, who was in the shots etc.) which brought them into being.

  2. ML Harris at 8:10 pm

    Glad to see that @milanophotofestival has taken down their lame defense of this poor rip-off of an inspired artist’s work, and I’m grateful to the artist for shining a light on this unethical practice. To John H & Frank: inspiration is one thing; outright copying without attribution is something completely different.

  3. JD Marston at 10:49 pm

    Hello Allan, As a longtime customer of Photoshelter, the issue of image theft on Photoshelter has paralleled stories like this one for a long time.

    I have been dismayed by the amount of images of mine that have been stolen from the Photoshelter site – which is the ONLY place they are displayed on the internet. I have been working with a company that tracks images online for possible theft and have received almost 1,500 notices of image theft in the last three years alone!

    I am wondering what Photoshop is doing to build up further defenses / deterrents than what has already existed on Photoshelter for years but is pathetically unable (along with the rest of the image site industry) to provide any “real” security for image providers/photographers.

    Please don’t waste your time repeating what has already been repeated to me (and certainly others) by your staff, that offers virtually no brighter outlook than quoting the actions in place that have done very little – over the years – to offer REAL protection.

    I am actually surprised that no one has come up with an image lock system, on your site, which can be applied to any and all images, requiring payment code release, before the images can even be seen on their home screen by the thief.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on this matter.

    I wish you and PS good luck in improving your site’s security system to the next level

  4. Chris Close at 5:41 am

    There are countless cases of this that never make the headlines. I had a portfolio images of mine ‘borrowed ‘ by an agency to show their client who in turn commissioned another photographer to copy them. He in turn won some awards and gained a load of publicity from the work. I have had ‘top’ London fashion photographer Alastair McLellan shoot over my shoulder, without asking, to copy one of my set ups at a highland games. I can tell other stories of photographers I know having their work blatently copied by big names in London. It’s all about who you know, where you are based. In a copyright legal dispute I was told by the lawyer that whilst I was correct in Scotland no judge would take it seriously.

  5. DC at 7:14 am

    The rip-off is garbage compared to the original, why bother? I don’t understand the dismissal of this act by some in these comments. I can’t imagine they would be so blasé
    if it was their great work being copied and in such an inferior way, and then celebrated publicly.

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