A History Of The World According To Getty Images

Video essays can do more than review: they can rebel. They can comment but also foment revolution. A great video essay can do more than just generate insight: it can incite indignation. This outspoken and outstanding piece by Richard Misek is a prime example. In it, Misek calls out Getty Images and similar stock footage providers for profiting from moving images that should be freely available.


When you browse commercial image archives, you’ll come across iconic footage that is part of our collective cultural memory – from the Hindenburg going up in flames to the American flag going up on the moon. Those shots however are in the public domain, meaning all copyrights on them have lapsed (or were never there in the first place, as is the case with NASA footage of space exploration). Nevertheless, licensing these videoclips through Getty Images or one of their competitors is often the only way to get your hands on them. Neoliberalism provides ample opportunities for commercial enterprises to make money off public property and stock footage is no exception, as Misek demonstrates in his exploration of the topic.


Accessibility is a recurring theme in the writing and films of Richard Misek. He has signalled shortcomings in accessibility of VR projects, film festivals and theater performances. Misek regrets that the promise of digital technology (making the arts more accessible to more people) remains unfulfilled. This video essay stems from the same concern, because the business practices of Getty Images and consorts can be seen as a way of holding thousands of hours of historically important footage to ransom. In this video Misek liberates nine such clips from captivity: he traces their provenance, tells their stories, licenses them were needed or finds free high quality versions where possible, and fashions them into a short history of the world of commercial image archives. His account cleverly points out the irony that is often ingrained in the fuzzy footage, for instance how even newsreels made in 1960s communist China touting the Cultural Revolution are now commercially traded by Getty Images.


This video essay rebels. Misek finds the loophole in Getty’s terms and uses it to set free a handful of clips from their archive. He makes those shots, already in the public domain, available to the public in high quality. The trailer above only provides a brief glimpse, but the complete short documentary can be downloaded in glorious, uncompressed quality via the project’s website.