A legal and ethical history of photography
Daniel Girardin + Christian Pirker, November 1, 2010
Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987_© A. Serrano. Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987_© A. Serrano. Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Beyond appearances

Faced with the atomization of knowledge and a flood of information, we are often called on to express an opinion about a subject for which we have neither access to primary sources (how many of us read a judgement before giving our opinion on the validity of a sanction?), nor the required scientific knowledge (who is able to give a considered opinion on the question of sexual maturity?). Nevertheless, in our “Conversation Society”, people freely express their opinions, condemn, praise, vote and discuss a whole range of issues that affect everyday life. Moreover, when opposing points of view are involved, these discussions can develop into the sort of controversies dealt with in this book. Conflicts of this kind, therefore, often contain both objective facts and subjective elements that originate in the prejudices of a particular culture, period or group, or that are related to personal beliefs. For this reason, and in order to illustrate the wealth of opinion associated with these controversies, we have drawn our source material from a wide range of public discourse and from information that is easily accessible: on the one hand primary sources such as legal decisions and depositions; on the other (and more frequently), secondary sources such as press reports, readers’ letters, blogs, websites and various syntheses.

Jock Sturges, Christina, Misty and Alisa, North California, 1989_© Jock Sturges
Jock Sturges, Christina, Misty and Alisa, North California, 1989_© Jock Sturges
As a result, if the treatment of these controversies contains inaccuracies or even errors in relation to the objective truth- if such a thing exists- it nevertheless attempts to illustrate as clearly as possible the public debate that interested us. Secondly, as Schopenhauer stated, we believe that “someone may be objectively right concerning the issue at hand while being wrong in the eyes of others and, sometimes, even in his own”. Indeed, “how the objective truth of a statement and its relative importance are appreciated are two different things”. This is certainly true when comparing public opinion with the decisions of a court of law. The party that wins a case is not necessarily in the right but manages to present arguments that prove to be more convincing. As a result, despite the authority of the decisions made in court or elsewhere, doubt and a critical attitude are an appropriate response to each of these controversies. Not only that, such a response is essential since although the battle may be over, the debate often is not.

Annelies Strba, Sonja in her bath, 1986_© Courtesy Galerie Anton Meier
Annelies Strba, Sonja in her bath, 1986_© Courtesy Galerie Anton Meier
When a conflict becomes a controversy, it is an indication of attitudes and sources of tension in a society at a particular moment. A controversy is like a mirror in which the convictions of a community at that time become visible. Confronting a photograph with its historical context enables us to understand an epoch, a culture or a group of individuals. Moreover, while these controversies teach us something about the past, they also reveal something about the present. Indeed, a photograph in itself is always the same, fixed and unchanging whatever environment or period it is seen in. It may have provoked debate at a certain place and time, but what are our own reactions to it, here and now? When looking at such pictures, it is interesting to compare our reactions today with those of others in the past. We could also attempt to classify these controversies according to themes since certain issues arise regularly, reflecting age-old philosophical questions such as what is good, true and public as opposed to what is reprehensible (evil), deceptive (false) and egoistic (private)? Other pictures can be grouped together through their value as testimony or legal evidence. In the case studies we have dealt with, although some of the questions involved may seem minor or trivial, they are nevertheless exemplary since they allow us to examine the issues and discuss them in an unacademic and unsentimental way.

A brief overview of these themes shows that whatever the genre concerned (documentary, fashion, reportage, art or science), and irrespective of whether we are dealing with portraits, nudes, photomontage, interpretations or transgressions, every photograph conveys meaning. What interests us is how this meaning is perceived in changing historical circumstances. How a photograph is judged in a court of law depends primarily on the way it is read or interpreted and this reflects the dominant ideology of the moment.

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