I am yet again intrigued by the topic of authorship. Who has the right to a moment, to a capture, to an occurrence? Does the person who captured that moment by snapshot or film have a right to that moment because he captured it? He essentially created it. Otherwise, it would have gone by as an unnoticed moment in the passing of time. Or does the person in that moment have a right to himself, to his own … being at that moment? Perhaps …. is it that because the subject was the one out in the open, doing that thing at that time, he willingly allowed himself to be captured?
I recently heard a story of a man with CouchSurfing who was attempting to capture one of the less glamorous sides of New York, the homeless people on the street. And just as he was capturing snapshots of, ‘the perfect model’ as he said, he promptly got beaten up and yelled at as his ‘photo subject’exclaimed, ‘I’m not a fuckin’ tourist attraction.’ ‘This is my life …’ Is what I can hear ringing behind the words of such a statement. Although being a self-proclaimed-wanna-be-photographer myself, I side more with the man who beat him up for taking his picture! But do we really have a right to photograph what we want? Essentially, its the stealing of a moment, or … is is it just the capturing of a moment in time? And it really is often stealing. But who has the right to that photo, the person in it, or the person who took it?
I mean, do we have a right to photos of ourselves? I was riding along horseback in little ol’ Bavarian Hills of Germany, on an American Quarter Horse, in a western saddle, plaid shirt, braided hair and American cowboy boots. (Don’t ask me how I ended up in full American-West attire in Germany, it was a rather coincidental occurrence, I’d just as happily have ridden a Bavarian Warmblood in an English saddle ) I see the urge to take the photo; the man who suddenly spotted me on his leisurely stroll through the countryside probably thought he’d been transported back into an old West movie on a Bavarian backdrop. He’d probably only seen such a phenomenon in Western films. But as he saw me approaching on this sunny day, hills behind me, sun beating down on the quarter horse’s shiny golden coat, he fumbled so quick to take out that camera, scare the horse I was on, and essentially then came up to me getting close-ups of me riding this horse! It was rather unnerving. Shouldn’t I be asked for such close up pictures? Or does he have a right to photograph what he wants because I’m the one gallivanting around in the open looking so out of place on my own accord?
Another example, I was in Hamburg, Germany a few months ago standing on a busy street outside of a perfume store and waiting for my friend to come out. I was probably there a half an hour; heaven knows what she was doing in there. I found it entertaining to people watch all the hoards scurrying through this busy area. After taking a few pictures myself, I realized there was man who had parked himself not too far off in front of me, had his massive professional Nikon camera perched on the bend in his elbow, as if he was ‘just carrying it’ and yet, aimed right at me, and I saw the lens snapping picture after picture of me. Even as he realized that I had realized he was taking pictures of me. I took a moment to pause and stare at him right in the eye, as if to challenge his confidence in such an act, and essentially, I wasn’t sure what to do! He kept right on shooting. Is it okay to steal pictures of people? I almost felt violated! As if I had suddenly just become a subject. I was a notional being in a picture that will never actually be recorded as a person, but as a picture to use in some compilation to use his portfolio. Or if he is a famous photographer, (and he certainly didn’t look like a tourist with that big camera) what if those pictures of me, back up against the wall and big sunglasses end up in some advertisement somewhere, as stock photos. I of course didn’t say anything, not knowing what to confront him with … ‘um excuse me … you are … stealing my … picture?’ No idea! Do I have a right to my own … image, standing out in the open for everyone to see me? I put myself there, and it was not as if I want making an attempt to conceal any part of my image. I was allowing my actions, of leaning against a wall, to be viewed by the public. I find the ownership and authorship of such things an intriguing topic. I think I gave up the right to myself as soon as he snapped that shot and it popped up onhis camera.
I wonder if your couch-surfer had a right to those photos, or if the homeless person really did have that right to his privacy … living on the street in the open like that, he essentially lives in the open, allowing the public free access to what should be his personal life.
I noted the other day the same phenomenon of loss of identity through pictures while looking at the new collection of the 2011 spring fashion trends. Elegantly written under the model in her extravagant attire was the name of “Gucci” or “Armani” or “Christian Dior” … essentially no credit to the model wearing the clothes. She has become a subject. A model for photography, a model for clothing, and has become, what she is wearing. Models are a different subject because they have consented to, and are in fact being paid lots of money to give up their identity for the sake of a photo capture. They seem to revel in the anonymity of their perfect bodies and make-up done by other people to look like the idea image of a woman from some … fashion designer.
Google Maps in another example, contested by the angry mobs of people whose houses show up in fairly current images for everyone on the Internet to see. Or … by the person who happened to be crossing the street or getting into their car as the Google Maps guy drove around with his camera, filming snapshots of the world. If the people are angry that the front of their house, and things in their windows are suddenly so publicized, how is that different than the people that walk by their house everyday with constant free access to such a view. Do they have a right to the view they create? Essentially they leave it there in the open to be viewed. On this subject I find it hardly rational to say that the world should not be able to view what is already out in the open.
Certainly we have the right to photograph nature, right? Who owns that piece of land, and what if he says he doesn’t want a piece of his property photographed unless he too can benefit from it.