Who owns a photo?


Who owns this photo?

What is a photographer’s responsibility to the people who are the subjects of his work?

These are issues I confront often, in the course of my work, but a recent lawsuit filed against Harvard University has forced me to think about my responsibility to the subjects of my work in a new light.

In a lawsuit against the University, the plaintive, Ms. Tamara Lanier, claims that Harvard profited and continues to profit from images of two of her enslaved ancestors. Harvard uses the images as a book cover for “From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography, and the Power of Imagery” by Melissa Banta and Curtis M. Hinsley.

Renty&Delia Harvard Law Suit.jpg

Ms. Lanier contacted Harvard several times and asked the University to stop using the daguerreotypes (early forms of photography) with the images of her ancestors. Her requests were ignored.  

According to the complaint she believes that Harvard continue to perpetuate " the systematic subversion of black property rights that began during slavery and continued for a century thereafter."

"Slavery was abolished 156 years ago, but Renty and Delia remain enslaved in Cambridge, Massachusetts," the complaint states. "Their images, like their bodies before, remain subject to control and appropriation by the powerful, and their familial identities are denied to them."

So this got me thinking, not for the first time, about my own responsibility to the subjects of my photos?  In the case of the enslaved Renty and Delia the injustice is stark, but what about the more nuanced cases?

What about the rights of the people inadvertently caught in the shot? What if the subject did not consent to their photo being taken or used?  Does the subject of the photo have any say in how the images are used?  

Black and white creative portrait

Legally, especially, if the subject signs a standard waiver, the photographer can use the image the way he/she chooses, including for profit or promotion.  However, legalities aside, what is the photographer’s moral responsibility?

I don’t have to go far for a test case: over the years my children have been my favorite subjects.  Like any father, I think that my boys are beautiful and they inspire me, but that’s not the only reason I photograph them. 

Both of them are so used to having their picture taken, that they are perfectly at ease in front of the camera. This makes them great, easily accessible, and most importantly, free models. 


I often ask them to model for me, so that I can test out photography and editing ideas. 

At some point, as each of them has grown older, they rebelled and declined to have their picture taken.  Each one of them has asked for payment for their work. 

My first reaction is inevitably: Really? You want to get paid, so I can come up with a new photography idea, that I can use to make my work better and feed you?  Really, you want to go there?


Unfortunately, that argument did not work on either one, so after a tough negotiation we would agree on pizza or a Lego set as a form of payment.  

Yet their rebellion, their desire to exercise a tight control over their portraits, has made it clear, that they see images of themselves as their “property”, something that each one of them wants to control. 

In weighing Ms. Lanier’s case against Harvard and thinking about my kids’ strong views about their images, I have come to understand that today in the age of ubiquitous photography, controlling your own photographic image is becoming a fairly basic human right.

My younger son's portrait.jpeg

If you read the Harvard complaint, I am fairly certain you will agree, so I will link to it here: https://www.courthousenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/harvard-photos.pdf