Monday, August 25, 2014

Doing what's right vs doing what is your right

My project, Day & Night has suddenly been receiving a lot of attention. It's a little weird for a project I shot most of four years ago, but I'm not complaining. It started when the site, Lens Culture featured my project, American Flea, in the spotlight position on their home page. This drove people to my profile page where they found several of my projects, including Day & Night. Within days, excerpts from Day & Night appeared in dozens of widely viewed web sites and blogs like Beautiful Decay, Dark Silence in Suburbia, Design Taxi, and sites around the world in countries like France, Portugal, Greece, England, Spain, Russia, and South Africa.

After Huffington Post did a story on it last week, I got an urgent email from one of the people in the photographs. This person told me that they had radically changed their life since I had shot their portrait, they had found Jesus, and they were terrified that if the wrong eyes saw the picture they would lose their job and it would ruin their life. They asked if I could please get their portrait taken off the Huff Post site.

What was I to do? Whenever I shoot people for Day & Night, they must sign a model release before I take out the camera. Besides signing the release, I emphasize that my intention is for mainstream publication, not some shady little web site that hardly anyone will see. I could not have been clearer. I wanted everyone who participated to be completely comfortable with the process and results. They were, after all, opening up the most intimate details of their lives to me and to public scrutiny. And I'm grateful to them for the trust they show me. I want the pictures to be honest and direct, but respectful. I believe they are.

So- I have every right, legal and otherwise, to include this person's picture when the project is reproduced.

But. . .

What is my human responsibility? How can I, in good conscience allow the possibility of my photograph having a major negative impact on someone's life? How can I say, I'm sorry, but you're not allowed to change your mind, especially if it inconveniences me? And, would Huffington Post even care if I asked them to remove the picture in question?

As it turns out, Huff Post was willing to remove the picture. (Thank you, Katherine Brooks.) And I removed the picture from the Day & Night section of my Lens Culture profile that Huff Post linked to. I told the concerned individual that I would not include their picture in submissions to any mainstream web sites or publications based in the US in the future. I would not include their picture in any exhibitions in their home city. I also made it clear that the picture is already available in many many web sites and blogs around the world and I have no control over who sees them or re-blogs them. This person needs to be prepared and there's really nothing I can do about it at this point.

I suppose this is a bit of a compromise. I haven't promised to do everything in my power to remove all traces of this person's photograph from Day & Night and its circulation. But I'll try to keep it out of places where it could conceivably do damage. And I'll sleep well tonight.



  1. I’ve worried about this happening with my work, as well. I recently had a former model contact me, saying that he wanted to do another nude photo shoot with me. But then he said that he wanted to be “covered up” because he had “gotten shy” since our last shoot. So.... nude photo shoot. Covered up.

    I filed him under “C” for “Confused,” and declined to do another shoot with him -- for fear that he would later come back after having become even more shy.

    Anyway, it sounds like you made a great compromise here and did the best you could do. To do anything more would not only be beyond your power but would also risk voiding any future contracts you had between you and your sitters, because someone could always come back and say, “Hey, you took down all this guy’s pictures, in spite of the contract – Why not take down mine?”

    As you said, the gentleman in question signed a contract. So you would have been well within your rights to say, “Sorry, the pictures are all mine to do with as I please.” But you didn’t, and he knows that.

    My guess is that he will be thankful for what steps you did take, and he will understand what is out of you control. My gut feelings is that this will be the last you hear about it. On the off chance that his pictures do come to light, and he tries to make a big deal of it, I’d just caution not to let him bully you about it. At the end of the day, finding Jesus or not, we all have to take responsibility for our decisions.

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