Rights and wrongs

Two stories caught my attention yesterday – both involving knotty issues that pop up when people take photos of people.

In the first, model Gigi Hadid (or her legal team) launch a – let’s just call it ‘ambitious’ – claim that they can use a photo of her without paying for it. Forget about the laws of copyright, forget about the photographer’s moral rights, she heads into uncharted waters by claiming that the way she smiled and later, the way she cropped the image for her Instagram, gave her the status of ‘co-creator’, and therefore it was entirely fair for her to use it as she wanted.

In the second, your everyday Princess Meghan, Duchess of Sparkles, goes to watch the tennis, and in an ouroborean twist then becomes the story by making a clumsy attempt not to be the story. By which I mean her protection team went round telling people they couldn’t take photos of her (despite the fact that 25 per second were being blasted out globally every time the TV cameras swung her way).

Both of these have elements of the absurd. In the first, Gigi’s claim is laughable – that is just not how copyright works, and though it’s possible for copyright to be held by a creative collaboration who’ve put a picture together, there’s no question that the bar can be set as low as simply smiling to the camera. (Her later act of modifying the picture before reposting it merely serves to make the infringement even more flagrant – and therefore expensive – rather than being the act of creative genius that her imaginative lawyers are trying to claim.)

Meghan’s job is literally to turn up and be seen at things. It’s entirely understood that the pact in which a handful of individuals get to live in palaces, bedecked in jewels, involves their participation in acts of public observation. At a small, private garden party? Well, maybe not. But at Wimbledon? An event of mass participation, with cameras being wielded at everything of note? C’mon!

And yet both protagonists have their supporters. It’s probably one of the most common assumptions connected to photography (even though unfounded in any actual laws or rights) that you should be allowed to use pictures of you as you want, without paying. I touch some form of this perception in my event photography work monthly, if not weekly. It doesn’t matter how clearly you state the reality, the belief will always exist.

And yes, there is a point – even at Wimbledon – even in a genuinely ‘public’ place – beyond which the thrusting of a camera passes beyond courteous behaviour, and into being a real pain in the arse. There’s no rulebook for this, of course – no easy manual which will tell us immediately whether something can or can’t be done. It’s all nuance and grey areas, as with most things in the real world. Through testing, and judgement, and experience, we define what’s socially acceptable, and what’s not. There really isn’t an easy mapping of issues like this to blunt and clumsy legislation, believe me.

So it’s not like either of these cases are entirely without a germ of…something. I don’t know the precise terms under which Gigi’s shoot took place. What was agreed, or implied, or understood? There’s a complex coming together here of commercial terms (yes, money), permissions, agreements and rights of access. And though the precise arguments in her case are a bit bonkers, is it possible that there should still be some room for nuance? Was this a hired PR shoot her people had paid for? In which case, very odd that it became rancorous. The point of PR photography is generally to promote the subject, which she was clearly doing.

Or was it a photo call with the photographer knowing they’d get something of value, and this would form part of the industry dynamic that keeps her famous (and therefore marketable)? I don’t know. But you can see that in this latter case (which is possibly more likely) there’s more of a moral compact going on than just “I took the picture and you played no part in it and I will then control everything thank you very much.” In short, you can see the tension at play between subject and image-maker. I feel this every time I take a picture that I know might be valuable to me. Does that always feel 100% ok? Am I sure it’s always a perfectly equitable transaction? Of course not.

Similarly, is Meghan being entirely unreasonable by saying “hey you lot, I’m not opening anything – I’m not meeting anyone – I’m not on a tour. I’m just watching the game, and maybe I could just ask nicely and have an afternoon without a camera in my face all the time? Because once one of you does it, you’ll all be wandering over, and the world really doesn’t benefit from your souvenir gathering at the expense of my peace and quiet.” Social media and camera phones don’t mean that courtesy is dead, just that we’ve got to build some new approaches to take them into account.

Nuance. Compromises. Requests as opposed to laws. Rights, agreements and disagreements. The exchange of hard and soft value. This is the stuff that people photography is made of, and both these stories are worth more of a careful read than you might initially think.