There’s been an interesting case recently, concerning this photograph by Philip-Lorca diCorcia:
The gentleman in this shot, Erno Nussenzweig, protested against the taking of his image and attempted to sue di Corcia.
It seems to me, there are various issues underlying this. The court ruling stated that di Corcia fits into an established tradition of street photography, begun with people like Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Klein and Robert Frank. In some respects this is correct, but in other respects it fails to recognise the way di Corcia set this up: using hidden equipment into which people unwittingly walked, which is different from walking the streets of Paris with a secreted Leica. di Corcia’s method is perhaps more like surveillance than traditional street photography – although therein lies its interest: the results, and the facial expressions, were different from conventional candid work. I admired his project, although the images I most liked were not that of Nussenzweig, but of the young lady and rain-protected gentleman here:
What this case exposes is the ethics of grabbing an anonymous persons image, for artistic perusal that may possibly have commericial and financial implications. We’ve seen this before, in the famous Dorothea Lange shot Migrant Worker. In the late 1970s the subject, Mrs Thompson, complained that she had not personally benefited from the famous image:
I am pleased about this ruling, because despite the concerns about privacy it protects this tradition of photography. I wonder though, if an unknown person would be treated with the same sympathy. The judge assessed di Corcia on the basis of his professional artistic reputation, which does not in itself mean very much in the sense that an anonymous photobloggger could do something very similar, with a comparable integrity, and yet would probably be regarded very differently.
In 2006, we live in a ‘surveillance world’, very different from the old-school era of people like Cartier-Bresson. I read somewhere that the UK is particularly notable, having the highest density of CCTV technology anywhere in the world. di Corcia’s project was effectively a mini CCTV installation, albeit that it used stills cameras rather than video or moving film. It was thus an apposite piece of work, in relation to our contemporary world. I also wonder about the ethics of the subject-complainant. What were his real motivations, given that the US has a notorious litigation culture where payouts can be substantial. The outcome of his legal action is that his image is now far more famous, even infamous, than it originally was; it began as art photography for the enjoyment of a select few, and is now a world-wide photograph disseminated widely on the internet. As with the famous Che Guevera image, Nussenzweig’s image is now being circulated outside and beyond its original context, thus changing the meaning it initially had. I wonder, if the commercial value of di Corcia’s photo has been changed by this.
Nussenzweig also referred to a religious objection to recorded images, reminiscent of the recent cartoon outrage of world-wide Moslems – which involved terrorism, murder threats, and the deaths of over thirty people on the basis of a dictate that satire and criticism should be prohibited: contrary to the enlightenment free speech values of the secular West. So I am heartened again, that the court ruling rejected what is effectively a theological complaint in a non-theological context (with further questions about what exactly is supposed to be prohibited – normally construed as images of deity or prophets, not believers). If he’d been genuinely concerned about some kind of “religious” dictate (in my opinion, childish nonsense), then he’s responsible for making the situation far worse.
With the internet in particular, and the almost instant and world-wide dissemination of images, we can have legitimate anxieties about public photography. But I’m pleased about this because the judge’s decision affirmed the value and legitimacy of candid photography, and old-school art photography values. It will also help affirm and protect the rights of photographers in the future.
I was inspired by the lighting effect of di Corcia’s project and attempted something similar, when I saw this moment in London:
- although it was a spontaneous shot, technically difficult to achieve, and I admit it possibly works better in black and white, which was not the intention because it’s the colour/lighting that is especially beautiful: