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  • Writer's pictureJo Sutherst

Surfaces and Strategies – Monkey Selfies

Figure 1: Slater. Monkey Selfie. 2011

The monkey selfies are a series of selfies taken by macaques using equipment belonging to the British nature photographer David Slater.

I became aware of these images during a day spent with David Slater in mid-2014. He is local to me and we agreed to meet at Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust for a day of photography and discussion.

Slater explained to me the complex legal battles that he had been involved in and at that time, it was still an unresolved issue.

In 2011, he had been in Indonesia. He set up and left his camera unattended intentionally and a curious macaque, took Slater’s camera and began taking photographs—some of the forest floor, some of other macaques, and several ‘selfies’. Slater published the photographs under British copyright on his return. The images were picked up and hosted by Wikimedia and other organisations.

This sparked a copyright row over who owned the photographed. PETA filed for worldwide copyright and sought sought a court order that would allow them to administer all proceeds from the photographs for the benefit of the macaque. PETA claimed the macaque was a male called Naruto, but Slater has always maintained that the macaque is a female called Ella.

Even though the images were set up and taken on Slater’s camera, his claim of copyright was disputed by scholars and organisations around the world. The dispute was based on an understanding that the copyright was held by the creator. The dispute centred around whether or not a non-human creator could hold copyright.

Slater was very passionate about the dispute which had him on the brink financially. He told me he had lost over £10,000 in income, plus the legal costs.

In late 2014, the US Copyright Office issued an updated compendium of policies. It included a section that stated that it would register copyrights only for works produced by human beings.

In 2016, a US Federal Judge agreed and ruled that the macaque cannot and did not own the copyright of the images.

By calling it the ‘monkey selfies’, Slater found a way to successfully promote his images, but found himself being challenged over the ownership of the image. Wildlife photographers around the world have watched this case closely, as it is common practice to use triggers and sensors activated by animals to take photographs. The macaque that pressed the trigger did not know what he was doing and was just playing with the equipment.

My day with Slater was fascinating and I was in awe of his resolve to take on the big international organisations who were trying to take what was his.


Figure 1: Press, A. (2017). PETA sues to give monkey the copyright of selfie photos. [online] The San Francisco Examiner. Available at: [Accessed 17 Jun. 2017].

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