Getty Images is a giant in the world of photography, another venture by Getty family members of oil money and museum fame. The internet database harbors millions upon millions of images and film clips, from stock photography for advertisers to iconic historic footage. The archives—which offer some free embeds as well as pricey subscription plans—hold photos of the first blows to the Berlin Wall, the Moon landing, and film of early airplane attempts. Filmmaker Richard Misek has created his 2022 work A History of the World According to Getty Images from film and images held behind Getty Image's paywalls. This 18-minute-long film is, in Misek's words, a “documentary about property, profit, and power.”
The film begins with a shot of a turn-of-the-century street teeming with horses and carriages. Later, tanks roll through Tiananmen Square confronting a lone man. In black and white, the Hindenburg crashes in New Jersey. A nuclear bomb explodes, icebergs crash into the ocean, and astronauts plant a flag on the Moon. Vietnamese citizens stare up at passing American military who film them from on high. These moments of the 20th century are not presented in chronological order, but rather as a hodgepodge of collective memory.
“The film explores how image banks including Getty gain control over, and then restrict access to, archive images—even when these images are legally in the public domain,” Misek writes on his website. Although many images “owned” by Getty can be found in the public archives of the Library of Congress, the expensive gatekeeping of public history and memory is a point of contention. In 2016, photographer Carol M. Highsmith sued Getty Images when they sent her a bill for using her own images which were previously dedicated to the public domain by donation to the Library of Congress. If everyone owns an image, how can one sell it?
Misek is “reflecting on archive images' own histories as commodities and on their exploitation as ‘intellectual property.’” He is interested in returning these recollections to the people, in part by using his legally obtained footage to create this film. The film will be available in the public domain for download and remixing as “liberated” images. His work also explores legacies of colonialism, gender, and oppression. It asks questions. Who is filming who? How can film be an expression of power? In both its internal and external critique, A History of the World According to Getty Images pushes back on commercialization and whitewashing of history and memory.
A History of the World According to Getty Images is a film that explores profiting off public history. It questions who controls the camera and the narrative.