This, I assure you, is my own image. It’s an animal butt, after all.

(I’m taking a brief break from my out-west postings to address something timely. Then back to our regularly scheduled creek crossings/weirdo encounters, etc)

Earlier this week it was discovered that a member of one of the Facebook groups I help to administer has been stealing photos from the web and posting them as her own, on our group and others, for a very long time.  As an avid photographer and a lawyer – and hell, as a person who generally likes other people — this was a topic of interest to me, beyond merely my personal experience with this particular event.

I’ve worked for many years, hike and paddle many miles, and spend thousands of dollars on travel expenses and gear to get my images. The idea of someone claiming them as their own is not a trivial matter to me. There is a notion out there that an artist should somehow not be offended by creative appropriation. My contempt for that notion is limitless.

If you want to give your work away, that’s absolutely fine.  Wikimedia is built on such a premise, and I frequently do it myself on request. But no one should generalize that as a “should” and apply it to anyone but themselves. I have a self, and it’s been hard-won. That self comes with a sense of entitlement to my own work. Pretty sure that’s better than a sense of entitlement to the work of others. And besides, artists have to work harder than most for recognition of their work as property.

That member forcibly associated me, as an administrator of that group and a viewer of appropriated imagery, with image theft, something I find repulsive. That’s always the nature of deception; it takes away the choice and the agency of the deceived. So I feel betrayed, and I have every reason to feel that way. I don’t appreciate working to grow this group only to have it sullied with creative theft. I don’t appreciate that I lost a precious hour of life to the task of removing every stolen image from our group. I don’t appreciate that when I see a beautiful photo on the group now, the question of whether it really belongs to the person who posted it bubbles up from the ether. That never occurred to me before this happened. Now it does. I don’t appreciate it.

To the credit of the poster, when asked for an explanation, she admitted what she’d done and suggested she leave the group. We agreed that a parting of the ways was a sound idea from a boundary perspective. We struggled with this, because we all like this person. She is not mean, and she is not malevolent. We know there must be painful reasons that she chose to do these things. We all are big believers in change, growth, and redemption.  Hell, I’ve worked on behalf of death row prisoners convicted of murder. No one, to me, is irredeemable. I believe most of us can grow and change. We hated to see her go. We hated that it was necessary, and we cast about to find reasons that it wasn’t.

But it’s important to recognize – critically important, fundamentally important – that facilitating the growth and change of someone who has fallen short does not mean whitewashing, trivializing, or minimizing what that person has done. It does not mean skipping over the reasons someone has done it. It does not mean saying “No Big! You can stay! Don’t do it again!” That is nothing more than enabling. In short, redemption without accountability, a serious process of self-evaluation, and engagement with the natural consequences of one’s actions is completely hollow. It is a sham.

I know so many women who are recovering co-dependents. More so than men, women are socialized to find their worth in how much they do for others. At the heart of a co-dependent’s deepest desire is the hope that, if he or she just saves this one person, or can live without this one boundary, or rehabilitates this one individual, then maybe they will be so much better than everyone else. So much more awesome, at least, than the people who just discard wrongdoers.

After a few decades in this joint, I have come to see this as the fool’s errand that it is. It also contains a profound arrogance. Redemption cannot be done for someone. It cannot even be done in conjunction with someone. It is their job alone. Supporting someone on that path means encouraging her to understand the full breadth and contours of her actions. A good way to do that is to set a boundary. Boundaries also have the primary benefit of protecting yourself and others from repeat behaviors.

So when we let this member go, it was with the hope that she would start down a path of growth and change. None of us were so arrogant as to assume that we could or should be her coaches on that path. That’s unquestionably a good thing; we protected ourselves and our other members, in a world where people, particularly women, are rarely encouraged to do so.

Her redemption and recovery is her job, not ours.

I wish her well on it, truly and deeply. But that’s all.


28 thoughts on “Empathy, redemption, and the kindness of letting someone go

      1. I don’t understand that mentality. We could analyze ye motivation for days. The best action is, as you say, confront and hold them accountable, in a way that encourages change in behaviour.

      2. I agree. I think there must be a need there, for something, whether validation or belonging, I don’t know. My own process, over the years, has become so seamless that it would never occur to me to lift someone else’s images. There would be no point; aside from the ethics, it wouldn’t offer me what I *need*, which is to find and capture these crystalline moments.

    1. It’s a layer of protection to be sure, but not foolproof. I think it’s something that’s going to happen in the digital age, because its so easy. I also think you can drive yourself nuts chasing after it. Sigh.

  1. A well written article and I not only agree, but sympathize. Ethics seem to be lost to many people these days. Having said that, there is something to be said for superimposing with a watermark. It serves well as an advertising tool. Getty Images comes to mind. Why do I recognize that name? Because of that watermark.

    1. Thank you! There is something to be said for watermarks, certainly. Interestingly, though, some of these images were taken from major publications. Nothing is safe, alas.

  2. Reblogged this on Trail Mix and commented:
    Wise words on the dividing line between encouragement and enabling, a line which benefits no one when crossed. Clear boundaries are essential in healthy relationships and group dynamics.

  3. Eloquent and well said! Thank you! This framework will help me deal with other similar situations in life. An apology and an “it won’t happen again” from this person would be nice too!

  4. Well said and I heartily agree. It reminds me of raising my teenager. Our children don’t fully learn from their mistakes or poor choices until there is a consequence. I have found that the consequences can be given in such a way as to show support (and can be given lovingly), but also to prove that in this life, if one does wrong, one must deal with the consequences that come with the wrongdoing. If they don’t, there is a very big chance that they will do it again….and again. It was a tough choice for your group to make, but it seems you made it after much thought and consideration.

  5. A necessary lesson. I’d be livid if someone had done that with my photos, my hard work. But how torn to feel friendship on top of such a theft.
    You dear, are a wonderful writer! So you ‘do law’, photography, write and fight crime?!? You need a cape…or at least a sweet hat.
    Well done😊

  6. Hmmm, let’s see. The defense of murderers is a good thing but don’t steal my photos. I understand. Do anything to others and I’ll defend you. Do anything to me and I’ll kick your ass to the curb.

  7. I agree that your only option was to let that person go. I have posted pictures found on the internet but would never take credit for taking them as they are someone else’s work. Isn’t that what the Internet is for? Sharing and finding information on any subject?

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