An unusual situation has occurred on several occasions in the social media era, and it is as counterproductive as it is interesting. In this article, I will discuss the irony of trying to remove a photograph from the internet and the implications of a public persona in modern life.
A Background To the War Between Celebrities and the Internet
If I asked you to tell me of a time when a celebrity didn't like a photograph of themselves and so attempted to use legal means to have it wiped from existence, I think I know who you would bring up. Beyonce, the staggeringly beautiful and unfathomably talented singer, performed at the 2013 Super Bowl, but her show quickly took a backseat to just one image taken of it. I'm not going to put it in this article, nor will I put any other examples of images that celebrities want to be deleted, but we'll get to why that is later. If you need to see it, you'll find it, and we'll get to that too!
Beyonce's people aggressively pursued websites that posted "unflattering" images of the artist, with Buzzfeed receiving a now-infamous email from Beyonce's publicist, Schure Media, asking to remove several images. The images were, somewhat confusingly, in an article favorably recounting her halftime show, but it was not curated to Beyonce and her team's tastes. This is where the irony starts, but with this story, it's more unfortunate than the more recent version and the prompt for this article. The publicist's email gained staggering traction across mainstream media and social media, with everything from U.K. newspapers and blogs, through to Reddit and bodybuilding forums turning the images into a meme, with one, in particular, seeing a lot of action.
The website Deadspin then, on February 7, 2013, launched a Photoshop contest based on said images of Beyonce, in which they had generously cut her out from the background to aid in the efforts. This solidified the virality of the images, and Beyonce's publicist managed to simultaneously reach unprecedented levels of success at her job and yet, spectacularly fail at it too. The images were out there, and they weren't coming back.
Khloe Kardashian and the Furthering of Irony
Celebrities wanting control over their public image is nothing new, and in recent years, that has extended to photographs and videos on the internet. Their image is often fundamental to their brand, and thus, a bad photo could reasonably be argued that it is damaging to their business. Khloe Kardashian is one of the latest to feature in this unusual situation, but it manages to be markedly more ironic and unusual than almost any to precede it.
The image (and again, I won't be sharing it) is of the TV star and social media influencer in a bikini at a family party. This image, one can safely presume, was not enjoyed by Kardashian, but was posted to her social media via an assistant "by mistake" and was taken down. The scope of this article is already a touch too wide for my tastes, but much of the problem with the image appears to center around it being "unfiltered," which is an article (nay, a weighty tome) in itself.
I have as little interest in the Kardashian family as is reasonable. I have nothing against them; each member appears to have forged a path with untold riches and success, and good luck to them. Still, I typically scroll right on past any news piece about the family. But, this caught my attention for reasons that should be obvious: it pertains to photography in many ways. Now, I need to be honest. After I read the brief article outlining what had happened and seeing that all reposts of the image were subject to a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice, I was intrigued. So, I looked up the image.
There are a few takeaways from those two sentences. Firstly, human curiosity is truly ridiculous, but even I — who does not care about Khloe Kardashian's life or appearance in any meaningful way — set about tracking down this image of her. Secondly, had Kardashian not kicked up a fuss about this image, in all likelihood, I would have never seen it, and I imagine that goes for many other people too. And even if somehow it had found its way in front of me, I wouldn't have taken it in or remembered. It's largely by the by, but the photograph is a natural snapshot of a beautiful woman and, hand on heart, I'm not sure why Kardashian dislikes it so vehemently. But there I am, staring at an image of someone I have no interest in and do not feel one way or the other about, simply because she didn't want me to see it.
The irony of these campaigns ought to be obvious, but in case it isn't: the more a celebrity goes out of their way to stop you from seeing an image or a video, the more famous it becomes, and thanks to the internet, the more views it gathers. As amusing as that conundrum is, there are more interesting implications and questions for both photographers and celebrities.
Can You, Or Should You Be Able To, Control an Online Image?
The first question is a difficult one: should someone be able to remove an image and all traces of it from the internet if they wish to? Again, the scope of this article could stray a little too far, so let's narrow that down. Should a celebrity be able to remove an image of themselves more or less from existence? I have two gut reactions, and they're in opposition, which is bizarre. I'll explain my cognitive dissonance briefly.
One half of me thinks that everyone has the right to privacy and at least some control over how they are seen online. In Kardashian's case, the image was hers and was posted onto her social media account by accident, before being quickly whipped back away. Beyonce's case I think is a little trickier, as that sort of shot could be taken of just about anyone performing something, particularly so publicly. But Kardashian's story is a private family function and a mistake from an assistant. Can such an innocuous mistake really be so permanent? Is deleting it just shutting the gate after the horse has bolted? It all seems rather unfair.
But then, there is the other half of me. Most of the Kardashian clan have built their empires on the back of fame and attention. Social media has been central to many of their businesses, and they have been a part of one of the longest-running reality TV shows in history. One could argue that their rights to privacy are forgone in exchange for fame, albeit not completely. The more buzz the Kardashians can generate on social media, the more they financially benefit. Surely, some unwanted attention is just par for the course, isn't it?
What Does This Mean for Photographers?
Where do photographers fit into this equation? This could be potentially career-ending — hear me out. I have photographed a fair few celebrities, and I have even photographed A-list celebrities in private functions. In the latter, I agreed that I wouldn't share any of the images on social media or otherwise, and I never have. I was approached and offered money to do so, and I firmly turned it down. But, I've just sat here and tried to think of a way I could have accidentally shared an image, and it isn't that farfetched. While everyone ate at this event, I backed up the images I'd taken so far and scrolled through social media while that happened, looking through the images as they uploaded. What if I'd accidentally uploaded one to social media? That's it. If it has been seen and print-screened or saved, it's game over.
That's an unlikely case, but there are plenty of far more likely ones, even for just me. I shoot celebrities for magazines, and before I post the images, I share a gallery with the artist and their PR to look through and select and reject images. I could quite easily share a rejected image accidentally and an artist might hit the roof. Such a small mistake could potentially be unsolvable, and if the artist was famous enough, any legal action would have the ironic effects we've seen with Khloe Kardashian and Beyonce. If this were to happen, the likelihood of me getting a second booking would be slim indeed.
What Do You Make of This Problem?
I don't really have the answers, and I'm not sure anyone does. Whether one thinks a person ought to have full control or if a celebrity has sacrificed their right to full control in the interest of fame, it often doesn't matter; once that horse is galloping around to the amusement of passers-by, angrily slamming that gate only serves to draw more attention to the situation. What do you think?