The ethics, laws and freedoms in using citizen photographers and citizen subjects

This is the newsletter from Day Three of the Salzburg Global Seminar`s Power in Whose Palm, The Digital Democratization of Photography. A longer version can be read at the Salzburg Global Seminar website here

Jessica White
What ethical, editorial and intellectual property challenges are arising as a result of new technologies? How are photo editors, photographers, web platform managers and society as a whole dealing with these complex issues?

Within this key debate, there is a balancing act of human rights with copyright/moral rights (right to property). Photographers have control over the reproduction of their work, but it has only been recently that subjects have had the rights to prevent the publication of private images.

The right to own an image is a hot topic in contemporary times, especially given the speed with which images can be spread, often with little care to attribute the original owner, leading to heavy law suits. Many of these lawsuits aren’t about the big media suing individuals for sharing their images, but the reverse.

In 2010 when the earthquake struck in Haiti, freelance photographer Dan Morel, created a twitter account to upload his photos of the disaster. He was surprised to see that the following day one of those photos had been used and circulated by European press Agence France-Presse, without his permission.

The law case went on for two years. He argues he had given permission to Twitter, but not to everyone else to download that image and use it without his permission. The final decision was that AFP was liable for copyright infringement. So the photograph is free to circulate within the Twittersphere, but once it goes outside the Twitter pearly gates, dangers ensue.

Arguably as a result, there has been a lot more caution towards photographers and citizen journalists operating within social networks. When a snap-shot of a burning helicopter that crashed in London emerged on Twitter long before any professional journalist got to the scene, the citizen journalist then received a flurry of comments, ranging from representation in the negotiation of that same image with the media, to potential offers, as well as direct messages via Twitter from the journalists themselves that recognized the photo’s news value. Despite the number of people encouraging him to make a profit from his photo, the citizen photographer declined – he did not wish to profit from the fatal crash, choosing his ethics over legal action.

Legal action or the threat thereof has for some, celebrities in particular, led to the “Streisand Effect.” In requesting photos to be removed, either on grounds of breech of privacy or even for simply being unflattering, as both Barbara Streisand and Beyonc√© found out to their detriment, the images became much more popular than before the action was taken.

These examples raised questions about freedom of expression, and how the notion differs in prominence vis-à-vis privacy law from country to country. But the global media is acting in a certain way that sometimes has a lot more influence than a single country. If billion-user Facebook decides to act in a certain way, undeniably there are large ramifications across the public sphere.

Sarah Parsons brought to light complex issues surrounding photography and privacy, which arose with the emergence of the hand held camera in the late 19th Century.

Working more closely with subjects using a hand held camera became a large part of getting interesting and sometimes, iconic photos. But what rights do and should the subjects of these iconic images, such as Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ have, especially when someone other than the subject is benefiting from the image?

Photographer Nan Golding has often referred to her photos as “an open love letter” but do these images remain such when the naked subjects are sold at Christie’s for a high price? Or does the meaning change and just become equivalent to porn? How important are these ethical considerations in photography?

Some photographers admit to now practicing self-censorship when they take photographs, based on how people may respond. Is the digitization of photography putting limitations on our practice of photography? Time will tell.