It’s difficult to talk about on-line privacy without first acknowledging that the very idea is a fallacy. Regardless of what the law says, regardless of what agreements have been signed, and regardless of what we might prefer to believe, when an image enters the flow of data on the web, it is, by the very nature of the medium, no longer private. As photography makes the transition from the world of objects to one of free-floating information, it becomes the sole responsibility of a picture’s original owner to understand this. Those owners are the gatekeepers, and they alone are responsible for the consequences of cutting the ties of ownership.
That people need to learn the limits of authorship and ownership in the digital age is a given, but this doesn’t excuse artists from certain ethical responsibilities when considering images found on the web. But how do we draw the parameters of these ethics? Unlike laws, which are murky enough in matters of privacy and authorship, ethical guidelines are by default amorphous and hard to pin down. While it may seem a radical proposal, with the possible exception of instances where a database is hacked or a storage device lost, an image uploaded onto the Internet is, as I see it, fair game. Certainly in the case of the Marc Adelman piece at The Jewish Museum, the individuals posting their pictures were adults capable of understanding the limits of control inherent to the Internet. It follows that Adelman was within his ethical rights to use the images.
There are of course many exceptions to this rule. Does a woman in a photo posted unbeknownst to her by her ex-husband have a legitimate gripe against artists who might stumble across the image and re-contextualize the photo into their own work? One could make the case that a decent person wouldn’t put up a fight if asked to remove or even destroy the work. Conversely, there may be times when an artist feels it’s within his or her ethical rights to resist pressure to self-censor. Would Adelman and The Jewish Museum have been so quick to take down a piece that contained images of neo-Nazi sympathizers who felt their privacy had been invaded? I suspect not and, frankly, I hope not too.
In the end, it’s really a game of chance where the artist checks in with his or her conscience, rolls the dice, and hopes for the best. But one would hope that while playing this game, artists don’t edit themselves for fear of offending. The Internet is just too large a database of fascinating source material for artists to resist, and, as it’s extremely unlikely that they will, I suspect our culture will be the better for it.
What are the ethical concerns for artists who appropriate images from the Internet? To what extent should artists consider privacy, the personal safety of their subjects, and First Amendment rights?