October 29, 2003
Public photography moral dilemma

After bold and brazen statements about taking pictures in public, I've got a moral dilemma I want to ask you about:

While taking some photos in a very public place in London a little while ago, I encountered a young, drunk woman with a young girl beside her. The woman declared she was the little girl's older sister, but she was fairly obviously drunk and the little girl didn't seem all too comfortable with the relationship. Still they were happy to be photographed (even asked me to take some pictures of them), only then to ask if I had some spare change.

The resulting photo isn't great photography art, but I think it would be fair to say that it conveys interesting expressions and disturbing emotions, and I'm not sure what to do:

Fearing I might have encountered something that belonged to child protection services rather than internet/photoblog publication I haven't done anything about the photo. Now I'm asking for your opinion...

Should I send it on to some child protection agency? (UK residents: where?)
Should I publish it?
Should I just let it be?

Comments pro and con will be counted. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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Initial feedback on instant messenger is:

Get a model release next time!

Received loud and clear. Will do...

Posted by: Anders on October 29, 2003 07:36 PM

The words "model release" only occupied the theory part of my photographic vocabulary until I moved out of Norway. In the UK it's more common and there are plenty og model release form examples.


Posted by: Håkon Styri on October 29, 2003 09:14 PM

The human experience cannot be distilled into forms and printouts. You know that famous photo of the little naked girl running out of a napalmed village in Vietnam? What if the photographer had thought to himself, "Well, maybe I should see if that little vietnamese girl can sign this model release before I take her picture..." The moment would be gone, the photo missed, and the millions of people who saw the photo and thought for just a moment on how horrible war really is, would never have seen it.

Now, that said, model releases are all well and good, but isn't there some sort of provision for 'news' reporting? I mean, they don't get a model release from each recognizable face of protesters when they are being photographed. I think if what you are doing is a form of 'journalism' then isn't there some way for you to take pictures of what is happening in the world around you without having to carry a handful of little forms around?

I'm not sure, I'm not a photographer, and I don't know the laws in Norway and the UK, let alone in the US, but it seems unfortunate that you have to quell your artistic instincts in favor of forms and releases.

About the child protection services thought... The moment may be passed on that, its hard to identify people on a photo unless they've been convicted of something in the past, and just being drunk with your little sister around may or may not be a problem... I'm sure you'll make the right decision though.

Posted by: sam on October 30, 2003 06:02 AM

Having seen the picture, I do think it has artistic value, an expression of urban moral decay,perhaps? To be honest, my worry/dilemma would be for the little girl. Children can't choose their parents or family and she'll be portraied as being part of that decay. It's just sad. Children should have more privacy rights, they can't really freely choose where or who to be with.

Posted by: Claudia on October 30, 2003 09:48 AM

Having been a person that at one time in my life would have have been easy to spot drunk in public I have only sympathy for the little girl. Children so often are the victims of the bad choices that adults around them make. As far as child protection goes I don't know. I mean being intoxicated in public with a child while a bad thing, may or may not be an indication of abuse especially if the adult is not her parent. Hopefully the intoxicated woman wasn't driving if she was then that is a different story. You say the asked for money. Did you give them any? Where I live there are a lot of people who call themselves homeless and the ploy is ask for food or money. I often find myself throwing a quick couple dollars their way or even sometimes heading to a nearby fast food joint and buying a quick meal for them. People have told me that I am nuts to do this but I do it because at that moment I see a need (whether real or false) and am moved to help. I guess that when we observe people for whatever reason we will from time to time find situations that disturb us and that being disturbed is part of our moral fabric. A lot like the emotions evoked when we read or watch a movie just more intense since it is real life happening around us. As far as publishing the picture goes I see no problem with that especially since you shared the feelings it evoked. In my mind telling that part is sort of like value added and makes the work more significant... more human.... more real.

Posted by: dakach on October 30, 2003 02:25 PM

Well what about the "Personuppgiftslagen"?
A homepage is not like a magazine - it is not legal to put somebody's picture on the internet - I read about young boys who take pics of girls' asses (with their mobile phone camera) and put on the internet, it was in Expressen and it said since the girls could not be identified it was not really illegal, but if you can identify someone, then it is...

Posted by: anna on October 30, 2003 07:10 PM

«You know that famous photo of the little naked girl running out of a napalmed village in Vietnam? What if the photographer had thought to himself, "Well, maybe I should see if that little vietnamese girl can sign this model release before I take her picture..."»

Unfortunately, that doesn't make sense. You don't need the release to take a picture. You may need it in order to publish, however.

Deciding whether to publish or not covers both legal and etical issues. The outcome is likely to be different in different countries.

Posted by: Håkon Styri on October 31, 2003 08:15 PM

Be careful what you stick your nose into. That little girl might love (and be protected by) that drunk more than she'll ever love (and be protected by) the foster homes and foster mothers (and fathers and brothers and uncles and boyfriends...) they could force her to live with if you whisper a word in the wrong ear. If you are really worried about the kid and her mother (or sister or aunt or whoever she is), find out about them before you call in the government forces.

Posted by: Eeksy-Peeksy on November 4, 2003 09:56 AM

The legality is one that a lot of "reportage" photographers hide behind. The more important issue is that of the morality and ethics of posting an image of someone that conveys a misrepresentation of the reality of the situation. (Which is the issue of photojournalistic photography... it is taken as truth, when it is merely the photographer's perception of truth.)

A.D. Coleman has written very cogently about this very topic. I would suggest reading his works on the subject (found in "Depth of Field"), as I think you might find relevant information there.

I hope this helps, and good luck with your dilemma.

Posted by: Nabil on November 12, 2003 01:27 AM

At 6. of novebmer 2003 the The European Court of Justice made it clearly that its not legal to publish material on a website unless you have the right to do so or the exposed person is a private related person or family.

Two related links is (norwegian only) http://www.datatilsynet.no/dtweb/art_1337.html and the "Judgment of the Court of Justice in Case C-101/01" http://europa.eu.int/cj/en/actu/communiques/cp03/aff/cp0396en.htm

The most important effect is that it's not legal to post pictures / personal information on a website and expose it for a third person without a spesific premission to do so.

Posted by: Håvard on November 26, 2003 06:01 PM

I think it's still legal in the UK to photograph people in public places without having to ask. Unfortunately, it's not quite like that in France. A candid shooter will be met with a lot of angry "Vous n'avez pas le droit" (You don't have the right).. and this attitude is backed-up by a law. The wonderful tradition of Bresson, Doisneau, etc. seems to be forgotten..

In general, law or no law, there will always be less candid shots of muscular men and more of women/children:)

Not acting furtively and smiling can make a big difference - and really is the way to live life, too.

Posted by: Ben on January 23, 2004 07:21 PM

Most people would just let it be; but if you really care, you should have something done. Reporting to child protection agency would be a good of you Anders!

Posted by: Rod Kratochwill on February 19, 2004 02:11 PM

The Link that Harvard gave above regarding 'The Judgment of the Court of Justice in Case C-101/01' does not appear to relate to the photographs used, only to the information that accompanied it.
It was the use of personal information that was the problem, the photographs next to information only compounded the situation.
It's a data protection issue rather than a photographic one. That's how I read the report anyway.

Posted by: Jeremy on December 9, 2004 12:37 PM
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