Artist Stole Photos for $15,000 Public Art Installation

Here’s a tip for the digital age: if you’re commissioned with $15,000 to create a public art installation in a large city, don’t steal photos from the Internet and pretend they’re your own. That’s the mistake one well-known artist in Canada recently made, sparking a good deal of controversy and embarrassment.

A couple of years ago, Calgary artist Derek Michael Besant was commissioned by his city to create a temporary art exhibit that aimed to make an underpass “more neighbourly” as part of the “4th Street S.W. Underpass Enhancement Project.”

Avenue Calgary Magazine reported in 2015 that Besant — a man who formerly headed the drawing department at the Alberta College of Art and Design for 16 years — visited the underpass with a camera, recorder, and notepad, photographing and interviewing passersby to capture profiles of them.

“I didn’t want to decorate anything,” Besant said at the time. “I wanted it to reflect something about the site. I thought the context of the place was more critical to address than put a picture of something in there.”

His final artwork, titled Snapshots, was a series of 20 giant Polaroid-style photos installed on both sides of the underpass. Each one contained a blurred portrait and quotes given by subjects Besant interviewed.

Photo by Derek Michael Besant
Photo by Derek Michael Besant

“We encounter all theses different groups,” Besant told Avenue Calgary Magazine. “They’re certainly concentrated in that one corridor. It’s a real a cross section of the city.”

Except the photos weren’t what Besant said they were.

Late last month, UK comedian Bisha Ali was contacted by a Canadian friend who had noticed her face staring back at him in the Calgary underpass exhibition.

Despite the blur applied to the photo, Ali recognized it as this photo that had been taken of her by Jayde Adams:

Surprised, Ali began investigating the exhibition. She soon discovered the project’s website and learned that it was a government-funded art exhibition that had a public art budget of $20,000 CAD (~$15,600).

After finding more photos of the installation, Ali realized that she recognized quite a few of the other faces in the photos — they were other comedians that she knew.

Comedian Sofie Hagen then confirmed that it was her in one of the photos.

At this point, Ali knew she was definitely onto something.

After some more sleuthing, it was discovered that Besant had lifted the photos from the program for the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival of comedy — that’s why so many of the faces were of faces that Ali recognized. Nearly every face was eventually matched to a comedian in the program:

As word of this dishonest exhibition spread and controversy grew, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi requested an investigation into the exhibit, Maclean’s reports. Besant responded by advising officials to take down the artworks.

After consideration, Calgary decided to take down the art last week. It appears Besant’s website has been taken down as well.

Update on 12/9/17: Artist Derek Besant has publicly apologized, saying he thought the photos were “already out in the public domain.”