Though it seems like a pain, getting a model release signed is good for both photographer and subject. Artist Pughazhenthi was only too happy to sign for me… in his own special way.
Meet Pughazhenthi. He’s really special. Born without arms, he is nevertheless an artist. A ‘toe painter’, to be precise, though his talented feet create beautiful handicrafts as well. He’s also stood first in India’s Tamil Nadu State swimming competition for the differently abled, and holds a Masters in Economics and a Diploma in Computing. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”, he proclaims. I’ve often said this too, and I believe in the adage wholeheartedly.
But this is not what I want to write about today. Capturing the image above reminded me of something quite different: the importance for photographers of gaining informed consent. The principle was one I first learned during my social science research methods training, prior to doing PhD field research in India. My study involved conducting over 100 in-depth interviews with complainants and defendants in dowry-related domestic violence and death cases, and every conversation probed the intimate details of something that was extremely sensitive for my interlocutors. I had to be sure that those who’d be sharing their stories understood what the process would involve, and what would then be done with the information they gave me, and that they were happy to agree to this.
The need to secure informed consent applies just as much to photography. Ok, perhaps not for those who know the images they capture will never go further than their own computers and photo albums, and that they are intended for their own consumption and for sharing with close family and friends who will never do more than look and admire. If one has even the vague thought that an image of their may sooner or later end up in the public domain, then I believe the subject of that image has the right to know this and to consent to it voluntarily, if s/he so pleases.
Somehow, photojournalists seem to get away without going through the motions on consent, and it does not help that buyers of editorial photography tend not to require it. The next thing you know, the image of some hapless individual is all over the Internet, and what makes matters worse is that the content of the text that accompanies it is often far from empowering for the depicted person. Victims of this kind of behaviour have been known to react by filing lawsuits. We can very well assume that this could be a possibility where we know our subjects are connected to the wider world through the Internet and other forms of media. Travel and even humanitarian photographers are often big offenders where they assume their subjects are not so well plugged in. Even where a photographer has no intention of being demeaning towards the person s/he photographs, I still believe that person has a right to be informed of the photographer’s intentions and to choose whether or not to agree to them.
This principle is what Pughazhenthi reminded me of as I shot this image of him signing my model release form. All too often, I see images depicting disadvantage, poverty, destitution, desperation and various other assorted forms of misery. More effort seems to be expended in making the viewer recoil in fright or disgust than in showing individuals’ dignity in spite of their circumstances. I’ve watched, horrified, as photographers enter slums, hospitals in poor neighbourhoods and so on and simply snap and move on, without so much as an indication of “may I take your photograph?”. Perhaps this is to ensure the scene remains ‘genuine’, but I would counter that this idea of ‘genuine’ may represent no more than the photographer’s misguided assumptions on a scene about which s/he knows little.
In this situation, I could so easily have depicted Pughazhenthi as a hopeless case: a man born without arms, lost and feeble in an unsympathetic world. Indeed, for a while after I arrived at the vocational training centre where I met him, he was just sitting, not doing any painting but quietly watching as people milled around, attending to the white man who had entered their midst. If I’d quickly snapped a photo without introducing myself or asking for permission, I could have grabbed an image of him looking bemused and incapable if I’d so desired. Many photographers who behave like this probably know that their subjects would then never sign up to the use of such images. So they just shoot and run. They deserve to get sued, I say.
Admittedly, it’s definitely tedious to go through the consent form / model release process. I came away from my last weekend with around 50 such forms, and am now spending a great deal of time scanning each one and then identifying who is who from my Lightroom catalogue and copy-pasting a small headshot onto each one, before filing it as a PDF. In spite of it feeling like a labour, I do it religiously as I believe it’s a matter of my subjects’ rights. And for those photographers who are less interested in this, at least they can protect their own backs against the possibility of lawsuits this way.
By the way, for those who’re interested, the image above is the first shot I’ve published using Canon’s state-of-the-art EOS 5D Mark III camera, my new baby. I hope you like it!