Inspiration VS Infringement: The Stolen Works of Photographers

The painting by Luxembourg artist Jeff Dieschburg and the photo Singaporean photographer Zhang Jingna (zemotion) shot for Harper's Bazaar Vietnam, Nov 2017

On June 1, 2022, Singaporean photographer Jingna Zhang, known as zemotion, posted on Instagram that an artist had ripped off her photograph, which was shot for a cover of Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam, Nov 2017, without permission. The culprit was Jeff Dieschburg, who used Zhang’s work as a “reference” for his painting Turandot and won a €1,500 monetary prize. Moreover, the painting has also been bestowed the honor of being held in Commune de Strassen and presented to Hereditary Grand Duchess of Luxembourg Princess Stéphanie. As others confronted Dieschburg about copyright infringement, he emailed Zhang a statement defending himself. However, as Zhang pointed out, the photograph was not just a reference, as both works featured an almost identical model holding a rose. The only differences were that Dieschburg flipped the painting, altered the colors, and added a sword and earrings to the subject.

Zhang has been a well-known photographer, with one of her more recent works showcasing actor Michelle Yeoh for Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2022 profile. She has been very successful with her photographs, and she publishes them on Instagram for her audience to see. Nevertheless, she has never given legal rights for people to use her work without credit or permission. However, much to the dismay of the art community, the artist, Dieschburg, brushed off the claims that he copied Zhang’s work by saying that he is a figurative painter who needs reference materials and he only indirectly used Zhang’s work, as the person he had been inspired by had also previously used her work without permission. He explained that many artists use famous IPs and paintings in their work, and he then proceeded to mansplain Zhang about copyright infringement and transformative use. 

Zhang described her frustration with the situation by explaining that she is happy with people using her work as a reference for practice as long as it is credited and not for official portfolios or commercial gain. She noted, “If my artistic choices and creations have no value, then people ripping off my work should have no business referencing them, right? If others can identify the original work and email me about plagiarism and infringement independently, this is really just straight-up copyright infringement.” She added that there are many free online resources that people can legally use for references, but her work is not for exploitation just because it is on the internet.

Once the situation came to light on social media, another photographer, Bekka Bjorke, discovered that, without permission, two of her photographs were also used as “references” for the work of the same painter, Dieschburg, and lent support to Zhang. She posted her photographs next to shots of the paintings, and they featured practically identical models in the same clothing, the only differentiations being an added tattoo and the replacement of a flower with a cigarette and a pocket watch for one, and a simple flipping of the image with added text for the other. She shared on social media that she’s “not sure what a resolution looks like here, but … hope(s) the young painter can learn from this mistake.”

Many others on social media expressed their support for the photographers’ stolen work and outrage against Dieschburg’s blatant copyright infringement, while Dieschburg is still yet to apologize. To raise attention to the situation, Zhang tagged people connected with the Commune de Strassen, the culture center that held the painting, including the royal family of Luxembourg, who received the work. A person on social media also suggested tagging Dieschburg’s art school to raise increased awareness and accountability.

As a part of the responses to the situation, Zhang noted that the Strassen Commune’s organizer had deleted the Instagram post that showcased Dieschburg’s painting. However, Zhang added that they had yet to contact her about the situation, and she is unsure whether or not they will take action. As of late, Dieschburg has hired a lawyer, while Zhang recently hired Vincent Wellens, who stated that no complaint has been filed yet.

In this situation, many people were behind the photographs Jingna Zhang and Bekka Bjorke produced. There were fashion models, makeup artists, hair stylists, and wardrobe stylists who also worked hard to create the end products, such as Ji Hye Park (fashion model), Amy Evans (fashion model), Melissa Crosland (fashion model), Phuong My (fashion editor/stylist), Yoichi Tomizawa (hair stylist), Tatyana L. Harkoff (makeup artist), and Amanda McGahey (cosmetologist/SFX artist/body painter). Thus, Jeff Dieschburg caused disservice to the work of many in the name of producing art, when in truth, he just painted slightly altered copies of brilliant photographs. It is unfortunate to see that Dieschburg seems to not have learned from his mistake, contrary to Bjorke’s wishes.