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Surfaces and Strategies – Molotov Man

“Molotov Man kept appearing and reappearing, used by different players for different purposes.”

– Susan Meiselas

(How a Photo of a Man Throwing a Molotov Cocktail at a Soldier Became a Symbol of Revolution in Nicaragua, 2017)

In the late 1970s, Meiselas travelled to Nicaragua.  The young photographer was keen to make sense of the struggle between the long-standing Somoza dictatorship and the socialist Sandinistas fighting to overthrow it.  Her work was sympathetic to the cause of the Sandinistas and she was able to gain the trust of the revolutionaries and was able to photograph them at close quarters.

Meiselas photographed Pablo de Jesus “Bareta” Araúz lobbing a Molotov cocktail at one of the last national guard fortresses (figure 1).  The image became ubiquitous in Nicaragua following the conflict and was a symbol of the success of the revolution.

Figure 1: Meiselas. Nicaragua, Esteli. 1979

In 2003, Joy Garnett based on of her paintings on the Molotov Man (figure 2).  She cropped and painted the image, removing the original context and all reference to Meiselas.

Figure 2: Garnett. Molotov Man. 2003

Meiselas’s lawyer contacted Garnett with a cease and desist letter claiming copyright infringement and “piracy” of Meiselas’ photograph. Many of Garnett’s peers were following the course of events that unfolded following the intervention of lawyers.  A group of her peers launched a solidarity campaign, re-appropriating the original image into their own work. In 2007, both artists spoke to Harpers Magazine about the dispute.

As someone who re-appropriates and references existing photographs and artwork within their own practice, I was struck by a few things when reading the article.

Firstly, Garnett’s statement (2017) that she “saved the most promising images in folders…and I let them sit for a while so I could forget where I found them” really bothers me.  I find this quite an arrogant statement in that she felt that she did not need to acknowledge that her painting was influenced by Meiselas’s photograph. A simple credit acknowledging the source of the image could have presented this being such a big disagreement.  Instead, the telling of Garnett’s ‘story’ and the subsequent Joywar campaign have aggravated the situation further and to some extent fuelled Garnett’s ego.

I sympathise to some extent with Meiselas and her unhappiness that the image was use without the contextual setting that she deemed so important to the narrative. However, she needs to be realistic here too.  Once the image has been published on the internet, there will be always be a lack of control over how your images and paintings are used.  It is so difficult to control how everyone else not only views your image, but how they may use it in the future.  The use of lawyers could be seen as a bit of an overkill and heavy-handed, especially when the image had been re-appropriated in several different ways before Garnett used it.

If my published work was appropriated and used in ways that striped of context in a similar way, I would feel quite flattered that my work had been inspirational to another person.  I would expect credit to be given to the source.  If no credit was given, I would contact the person directly myself, rather than use lawyers.  If the work was completely re-contextualised like the way in which Jeff Mitchell’s photograph was misrepresented in the UKIP campaign.  In this case, I would lodge an initial complaint myself, before seeking legal advice to rectify the situation.

This article reminds me that I need to be mindful and thorough when using other people’s work to influence and inspire my own, as well as being prepared for what could happen to my images once they have been published.


Garnett, J. and Meiselas, S. 2017. [online]. Available at: http://fdm.ucsc.edu/~landrews/film171aw09/readings_files/OnTheRightsOfTheMolotovMan.PDF [accessed 03 June 2017].

How a Photo of a Man Throwing a Molotov Cocktail at a Soldier Became a Symbol of Revolution in Nicaragua. 2017. 100 Photographs | The Most Influential Images of All Time [online]. Available at: http://100photos.time.com/photos/susan-meiselas-molotov-man [accessed 03 June 2017].


Figure 1: Meiselas, S. From: Brief note: The travels of “Molotov Man”. 2017. Savage Minds [online]. Available at: https://savageminds.org/2007/02/11/brief-note-the-travels-of-molotov-man/ [accessed 03 June 2017].

Figure 2: Garnett, J. From: Leesean, View. 2017. “Response to “On the Rights of Molotov Man””. Lee-Sean Huang [online]. Available at: http://leesean.net/response-to-on-the-rights-of-molotov-man/ [accessed 03 June 2017].


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