Photographers worry that Twitter’s new image-consent rules will screw up their art.
Twitter now requires permission from the subjects of photos and videos published on its network. There are some implementation issues, but the intention is good. However, photographers, especially street photographers whose bread and butter is candid shots of strangers, are not happy. Would photographers like Helen Levitt, Gerald Cyrus, or Vivian Maier be if they had to get permission from every person they photographed?
“I can see why street photographers would be frustrated over Twitter’s new image-consent rules,” journalist Nikki Attkisson told Lifewire via email. “I would be frustrated too, as it’s easy to see how it curtails expression. I genuinely feel for them as a fellow purveyor of information.”
Twitter says the update will “curb the misuse of media to harass, intimidate, and reveal the identities of private individuals.” In our world, everyone has a camera, and it’s easy to post a picture of anyone online, and they won’t even know you’ve done it.
“Increasingly, everyone in my photographs are also photographers themselves. There is no expectation of privacy in the public realm; that’s literally what public is. I don’t really see that big a difference between a photo in a gallery and the same photo online,” writes English street photographer Nick Turpin on Twitter.
This would be great news, but Twitter doesn’t actually require permission from anyone. Or rather, it assumes permission has been given until an individual complains and asks for the image(s) to be removed. In practice, then, it may make little difference.
Also, Twitter is just one avenue for publishing images. Facebook’s Instagram has no qualms about letting people post photos of anyone they like, and any photographer can also use their own website, publish books, or exhibit in galleries. Plus, how many street photographers are there, really?
“Personally, I think Twitter has got this one right,” says Attkisson. “The reality is that street photographers are just a small fraction of social media users.”
Twitter can do what it wants on its platform, but the legal rights of photographers are interesting and worth a look.
“This Twitter rule is an overly broad interpretation of ‘right to privacy’ that has no precedent under the law,” attorney David Reischer told Lifewire via email. “The law has always deemed that recording a person in a public space is not an invasion of privacy and therefore not unlawful. However, recording a person in a private setting without their consent would be unlawful.”
In short, nothing has changed. Photographers still have the entirety of the internet to publish their photos, and legitimate street photographers—as opposed to the men who steal photos of pretty women in public places—can make their work available through all the usual means.
If the other social networks follow Twitter and make the same rules, or if Twitter and the other networks switch to a version where permission must be sought before publishing, candid photographers will have to rethink their options. But really, the lack of social networks never hurt the most renowned photographers in history anyway.
Perhaps a bigger concern is the abuse of these rules by those in power. Twitter’s rules have several exemptions for eyewitness accounts, media that is already publicly available, or images of public figures.
Until this policy really kicks in, we won’t know the consequences. Rich folks might have their people monitor Twitter for images and ask for them to be taken down. The police might demand images of cops abusing citizens be removed, despite the public-interest exemptions. It will all come down to interpretation. And—because Twitter makes up its rules and polices them itself—that interpretation is opaque.
While a small subset of photographers might not be that important, Twitter itself is an important resource for disseminating news from people previously unable to reach an audience. Today, photography is about much more than just art and good pictures, and its place in the law, and therefore in the policies of companies like Twitter, should reflect that.