Privacy for the French
Annabelle Lever talks to Camille Simon
France is traditionally thought to have the strictest privacy regime in Europe for photographs. Camille Simon is a Picture Editor of L’Obs, the most prominent weekly news magazine. Annabelle Lever is a political philosopher and author of On Privacy. We brought them together to talk about how the French attitude to privacy influences the photographs that are published.
AL: Do you think the protection of privacy constrains your work at L’Obs?
CS: No, not so much actually. It depends on who you are talking about, a public figure or random people?
AL: For example, do you have to think twice about publishing photos of Dominique Strauss-Kahn or even of Sarközy. You have this amazing photo of Sarközy running in the July issue and he really looks horrendous, he looks haggard and anxious and actually quite aggressive.
CS: We won’t think of the image of the person so much as the story we’re telling. For this picture, the article was about Sarközy’s running, so it works well. As he is a public figure, he knows he is photographed when he runs so it is not a problem. He will usually run with a few photographers following him.
AL: What about when Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested and there were photos of him in handcuffs. I remember French people were really shocked.
CS: In French law you are not allowed to publish a photo of somebody who is in handcuffs, arrested. We can’t publish those pictures. So I don’t think we did, maybe some were in a more tabloidy magazine. They know they can be prosecuted for that though. I remember, for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, we didn’t have many pictures that we could actually publish. We would use mostly general pictures, portraits of him, but nothing from the affair and from the time he was arrested.
AL: And demonstrations, people on the streets you feel perfectly comfortable publishing? In the same issue as the Sarközy photo, you have these amazing photos of the Action Française, extreme right group. There is this blonde guy shouting and it’s really quite military and scary. Then you have this guy in the Bois de Bologne doing karate type moves. Do people like that complain after you photograph them?
CS: As long as they are in a public demonstration the right of information takes precedence to the right of privacy. If you are in a public place and something happens, like an attack or an accident, and you are in the picture, you can’t really complain about being shown there. I mean lots of people call and try to say, ‘look, I didn’t agree to having my face published at this event, I was there but I didn’t want my face to be in the newspaper’. Most of the time when people complain it is not really a problem of their own image but they just think, ‘Maybe I can make money out of it’.
AL: If they didn’t asked for money would you feel differently? I often look at newspaper pictures, especially on TV when there has been a bomb or something awful and you understand on the one hand it is really important to convey the disaster, the panic, the fear, the distress. On the other hand it seems shocking to have people, who are ordinary people caught up in something awful, to have their picture taken in such a way and then broadcast to potentially millions of people, where it’s going to be stored now on the internet, it’s going to flash up maybe for the rest of their lives.
CS: Sure, but we pay attention to the dignity of the person. So for instance, after the Bataclan attack we decided not to publish pictures of any victim or anybody injured where you could see their face. I remember we received so many pictures, there was one picture that was of the street and we didn’t really identify what it was and when we did we just took it off, because it was part of a body
We receive all the pictures from the agencies and the independent photographers, so they have their first filter. The demonstration of the far right Action Française, that you were talking about before, is different because it is a public event and they were claiming that they would be part of this movement, and for the last picture, the one of the two guys training in the woods, that was reportage made by the photographer with those guys. We called the photographer to make sure he had the rights from the person and he did, as long as it was in the frame of this action. We would not take the picture out of that context. This is what we have to be careful of: the dignity of the person, the context and also, in the caption, not to insult them or reveal something private. It is illegal as well. They would sue us and they would win.
AL: Do you have to get a lot of legal advice or by now do you know it so well that you are more or less confident?
CS: We do have a service so if we really have a doubt we can always ask them but we don’t ask them a lot. It really depends on the case, for instance we never publish photographs of kids, under eighteen, so sometimes it is difficult when we are not sure about the age of the person, even in a public demonstration because sometimes with teenagers you are not sure – ‘is she seventeen or eighteen?’ – that would make a difference. Then we need written agreement from the parents. Otherwise, we are careful of the contextualising information, and would be more cautious with the photo if the article is political. Sometimes we can’t take all of the kids away so we will blur the face or put a black shape. We do that quite often now.
AL: n the UK we’ve had very few limits on what could be photographed or indeed said. For example, two cases that really come to mind, I don’t think I have ever seen an equivalent in France, was the photos of David Miliband and Ed Miliband eating. These catastrophic photos of David eating a banana and Ed eating a bacon sandwich are sort of used to imply that these people are so bizarre and so incompetant that you couldn’t possibly have them as your elected representative. I don’t get the impression you would do that in France. Even politicians are allowed to eat and make a mess without this being publicly displayed for everyone. Is this just a question of taste? Do you think in France it would be considered undignified as a journalist to use that sort of photo?
CS: I don’t know, maybe. It depends what you want to say with those pictures. If it is just to put them down? Or make them uncomfortable because they look ridiculous? I think for us there’s no story. A tabloid would be happy to publish them I think, to show they look like normal people, or whatever, but for us, if you don’t tell us anything with the picture then there is no point publishing it.
AL: I think in the UK it probably played to the idea that these guys had spent all their days in politics, that they were not like us, that they couldn’t even eat in a normal way. And those sorts of pictures, which are meant to capture a personality even if it’s not quite true, are very important in Britain. I don’t know if that is something that you think is important in France, to use a photo to really capture the sense of a person, particularly a public person?
CS: Yes, of course. Especially on the cover if we have a portrait we will try to have something really strong to reveal their personality. We will also choose a photographer that will be able to do that.
AL: It’s difficult isn’t it because nowadays public figures are so trained with their appearance and there is so much pressure on them. It must make it very difficult to take and choose photos if you feel it’s a form of publicity for them.
CS: Yeah, that’s why we try to make our own portraits and not just get the pictures that are already made, which is not always possible, if someone is not available or wants to control their image. It has changed a lot with Macron for sure, we have less freedom. We published a portrait of Macron on the cover in January and we made the cover about immigration: black and white with barbed wire, which was really not flattering for him, and we still decided to do it because it was a strong message. We know that now we will not be able to get an interview with him. We have almost jeopardised our connection with the president by doing this. There are politicians that we know, if we publish an unflattering picture of them, they will not want to talk to us any more. This is a political relationship we have to keep, or not, with the politician.
AL: And this is becoming more common?
CS: It looks like it. I have seen two presidents. It is probably worse with Macron compared to Hollande who was more public. Everything is controlled. Even the main photo agency that is following the president is owned by a friend of Brigitte Macron. Most of the agencies don’t have access to some of the president’s public events any more, so this is a big problem. It’s really new in France because before the presidency was pretty accessible, even in private. Now all the private moments are orchestrated.
AL: Can I ask you about that because obviously one of the questions about the press and press photos is the way in which they can invade privacy but the other thing that’s interesting is the way they shape our own images of what it is to be private, of what our houses should look like, of what sort of things we should aspire to. How do you think about the role of your photographs in shaping people’s desires and their identities?
CS: Oh, good question. I never really think about it actually. We are really mostly inside the news so what people think or project about themselves I don’t really know. We work a lot with our journalists, so we will decide with them how to get the most powerful image, and also with our art directors because it will also depend on the layout, so it’s really a team effort as we collect the pictures. There are six of us in the office making these choices.
AL: Oh, there are six of you. Are you very concious of having personal preferences and having to limit them?
CS: Yeah, sometimes you know that the picture which is your favourite will not fit with the purpose of the article, so sometimes that picture will not go out. Sometimes you can also fight for it.
AL: It’s intuitive?
CS: Yes, its not objective. We also talk to each other a lot in the office: ‘OK, I have a doubt about this one, what do you think?’. Sometimes, when it is really difficult to make a choice, it’s good to have the vision of a colleague. Sometimes, we really don’t agree with each other and have little fights altogether.
AL: Do you ever feel a photo is too revealing, that the person is too vulnerable and that maybe you shouldn’t publish it? You should have something that’s a bit less emotional, a bit less open?
CS: It depends on the context and what we are saying about the person. If it is an assignment for instance and the photographer managed to capture this during the photoshoot, that means the person also decided to give it to the photographer...
AL: It’s tricky isn’t it. Photographs can give you this horrible realisation about someone, of malice or cruelty or sadness, that you wouldn’t have caught if it hadn’t been frozen. In what way is it right to say that the person really gave it to you because they might not have been aware of it at all?
CS: That’s always been the question of the integrity of photography: what do you take in a photograph? What do you steal? What’s been given? For us it is about what we want to say with this picture. So, if we want to show the person is really fragile and we’ve got the image that works with it, we will publish it. If it doesn’t put them down, that’s not a problem I think.
AL: So you are conscious of having a story already that you have to illustrate rather than the photo being the story?
CS: It always works together. We don’t choose the best picture to put on a wall or in a gallery. We choose a picture that works with an article and a headline and a sense of what is said. If there is a picture that I love but it really doesn’t fit with the text then I take the picture I like less but works better because they all have to work together.
AL: When you talked about photos stealing something, it’s true in a funny way. I mean even when someone has consented to sit... How do you think about this sort of ‘stealing’, trying to get behind the façade?
CS: Maybe I should put myself more often at the place of the person.
AL: Oh, you don’t?
CS: Well, not really, I keep my distance I guess. Otherwise, it would be a never ending story. All the privacy in a portrait is really relative. I mean everybody sees something different in a portrait: ‘he looks sad, he looks depressed, he had a bad day’ and someone else would say, ‘oh no, that’s just his usual face’. It’s so difficult to answer this question.
AL: It is. I’m still struck by that one of Sarközy. Especially maybe because in most of his photos he always looks energetic and brash. There he really looks in a way quite hunted and I wasn’t sure how deliberate that was. Whether you were struck by that as well?
CS: I don’t know. It is a small picture in a small text. Maybe we wouldn’t have it on a full page. It is a bit anecdotal the picture, it’s like, ‘OK, Sarközy is running, oh now he is tired, he is getting older’. It’s not a big deal. We wouldn’t have published this picture if he had cancer or something like that.
AL: You may be too young to remember this, I was quite young at the time. There was a scandal when Jimmy Carter collapsed while running. It was in 1979 and it really was amazing, there were these photos, and I remember him with his headband on and in shorts and then this completely collapsed expression on his face. You never really saw politicians running. Even in America at that time it was very unusual and to have him look so exhausted, so vulnerable. Apparently people thought he had had a heart attack, they were so shocked. Maybe because of that background, seeing this photo was striking. It seemed much more like a deliberate choice.
CS: I think if he had a problem we wouldn’t have published it. It is kind of a funny picture. It is not the image of the politician, it is the image of the private person running. I think this article was talking about running so...
AL: Can I ask you how much you think about the audience because it is interesting to hear that when you’re choosing the photos and layout, you don’t really think about the person who is photographed. Are you very concious about how the pictures will seem to the audience?
CS: I do think of the person who is photographed. I know we would be – which is a bit stupid I think – more careful of an old lady for instance, than an old man. Because maybe the French have more of a problem with women getting old than men getting old. I think society has this thing about the image of aging so I know that some women would be more careful about their necks or some things like this. Once we published a cover with Brigitte Macron and, if we had done this with a man there wouldn’t be this problem, but lots of people said, ‘Oh this is not nice for her’ and ‘You could have Photoshopped it’, stuff like that. I feel like it is easier for French society to see an older man than an older woman. I don’t know why, I just think it’s different.
AL: Yes, it probably is. In the UK people are very judgemental about women’s appearance. The Daily Mail is notorious for the appalling way it has these photos of poor Kate Moss with a pound of extra flesh coming on to the beach or something like that. It is very striking the way women’s bodies are used and judged.
CS: Yeah, we would be careful of this for sure. Maybe more with some people than with others. We are not here to put people down. We will not publish a picture of somebody just to mock them. There is no point. We are not a tabloid and there is enough of those pictures on the internet. Other magazines are happy to do this and make money from it.
AL: Has being an editor changed your view of photography, of what it can do or not do?
CS: The part I am most proud of, working as a picture editor, is showing stories, especially of conflict and from around the world. It is important in France. For me, the testimony that can be given with photography and how we reveal the misery of the world is the power of the photograph that I didn’t really realise before.
AL: Can you give me an example of the power of a photo for testimony.
CS: In August we published a story by a South African photographer, James Oatway, a private company was evicting people from a squat. This work was also shown in Visa pour l’image in Perpignan. This is a kind of story we would never hear about otherwise and we’ve got the space to show powerful pictures about what is happening in a corner of the world that nobody expects to see. With those stories pictures sometimes work much better than text alone. We also have a picture of the week, with a double page spread we can show a pretty powerful moment and we don’t need many words to explain what happened.
AL: Do you have any sense of, ‘This is a L’Obs picture’?
CS: It is evolving a lot. We changed layout, four years ago and the space for photographs. Before we had five articles each week and we knew how many pictures and it was more like filling blanks. Now we know that the article will be sold with the pictures. So it gives us more freedom; we can make suggestions of pictures that will go with the article more than before. Photography has taken a bigger role in the magazine which we really appreciate.
Some pictures are not L’Obs. I receive a lot of pictures for the portfolio pages for instance and now I can pretty much say, ‘OK, this is for us, this is not for us’, but it is really difficult to explain why. I know some pictures are too in your face, or too dark, or too crude, have too much Photoshop or are really overworked. It is more a feeling like when you know somebody, you know he walks like this or like this. How can you explain it? Sometimes in the magazine we talk about the DNA of L’Obs in the way of writing and the stories. That’s the general aesthetic of what we publish.