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AP cancels sale of NFT depicting migrants on a boat amid criticism of profiting from suffering

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The Associated Press (AP), which sells non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of its photojournalism, recently canceled the sale of a video clip depicting migrants crowded together on a raft. This move comes after the independent global news organization received criticism for profiting from human suffering.

The AP has an NFT marketplace, powered by blockchain provider Xooa, that launched this year. An NFT is a digital asset stored on a blockchain, on an encrypted ledger, making it unique to its owner. The marketplace offers images, including some Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, and video clips taken by the organization’s photojournalists. Proceeds from the sale of NFTs, which range from $219 to $1,799, help fund future projects.

The piece that received backlash for being listed was a top-down perspective of migrants crowded on an inflatable raft in the Mediterranean Sea, awaiting rescue. It was captured by photographer Felipe Dana.

In a since-deleted tweet, AP used the term ‘drop’ which is popular in the NFT space to announce the forthcoming sale of the clip. Critics thought it was an unfortunate choice of wording given the current refugee crisis in Europe.

‘This was a poor choice of imagery for an NFT,’ AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton said. ‘It has not and will not be put up for auction. The tweet promoting it was also deleted.’ AP’s Discord server for their NFT Marketplace was also incredibly active on Thursday night. Users demanded an explanation from AP’s staff about the sale.

Journalist Tony Webster was able to participate in the server’s channels and capture screen grabs of the conversations. He confirmed that photographers were consulted about selling their work as an NFT.

‘AP director says photographers have to opt-in to Associated Press NFT sales and they get a 12-60% cut of the sale, paid in crypto,’ Webster continues. ‘But for photojournalists who have passed away, their family gave approval and it went to charity.’

While some believe that NFTs are democratizing the process of selling art and profiting for creators, others are raising ethical issues. News outlets and photojournalists grapple with deciding whether or not they should sell, and profit, from images of human suffering.

According to The Guardian, ‘Dorothea Lange’s celebrated Migrant Mother image, for instance, was intended to illustrate its subject’s Depression-era struggle. But the woman, Florence Owens Thompson, later described feeling “exploited” by the portrait, which did nothing to aid her financially (and sold at auction in 2002 for $141,500).’

That being said, The Guardian acknowledges that in order to compete with Google and Facebook, they and The New York Times need to sell copies of their articles and some photography as NFTs. The AP, for the record, did not cite this reason for opening their marketplace where most of the items aren’t related to any human suffering.


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