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  • January 13, 2014

Thomas Dworzak: Mining for Memes on Instagram

Thomas Dworzak has photographed wars and uprisings all over the world, yet perhaps he is best known for a series of photographs he didn’t take, but found in Afghanistan. His latest obsession as a collector of imagery has taken him to the depths of Instagram, which he has been mining to curate a series of inventive, limited-edition books.

While in Kandahar in 2001, Dworzak wandered into a photo studio near his hotel and left with a box of pictures of Taliban fighters that he later compiled into what has become the cult book, Taliban. Thomas says he still gets frequent requests to take “Taliban-style” portraits: “People think I’m the one who dressed up the Taliban and took pictures in the photo studio. I will be remembered for the Taliban, [but] I was just the guy who got the box,” he maintains.

Dworzak says he wouldn’t have gone to Afghanistan solely to look for pictures of Taliban. “It’s not the main thing—it’s a side thing,” he says. Yet, he speculates the Taliban book might be more lasting than his own photography because it seems more innocent. “They [the Taliban] chose to look like that. It’s like selfies. There is something very revealing.”

Picture of Taliban in a portrait studio
Colorized pictures of Taliban fighters with kohl-lined eyes. Though photography was prohibited during Taliban rule, these portraits were taken during the ban.

Dworzak says he wasn’t looking for a new visual outlet, “it just happened,” when he turned to Instagram the night the Pope was elected to see what people were posting. He discovered a visual stream of consciousness as Instagrammers reacted to the news.

Following various hashtag threads, he came upon a series of unusual links, including one with pictures of dogs and cats dressed as the Pope. And, what fascinated him was that the people posting these pictures apparently weren’t aware that other people were dressing their pets as the Pope too.

Picture of a dog dressed like the pope.
A photo tagged #whitesmoke was just one of number of pictures Dworzak found of pets dressed like the pope.

Finding pictures in this immediate, spontaneous way is unique to Instagram and that is what Dworzak finds captivating, addictive even: “What are you going to do? Hire 12 photographers, then see if anyone is planning on dressing up their pets in the next 25 minutes, and go take pictures? It wouldn’t work,” he insists.

Another hashtag search for #solarium produces about 80,000 posts a week, including many selfies of people in tanning beds, or “leggies,” as Dworzak describes them. “In Russia this is very popular,” he says.

Picture of a tanning salon.
An image from a solarium which appears in Dworzak’s book #siberianwintersarebrutal.

Once Dworzak got hooked on mining Instagram memes, he started checking to see how news events were being portrayed. He says that if he’d been in the U.S. following the Boston marathon bombing, he would have covered it as a photojournalist on the ground. Instead, he went to Instagram and followed various hashtag threads, finding surprisingly intimate images. Dworzak presumes that people living in Watertown, Mass., are highly visual people, which is why those particular Instagram posts were so compelling: “All these people were into photography—into Instagram,” says Dworzak. “Suddenly the Instagrammers get raided by SWAT teams and are [taking] better pictures.”

Picture of a SWAT team in a living room.
Images from Dworzak’s book #REARWINDOW, taken after the Boston marathon bombing.

The images in Dworzak’s books were made from screenshots he takes on his iPhone. He produced five sets of the books, which have only been available for viewing at the Magnum office, at a social media conference, and at one evening showing at the Tbilisi Photo Festival. Additionally, he does not publish, sell, take credit or profit from them, instead, likening the artistic process to “cutting out pictures from a print magazine and glueing them into a scrap book.”  The point is for them to exist as physical objects only, not online.

“They are a highly interesting visual record of some important issues of our time I simply do not want to be lost, so I want to preserve them in a physical form,” he says. In fact, he says he wishes more people could see them, because, “I am sure they would be charmed by a lot of the quirky things out there.”

Dworzak says he finds rewarding similarities between the way he hunts for pictures on Instagram, and the way he hunts for moments as a photographer in the field. “The only reason to hashtag [pictures] is because you want them out there. You want them to be found,” he says. “You get into people’s lives.”

That said, he also recognizes that the closeness is fake. “It takes patience, and what appears is ephemeral.  [The pictures] disappear. You can go back, but if something is happening there is such an avalanche of pictures coming in, you’re not going to get it.”

For Magnum’s Creative Director Gideon Jacobs, the books are unique because they capture a new “quotidian phenomenon…[that] our actions [are] being catalyzed by a desire to make [and] share images, rather than the other way around.” Jacobs believes that: “[Dworzak’s] books show that with the ubiquity and prevalence of image making and sharing…life itself can feel a bit like a means to a photographic end.”

Picture of two Instagrams.
Images from Dworzak’s book #REARWINDOW.

Motivated by the impulse to document, Dworzak thinks that what he finds on Instagram has value and should be preserved. “A lot of times I have to be the photographer who goes somewhere to represent people because they can’t do it themselves.” With these books, he is the curator in a visual world of self-expression, where poetic imagery can be uncovered.

And, it interests him that the photographs are not taken by professional photographers thinking like professional photographers. He adds that if Instagram had existed in 2001, the Taliban probably would have been on it.

“If it were Afghanistan 2001 right now,” reflects Dworzak, “the Taliban would be on Instagram.”

Picture of a Taliban fighter in a portrait studio.
A Taliban fighter poses against an idyllic landscape at a portrait studio in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Thomas Dworzak’s feature on Sochi, Russia, and the North Caucasus appears in the January issue of National Geographic. He joined Magnum Photos in 2000. View more of his images on the Magnum website .

Photos of Dworzak’s books were taken by NGM photographer Becky Hale.

There are 41 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. John
    January 21, 2014

    This is fascinating. A wonderful study of the instagram culture., and the social networks in general. Does anyone, and I mean anyone, really believe that the Taliban fighters that kicked the living sh*t out of our very capable Seal teams(feature film out right now) actually wore eye makeup?

  2. mary tisdale harmon
    January 21, 2014

    I was quite intrigued with these photos and appreciate the curiosity and mystery surrounding many of them, even the taliban or especially the taliban. I see no need to place udgement around the sharing of these photos, no hidden agendas, just a sharing. Great idea, its another vehicle to give voice to that …..which we do not know or understand

  3. Mike Barber
    January 20, 2014

    As we come to the end of the150th anniversary of the American Civil War I hope NG refrains from showing “terrorist” photos of the Slave holders who enslaved a whole class of people. I doubt the life of a slave was much better than life under those effeminate Taliban (they look as ridiculous as their reason for existing). While we are at it, should NG ban photos of Nazi Germans. Where would the banning of photos end? Would it help us NOT to see these photos of people who terrorized us during times past and present and future? I feel no more sympathy for the Taliban, Southern slave holders or Nazis, because someone published photos of them. As they have done since I was a child, NG is doing a great job showing us photos of worlds we would never likely see (or want to see) in our lifetimes. NG, please keep up your good, eye provoking work!

  4. Nanci Weatherhead
    January 20, 2014

    My goodness, all the moral indignation over……what? Social media participation is not a work of art or business. The pictures posted are not intended as more than enhanced conversation . It is neither personal, nor impersonal. It is simply a publicly broadcast “look at me, or what I have, or what I did, or what I found in cyberspace and posted cause I thought it was cool — do you LIKE??” So why get all funny because a guy finds, categorizes and formally presents pictures that no poster ever intended to do more than freely share? I appreciate that TD took the time to recognize and publish some interesting photos for a whole NEW social group of appreciators who would otherwise never have such a diverse feast of photographic images of how people choose to represent themselves and moments in their lives to friends and acquaintances, for that purpose alone. The things people post are, in my opinion, open to scrutiny, comment, sharing, ridiculing OR WHATEVER. It seems to me no different than taking cell shots of strangers for an article about “what people are wearing this season in this or that place”. Stealing such would require something like hiding in a dark corner of a fashion studio and photographing models whose photos actually ARE being taken by someone for a business purpose. I enjoyed the photos. Thanks!!

  5. Jakob
    January 19, 2014

    This is absolutely disgusting. Why in hell would any company glorify the Taliban? What good has the Taliban done for anybody? Whoever’s idea it was to post this article, glorifying these terrorist bastards should be brought to justice along with the rest of the Taliban by firing line or beheading!

  6. Fred Roach
    January 19, 2014

    We are a curious people. No matter how violent or insensitive their actions, we want to know who and why. These pictures provide partial answers.

  7. Cutter
    January 19, 2014

    This is absolutely the intention of the posters on Instagram. Why attach a hashtag if you don’t want others to see your picture? Want a modicum of “privacy” keep your account private and don’t hashtag. A 6 year old can figure that out these days. If anything, Dworzak is helping their the cause by increasing the exposure of those posters who choose to put their photos out there.

  8. michal
    January 19, 2014

    I love when people talk about things they really don’t know about. The original author/photographer owns each and every one of those images in question and their ‘rights’ have certainly been violated by them being published. National Geo has sunken to the level of the Enquirer.
    If this guy really wanted to know who took the IG photos, it would be easy on a social network to find out. But if he did that he wouldn’t get so much publicity. I think he should take a self portrait Taliban style and join them in his book. Art terrorist !!

  9. michelle
    January 19, 2014

    I agree with the detractors. This is not the use intended by the posters pr the social media site. And the guy is profiting. His own photography didn’t garner this attention, so his career floats on the backs of others who are neither credited or paid. And SHAME ON NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC for promoting him, and for having so little respect foe the people he took advantage of. You can’t say they deserved to be mugged because they weren’t smart enough to hide from this a criminal. Dark day for NG. Dark, dark day.

  10. Jerry
    January 19, 2014

    Any effort that serves to glorify barbarians, women abusers, culture haters such as the Taliban is unacceptable at the least. They should be marginalized, ostracized, eliminated, not glorified.

  11. Jamie
    January 19, 2014

    I think people need to realize that there ARE no “copyrights” to a picture or written piece unless a person has actually applied for and obtained a “copyright”, a legal process. People posting pictures on instagram have no copyrights or other rights to obtain credit for their pictures. They are putting their pictures out there for anyone to do with as they wish.

  12. Mike
    January 19, 2014

    I find it hilarious that people are up in arms about Dworzak’s compilation of snapshots he found on IG. Come on folks, the minute we publish a photo, send a text or email anywhere on a public domain, we give up our “copyright”. Welcome to the new world we freely consented to enter. Don’t like it? Then don’t post it. Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, … are NOT free. The price we pay, is loss of copyright. Do you want to copyright a photo? Then officially copyright it through a publishing agency. Dworzak is an artist in a modern media. I see no harm, and I enjoyed this article. I like Jim Richard’s comment: “Photographs really have come down off the gallery wall…”.

  13. Cathy Gample
    January 19, 2014

    I would be quite flattered if a photo of mine was chosen for Dworak’s “curation”. Uncredited or otherwise, my vision then becomes part of the greater worldview. Instagram is exhibitionism and voyeurism rolled into one anyway. Get a grip. This is as close to most photographers will ever get to being published. Enjoy the moment.

  14. karen kalpin
    January 19, 2014

    when ppl post their pics on a public site those pics are then ‘up for grabs.’ This guy chose to do something interesting with them. I am curious why several of the Taliban shown here are so………. efette? Seems unusual to me….

  15. Cutter
    January 19, 2014

    Get real people. Anything you put on social media is open for ransacking. You want credit? Publish your own book or sell your photo to a magazine. Very interesting work Dworzak. Carry on.

  16. Seb Isler
    January 19, 2014

    In today’s world we post every cr*p online for me that’s not personal and I think if you load pics up you should be aware that you give it out for free and everyone can use it or misuse it! Other wise think what you upload and publish.
    For me he did a great job and should get credit for it, its a form of Art

  17. Joseph Patterson
    January 19, 2014

    I am a professional photographer, and I am going to come to the defense of photographer Dworzak. He has been honest about the source of his photos; they were not identified by the originators, and they have made no claim of copyright, either explicit or emplied. Had he not compiled the photos, they would have lapsed into oblivion. No individuals were identified, but taken in their entirety, the photos document the human condition. It is this compilation that Dworzak has added to the photos, which they did not individually possess.

  18. Hans
    January 19, 2014

    Interesting article and work, I can see both sides of the copyright issues. I am a photographer and if my work was used without my consent or credit given, I would not like it. On the other hand, some of the work such as the Taliban photos, might have been impossible to credit, and I think the work is worth being seen. After reading all the comments, I admit this is a tough call. I wonder how many of those who actually viewed the works had any questions about the legal legitimacy for those works to exist? Might be an interesting follow-up.

  19. Myra Boyle
    January 19, 2014

    I would have been happier if he had credited the original photographers. I doubt he would accept anyone else publishing his photographers.

  20. Paul Ozov
    January 19, 2014

    Totally unethical. Not profiting? Pure appreciation of art? He IS profiting: appearance of his name on any of the slide presentations mentioned; on this page; clicks on his site — look as a tangible profit to me. More important: there are deeper ethical aspects than simply a formal copyright. I am quite concerned that NG approved this publication by Ms. Gabriner.

  21. Aaron E
    January 19, 2014

    To those who are shunning him for the photos of the Taliban from Kandahar, suppose you found a box full of amazing photographs, tell me you wouldn’t want to share them with the world!? The fact that he didn’t take them doesn’t take away from the fact that they are great photographs. And every great photograph deserves to be seen. The IG photo books he has curated, stop getting irate about those. Everyday myself and millions of people download or save photos taken by others without either their permission or without giving the photographer credit. The only difference is instead of saving them to our computers, or sharing them on Facebook or Twitter he has done something far more meaningful and physical. The books are more of a personal creation and far from a means to profit from others images. The only reason some of you have a problem with thie books is because Thomas has previously done well for himself and is known, if an amateur created these books there would be no discussion.

  22. Enrique Soto
    January 19, 2014

    Many people are crazy for the copyright , we all copy, using other matters is human style. well done, nice pictures, copyright go to hell

  23. Emilie de Brigard
    January 19, 2014

    This is not stealing. It is making meaning. More people should be doing it.

  24. Kris
    January 19, 2014

    *Please remember what you read: “he does not publish, sell, take credit or profit from them.” So there is no copyright infringement. I think it is an interesting concept and would enjoy viewing them.

  25. Keith lenaghan
    January 19, 2014

    I have no problem with the pics being stolen. The original pictures were no doubt taken by a photographer at the request of a customer who paid a fee. They were going to sit in a box gathering dust so were someone else’s waste. By using them, he hasn’t stolen them, he’s recycled them and given them a new value which we can enjoy…well done!

  26. konstantinos
    January 19, 2014

    I agree , the cult book not under his name.. But thanks to the collection mania of him we have an other view of the taliban-fighters

  27. iman
    January 17, 2014

    Alice, not profiting doesn’t mean you can still post in her without AT LEAST crediting the original photographer. I see the credit for the person who photographed the photographs in the book, but not the person who photographed the photograph. Now THAT is BS!

  28. Serene Lusano
    January 16, 2014

    This is a fantastic collection of images that he’s captured and discovered. I’m a fan.

  29. Alice Gabriner
    January 14, 2014

    To those who have commented about potential copyright issues, to clarify, these nine books are self-made and have not been published. They are not for sale or distribution. The screenshots taken on Thomas Dworzak’s iPhone are captured from open accounts on Instagram. Dworzak compares the process to cutting out pictures and gluing them into a scrapbook. This was an artistic exercise, not for profit. His intention was to preserve in a physical form a visual record of our time which he believes reflects important issues. We have updated the blog post to reflect these concerns.

  30. Jessii Powers
    January 14, 2014

    I cannot fathom why another artist would be totally ok with stealing other people’s images, whether the intent was to make art or not. This makes me want to delete my IG account and if it wasn’t for all the amazing people I’ve met off there and the way it’s totally turned my life upside-down, in the most beautiful way possible, I would. The fact of the matter is, I shouldn’t have to feel this way and this photographer, who is being featured by bloody NatGeo is nothing but a thief! Stick to your war capturing buddy.

  31. arif mahmood
    January 14, 2014

    I think this is not acceptable at all. The Taliban book is also not on. Its not his work and it should not be under his name

  32. James W
    January 14, 2014

    I can’t help but agree with a majority of the other comments here – isn’t this just profiting from someone else’s work? Regardless of the caveats of these social media sites (once it’s on our servers, you no longer own it) I find it awfully unjust to neither obtain permission nor give credit for 100% of the work that isn’t yours.

    Bad form, Peter, bad form.

  33. bonasa
    January 14, 2014

    Why not? I steal NG’s pics.

  34. Jim, just Jim
    January 14, 2014

    Curator? Hardly. The guy’s just a thief. Plain and simple.

  35. T.R.
    January 14, 2014

    So is mining a new way of saying violating other people’s copyright? Once he profits from it or devalued someone else’s work, he has violated copyright. He’s not making books and keeping them private. He’s showing these images in a public forum, where I assume money has changed hands.

  36. Clint McLean
    January 14, 2014

    So, I do really love these books though I would be interested to learn what Mr. Dworzak’s thoughts are on sort of stealing other people’s photos. I am guessing he doesn’t get permission from the photographers since he takes only screen shots of the images.
    What like about the work is that he dives into the oceans of images stored in social media and curates it into something. For all the images people upload, without some sort of curation they are generally pointless to most people – Dworzak adds greater meaning to them and in some cases makes sill snapshots ‘about’ something rather than simply ‘of’ something.
    …though I can’t help but wonder how he’d feel if people made books from pics on his website…

  37. bruno
    January 14, 2014

    does this mean it’s OK now to go and ‘curate’ photos from the Magnum website and make limited edition booklets of them that we can sell under our own name in a gallery?

  38. T.C
    January 14, 2014

    With this I feel like changing jobs, wouldn’t mind to be a photojournalist in the near future but as of present, I’m a photo freak!

  39. Lucas Jackson
    January 13, 2014

    How is this ok? Doesn’t it ignore just about every copyright law in the book? A photographer making a book using other peoples photographs without paying them seems really sketchy.

  40. libuse
    January 13, 2014

    Very interesting .It appears that patience and the desire to share images of life itself in a visual world,is both self expressing and poetic…a mark of a true artist.

  41. Jim Richardson
    January 13, 2014

    Photographs really have come down off the gallery wall and become part of everyday conversation, with all its wonderful quirks. This is about as real as you can get. Great.

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