HOPE on a Slippery Slope

The most iconic 2008 U.S. election image is under fire. Shepard Fairey’s Obama “HOPE” poster is getting heat from Associated Press, the news agency that claims Fairey’s work infringes on AP’s copyrights.

For months, the internets have been a-buzz trying to identify the original photograph used in Fairey work. On January 14, netizen investigations led many people to believe that the original photo was taken by Reuters photographer Jim Young, who later admitted he hadn’t even recognized Fairey’s alleged spin-off of his repertoire.


A few days later, however, the dust seemed to settle on the origins of the mystery photo. Flickr user stevesimula, among others, argued to have found a better match: an Associated Press photo from October 2006.


Image origins aside, the HOPE posters have certainly generated a remix phenomenon far beyond Fairey’s initial piece. The portrait, and its many mutations, appeared on t-shirts, banners, screens, and pretty much everywhere else throughout the election. Obama supporters and critics alike found expression in the image, brandishing, commenting, and rallying behind the poster at innumerable occasions. What’s more, in our era’s true participatory fashion, the election saw countless spin-offs of HOPE, including the popular Obamicon.Me, which cleverly renders user-submitted photos into the now classic HOPE design. Some of the more popular images are worth a look:


This whole wave of remixing, kicked off by Fairey’s poster but part of a longer political tradition, is an exciting and positive thing, demonstrating humor and parody and all the other important layers of cultural commentary that we as citizens are by law allowed to enjoy. Fortunately for Fairey, and for all us, really, Stanford’s Fair Use Project will be representing the artist against infringement claims. Let’s *hope*, for the sake of our collective sanity and cultural freedom, that AP sees the light and drops its charges.

Images: “Obama “Hope” source.” by MikeWebkist and “fairey poster photo source?” by stevesimula, both available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. Screenshot from “Obamicon.Me“, created by author for the purpose of commentary under the provisions granted by fair use.

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