It was travelling that aroused my interest in photographing people. Over the years, a series of journeys has taken me to a hundred countries and all seven continents. Driven by global curiosity and a passion for photography I have searched for extraordinary but honest images of the world. At first I was interested in anything and everything, and wanted to go everywhere. I photographed everything that moved - and most things that didn't. Then I realized it couldn't all be done, and anyway it wouldn't mean very much. The world was too large and varied, and life was far too short. I had to be more selective.
Gradually my focus shifted to the living world, and then on to human beings. Encounters with tribal people, and the harsh but colourful reality of their traditional lives, inevitably left their mark. Those in the Indian subcontinent, Tibet, Southeast Asia, the Amazon and Papua New Guinea were particularly memorable. However, it was the simple realization that the hopes and fears of these dignified people were basically the same as my own but obscured by cultural differences, and eventually led to a broader interest in photographing people everywhere. I had come home and finally found my niche, but still had too many subjects.
Photographing people is more about human beings than photography. Understanding a subject's circumstances provides a good start, but photographing volatile tribesmen in the isolated highlands of Papua New Guinea will always be different from working with your family in the back garden. Persuading a baby to stop screaming in a studio is also very different from hiring professional models to do nude work in a deserted farmhouse in Spain. Nevertheless some common threads run through it all and one of these is self-preservation.
When dealing with machete-wielding warriors it is certainly best to avoid disagreement. They are inclined to throw Nikons in the river, and have been known to kill people. Of course, babies who object to being photographed can also be formidable opponents. It is therefore essential to enlist the help of a parent - preferably mum despite what the political-correctness police may say. Naked models should also be approached with sensitivity, and often attract unwanted observers. But dealing with the rest of humanity is much easier. In most cases, though not all, it is possible to communicate in a civilized manner and hence agree objectives. It may even be possible to get some cooperation. But that is looking at things from a photographer's perspective - subjects' priorities are likely to lie elsewhere. Most will focus upon their appearance in the printed pictures, and the potential usage of their images. Unfortunately, photographers do not always know how images will be used at the time they are taken.
Release forms are an important element in a photographer's survival kit because they provide a convenient means of recording agreements made with subjects. They also serve as receipts and therefore eliminate disputes about payment. It is unfortunate that they are commonly known as "model release forms" because this gives the misleading impression that they are applicable only to professional models. So when should one use a release form? The simple answer is always - except where it is unnecessary or clearly impractical. Everything clear now?
Release forms are not a legal requirement - at least in the UK. There is no copyright in a person's features or body shape, and copyright in a photographer's work is automatically assigned to the photographer. Unfortunately that does not prevent the occurrence of disputes over the use of pictures. Photographers may find themselves sued for damages if subjects feel their images have been misused, or that their privacy has been abused. Subjects may also object to images being used in particular ways, such as on certain websites or in an advertisement for a particular product. The legal situation is complicated because different laws apply in every country. So let's start with the UK.
In broad terms a photographer is permitted to photograph people in public places without prior permission, but remember there is no legal protection from black eyes and broken cameras - just the possibility of redress at a later date. In private places it is generally necessary to obtain appropriate agreement before photographing people. The most significant factor is perhaps that of intent. Why did the photographer take the images, and how are they to be used? Nevertheless, assuming decency and honourable intentions, images of people taken in private circumstances can be used at a personal level without the agreement of the subject.
When images are published or used commercially the situation is rather different. Photographs taken in public places can be published without permission provided there is no intention to mislead. You can photograph your neighbour walking with his mistress, and publish the picture, provided the caption is not libellous. Newspapers and magazines use material of this nature all the time but are usually careful to report the facts accurately. However when photographs of people in public places are to be used in advertising, it is certainly advisable to seek formal release. Pictures taken in private, usually with the cooperation of the subjects, should not be published or used commercially without a written agreement. Cooperation will be based on an understanding between the subjects and the photographer. If someone later feels that this agreement has been broken they may be able to seek redress. Verbal contracts obviously increase the chances of a misunderstanding.
In other countries the situation may be quite different. France has particularly strict privacy laws and photographers have been prosecuted for nuisance, harassment, and even for publishing images taken in public places. Some less-developed countries may have little or no relevant law, but the situation on the streets may be further complicated by issues related to religion, culture, superstition, tradition and so on. Photographers must then feel their way and take the consequences. In many cases the best guide is simply whatever is reasonable. Put yourself in the situation of the subject and consider how you would feel. Would you object to being photographed, or perhaps have concerns about images being used on the Internet or to advertise margarine?
Since the public display of images is a key factor in determining the proper use of release forms, the photographer must also understand what constitutes publication. According to the dictionary, publishing is the process of offering material for public scrutiny. Clearly the scope of publication is also a factor. The front page of the The Times in London is likely to be regarded in a different light to a local photographic exhibition. Nevertheless, including an image in a public exhibition or club newsletter constitutes limited publication. A club website potentially crosses every national boundary and therefore represents global publicity.
So what should be done? In short, prudently worded and legally binding release forms should be signed wherever possible. If you don't believe me please refer to The Photographer & the Law, BFP Books (ISBN 0-907297-44-7). In the case of private shoots undertaken with the cooperation of a subject, the use of release forms is certainly good practice. I do not get involved in such situations unless the subject is prepared to sign a release. The signature of a parent or guardian is essential where anyone under 18 is involved. If any of the pictures might be displayed publicly, formal release is essential. Nude shots of anyone under 16 invite prosecution. For all other nudes it is good practice to sign a release form for each published image. Models may have strong views about how much of their bodies can be revealed and their consent will vary accordingly. In the case of images used for advertising the same strict principles apply. When people are photographed in public places it is clearly not possible to collect all their signatures and no one would expect this to be done. But if an image, which is to be published, includes a couple of dominant figures, it is worth seeking their release signatures. Finally, what of the tribal folk in Papua? Well, there are 680 languages in the one country, and the literacy rate is low. You try it!
So does it all seem over the top? I know it will to some people. Just bear in mind that it is not unusual for models to change their minds about the use of their images years after they are taken. I have personal experience of this even in cases where release forms have been signed. A typical situation arises when a young model acquires a husband or wife who finds previously taken images disagreeable. The couple then decide to make a legal challenge. This is arguably more prevalent in, but not exclusive to, the amateur world.
The existence of a signed release does not entirely exclude the possibility of disputes, but it does render them less likely and easier to resolve. It's a bit like fire insurance. Your house has never caught fire so why bother with it? That's fine - I don't mind! Survival is not compulsory.