Friday, 25 July 2008

POV: Model Releases

Photograph © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

I mentioned in my earlier post on Olivia Gay's environmental portraits that I would add my point of view regarding two issues that frequently crop up whenever I photograph people in Asia or elsewhere.

The first question/issue relates to model releases, and is often asked of me during my photo expeditions by participants who are worried as to whether they'll be asked by the eventual buyers of their photographs for signed releases from the people appearing in their photographs.

Generally-speaking, any photographs of people who are not specifically asked to pose do not require releases. Photographs of people taken during a photo shoot in a marketplace or a temple for example, do not require model releases. Such photographs can be sold and published in magazines, newspapers, periodicals, books and websites, and even exhibits. Photographs used for storytelling and informational purposes do not require model releases.

On the other hand, when people are specifically asked to pose for the photographer and the images are used for advertising such travel brochures or similar commercial publications, it would be wiser and safer to obtain a signed release.

Having said that, I must confess that I seldom bother to ask for anyone to sign a model release for many reasons. The first reason is the time factor. In most photo shoots, there's seldom enough time to ask the subjects of my photograph to sign a model release in a language they probably don't understand, especially since its whole concept is meaningless to them. Sure, I could hand out a handful of releases to my translator/fixer who could then ask the subjects of my photographs for their signatures, but practically-speaking that wouldn't work.

The second reason is that asking for releases would create an unnecessary complication. In India for instance, I've already been asked a few times (interestingly, by meddlesome onlookers and not by the subjects of my photographs) as to the purpose of my photographing people, and occasionally accused of "exploiting" my subjects to "make a lot of money". In fact, I recall photographing indigenous tribal people at a market in Chhattisgarh, and being harassed by an individual demanding that I pay money to the people I photographed...he was following me around, and getting to be such a nuisance that I reported him to the marketplace police who physically removed him from the market.

Let's be honest here. Whipping out pre-typed releases and asking adivasis to sign on the dotted line would certainly be misinterpreted. The formality of it all might lead them to believe I intended to harm them in some way. So the end result would be that the releases would not get signed (despite any translator's persuasive efforts), and no one in the vicinity would agree to pose for my photographs.

Let me put it this way...would I sign a formal looking document in a foreign language that I didn't understand? Not a chance. Another thing... could you have asked the glaring sadhu in the above photograph to sign a model release and get it? The answer is would've been an exercise in futility.

My POV on how to respect local cultures and still get the photographs will be posted in a day or two.