A legal and ethical history of photography
Daniel Girardin + Christian Pirker, November 1, 2010
Michael Light, OAK / 8.9 Megatons / Enewetak Atoll / 1958, 2003_© 2003 Michael Light
Michael Light, OAK / 8.9 Megatons / Enewetak Atoll / 1958, 2003_© 2003 Michael Light
Authority is also exercised through the control of reproduction rights. Nowadays, photographic collections and archives of 19th and 20th century work have become financial and historical treasure troves. First of all, this concerns the original prints bought by museums and private collectors that are part of a thriving market which has seen accusations of forgery brandished for the first time at public auctions. It also concerns archives and documentary collections that are often in the hands of powerful companies such as Corbis or Getty, or of a variety of public and private museums and institutions. These collections bring together millions of images that are financially exploited through the control of reproduction rights. For several years now, museums and institutions all over the world have tended to transform the photographs in their possession into commercial assets, thereby seriously affecting the laws and ethical principles that govern public policy.

Most museums demand payment for access to images in their collections even when these pictures are not protected by copyright. This practice has become wide-spread institutional policy. It is true that museums face
heavy financial burdens for the scanning and storage of their collections and that they suffer from the reduction of support from the State and local authorities. However, the high prices involved have become an obstacle for scientific and cultural publications. They make research difficult and have a direct influence on the cost of both books and access to culture. Surprisingly, prices are often higher for a photograph that is not protected by copyright than for contemporary work.

Todd Maisel, The Hand, 9/11, New York, 2001_© Todd Maisel
Todd Maisel, The Hand, 9/11, New York, 2001_© Todd Maisel
Leaving aside issues such as artists’ rights, the right to exploit an image and political policies, why are certain images appreciated, or even venerated, while others are censored or prosecuted, freely distributed in certain circumstances but prohibited in others? This exhibition and the publication that accompanies it attempt to answer some of these questions. The exhibition and the book are the result of many years of research but neither is exclusively concerned with legal or ethical issues. Above all, the aim has been to confront a choice of photographs with a number of legal and ethical questions in order to show how a given society relates to images of itself at a particular historical moment. It is an attempt to grasp how these representations have been perceived, the interpretations they have been given, and finally to understand some of the issues associated with the photographic image. The examples that have been chosen give a clear understanding of the principles underlying photographic practice in a wide variety of fields, from the middle of the 19th century to the present day.

Anonyme, Abou Ghraïb, Irak, 2004 © DR
Anonyme, Abou Ghraïb, Irak, 2004 © DR
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