Portions of this column were originally written for the April 2011 edition of News Photographer Magazine.
Mark Loundy is a media producer and consultant based in San Jose, California. Full bio.
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Press Photographers Association.
April 2011, Volume 101
By Mark Loundy
"The difference between moral dilemmas and ethical ones, philosophers say, is that in moral issues the choice is between right and wrong. In ethics, the choice is between two rights."
When a gunman killed nine-year-old Christina-Taylor Green during a failed assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Tucson photographer Jon Wolf remembered something from his files. Something that was potentially very valuable.
What Wolf had in his files was more than a portrait of the dead little girl; he was also confronted by an ethical choice. Since portrait subjects rarely request rights agreements, Wolf owned the copyright to the girl's image — an image that was being sought by every news organization on the planet.
Even though Wolf had the law on his side, he decided to head-off any disagreements by having the Green family sign a release and letter acknowledging that he owned the copyright to the image.
According to a story in the Tucson Citizen, Wolf's attorney then contacted a number of media organizations that had used the image and threatened legal action. Blowback does not begin to describe what happened next. The Green family characterized Wolf's actions as being in, "poor taste." They said their, "intent was not to allow others to profit from the Jon Wolf image but to allow the media to portray our daughter in the best light possible and to tell her story."
Wolf backpedaled in a statement on his blog saying that his intent had always been to raise money for charity. "At no time did I intend to profit personally from this tragedy." The children's charity contacted by Wolf declined his offer to donate a portion of the proceeds from the image. Several hundred people joined a "Boycott Jon Wolf Photography for suing over Christina Green's photo" Facebook page.
Wolf finally threw in the towel and announced that he was halting all legal action.
A nationally known photo editor asked me what I thought of Wolf's actions. After talking it over with my former newspaper editor wife I wrote the following:
"Although there is an aroma of taking advantage of a grieving family, I don't see what Wolf did as much different from what all journalists do when they make money with stories about the misfortune of others. Did the New York Times send their pro-rata revenue to Haiti from the earthquake story?"
Regardless of Jon Wolf's original intentions, he was certainly guilty of insensitivity. For a portrait business with strong local ties, this can be tremendously damaging. For the Green family, this was one more thing to deal with during a time of unimaginable tragedy.
Please let me know of any particularly good, bad or ugly dealings that you have had with clients recently. I will use the client's name, but I won't use your name if you don't want me to. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Please include contact information for yourself and for the client.Leftovers
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