Blake posted an exchange between him and Michael Northrup about the ethical and legal problems of creating a book of photos of his ex-wife Pamela when she has stated she doesn’t want them to be published. The complicating detail is that she has posed nude for another photographer, Jack Welpott, in the past and had no objection to him publishing the photo without even asking. I thought I’d comment on this since it is a touchy issue that is touched very much by gender issues. I’m going to be very blunt.
(Also, Joerg didn’t mention the situation directly, but wrote a very good piece about the specific problem of women and consent in photography.)
I assume that Welpott asked her specifically to pose in that one instance and she knew that he intended it to be a published work. From a glance at Northrup’s photos, it appears that his photos were made more in the process of having a life together. Even though she knew he was a working photographer, I doubt that she understood at the time which photos might just be used as keepsakes and which might be published professionally. That Welpott never asked… well, two wrongs don’t make a right, do they? For all we know the fact that Welpott did not ask was a bad experience that influenced her decision to say no to Northrup’s book. There is a ton I do not know about the situation, but reading that exchange was infuriating.
It is a question of whether you override someone’s stated preferences. If they have explicitly refused permission, does it make any sense to make a case for implicit consent? People have the right to change their minds at any time, and it makes me a bit angry that any of us still have such a shaky understanding of this. To me, this argument starts sounding like the argument that as long as a person initially agreed to have sex with you in the first place, every other “no” given in the process of the act doesn’t count. It isn’t rape, it isn’t wrong if they said yes to begin with, right? Well, yes it is. It’s a grey area that isn’t actually grey at all. It’s very clear. No = the end. What is this hemming and hawing over whether it’s fair? It would be fair to respect someone’s wishes.
In this case, it’s not just about gender and it’s obviously not about bodily harm, but I think the mentality is the same in both cases. Anything else sounds to me like: “well, she had sex with him, so why won’t she have sex with me?! It’s so unfair!” Well, yes, if you presume that her body or image should be a public good to be “fairly” distributed. But it’s not. It’s her own image, her own body and we would like to think that we have some control over that. To construe this as censorship is just ridiculous.
It’s quite simple, isn’t it? If it were Northrup in Pam’s shoes, how would he feel about the book? But oh wait – that is the point. It doesn’t matter how he feels about the book being published, because no matter how he feels, she is entitled to disagree for any damn reason she pleases. The fact of the book does not offend me so much as the fact that situations like these are still considered a quandry with no obvious answer. There is a very obvious answer.
Gender plays a big part of my own reaction to this situation, but I think this level of respect should be extended to all people, at all times. There have been photos I would have loved to have used, but the subject thought they were unflattering, and I passed. Did I have to? I suppose not, but it felt like the decent thing to do, especially in cases where there is a personal relationship. I take a lot of pictures of my significant other all the time, but before I would publish or show them, I ask. Not because there is some law forcing me to, but because the fallout would just not be worth it. I love photography and art but it’s not worth damaging actual relationships over. I find devotion to art a terrible excuse for acting badly.
I get the impression that Northrup’s own emotions and close relationship with her are getting in the way of a rational response. There is no consent document, there is no verbal consent. Having heard an explicit no, what other doubt is there? Now of course, if the book ends up being made, I doubt there would be any legal consequences or even much moral backlash, but in my book that’s an asshole act. There are plenty of successful assholes, and many good photographers who are assholes, but despite the money and the talent, assholes they remain. I think this comment below Blake’s post sums up my feelings on the matter:
What puzzles me is that he clearly consulted her about using these photos. He must have, at some level, felt he should do so before proceeding. Why did he bother to ask her if he wasn’t prepared to respect her answer? He didn’t get the answer he wanted. So now its f’ her, on with my art? Not cool.
This indicates to me a mentality that presumes asking is respect enough. She should answer a certain way and if she doesn’t, she’s just off her rocker. Asking for permission was less an act of asking for permission than a way to confirm the validity of what he plans to do regardless of actual consent.
Blake seemed to have tried to hedge his bets by encouraging Northrup to make his own choice and pointing out the moral pitfalls, but it would feel better for me, as a female living in this world, to hear more men come down solidly on the side of “That’s an asshole move.” To even imply that the world deserves to see these photos because Pam is beautiful is disgusting to me. Does her beauty mean she has less say in how her image is used?
UPDATE: It may be important also to make a distinction between permission to shoot and permission to publish. We could say that she implicitly consented to the photographs being taken at the time, but whether she consents to their being published is a whole other matter. I don’t think that consent to shoot implies consent to publish. There are situations where a subject ould be fine with photos being taken, but unless both parties are very clear about specific use, it’s not safe to assume that you can do anything you want, at least not without getting a legal release that gives you that freedom. Very tricky where personal relationships are involved.
I’d also add that because images of Pam make up the totality of the book, it’s a very different beast than if one or two images were interspersed with photographs of others. In this case, her identity and image are central to the book instead of peripheral, and I can imagine that feels more exposing and personal than a couple of portraits being thrown into a more varied work.