I’ve thought about this in previous modules and wondered whether it was necessary or appropriate to ask subjects to sign a legal document which effectively confers multiple rights on me, the photographer, at their expense. I decided it wasn’t, in the context of work for a degree syllabus because the work would only be published on one website and the only prints made would be mine. I thought about some scenarios which might arise, in descending order of likelihood:
- The subject decides at some point that they would prefer their photograph not to appear online – in which case I would remove it right away. I wouldn’t want to upset anyone who has helped me. If I had previously obtained a model release from them, how likely would I be to say “tough, you signed your rights away”? I wouldn’t do that.
- They suddenly become famous and want to control their pre-fame pictures. I’d just let them.
- My photograph of them becomes famous, because I am a hugely successful photographer, and they think they should have a share of the proceeds of the best-selling book in which they feature. Negotiate. Or pull the photograph; I’m famous and I have plenty more.
As I mentioned, these are in descending order of likelihood with the chances of the last circumstance vanishingly small. So I have to balance the options – adopt a legalistic, probably anxiety provoking approach on the off chance it will be important sometime in the future or agree to keep the subject informed of their windfall (when I become really famous) and ask their permission if I want to use their picture later, letting them make a decision in the context of its use.
I’m being slightly flip about the fame thing of course and I know there are occasions when my work may appear outside the educational context. Perhaps I’ll get a show; maybe a short run self-published book; a TV documentary (whoooaah, hold on there…). I’d still want to ask their permission individually,
Two photographers who adopt this method are Jock Sturgess and Sally Mann. It might be thought that given their subject material they would be wise to seek permission each time a picture is used. But both subscribe to the notion that when a photographer and a subject make a picture it is a shared endeavour and as such the picture taker should not become a picture stealer. They don’t rely on like-it-or-not consent forms; they ask permission for every use.
Money has a big part to play here. If I’m paying a model for time I would expect their rights to be assigned to me for pay. But my subjects are giving their time and energy for free.
I understand that this can only work where the photographer retains control of the file or negative. If a picture is offered for sale through an agency, for example, the end user will require unencumbered rights. But for me, as a student and a producer of personal work, I feel that the release doesn’t suit the kind of relationship I want to have with my sitters at this stage of my rise to fame.
So if I do end up doing work where a release is required, I’ll use the document recommended by the agency or a template from the AOP
Just as a footnote, I feel there’s an element of irony here. Much emphasis placed on the importance of securing a ‘release’ from a subject, who is effectively handing over all power and control in the use of their image to the powerful photographer. The lack of agency accorded to subjects in the matter of their representation is an area of some concern.