Responding to the Flaying of Catherine Opie

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Responding to the Flaying of Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie has a solo show up at the ICA in Boston. It is a show about gatherings and community from one of our most established and famous queer contemporary photographers. This is a woman who had a mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim.

Opie included in the ICA show an image of some womyn from The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. She did not have the written (or even apparently verbal?) consent of the womyn featured in the image, some of whom were topless. People got VERY upset. And I can understand why. There is a pretty fierce and emotional dialogue going on on Facebook, the Festival forums, word of mouth, etc. I have a few things I want to add to the dialogue.

Opie wound up pulling the offending image both out of the show at the ICA and down off the internet- it had been published on The Advocate's website. She issued this apology via the Advocate site, at the location from which the offending image was removed:

I am weighing in on this because I am a queer documentary photographer who published Welcome Home: Building The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, the first documentary photography book on the festival in 2009. (*This was an independent project that I did myself, not a Festival-issued thing, but I got official permission to do it.) There are many, many people who have made photos at the Festival over the years. I made this book according to both the Festival's policy and the will of the womyn involved. Which means that I sought official Festival permission and got model releases AND individual photo approval from each and every woman pictured who appears in the book. To say this was exhaustive is an under statement. The whole process took me years. But I felt at peace with how I was doing it, and the community did too and that mattered a lot.

It is also true that the privacy standards are WAY beyond anything I have ever experienced anywhere else as a journalist or documentarian. The parallel realities of the Festival and of the journalism/art worlds made doing my project really difficult. I would go and show images to a potential publisher or gallery and have to navigate a lot of restrictions that made no sense to them. How you could you have an art project and yet not be free to share it? They didn't really get that. There was a different cultural expectation here—it was foreign to them.

I wound up self-publishing. Partly because I could not find a publisher that truly validated the work I was doing. And partly because as enormously difficult as it was to do every single aspect of the book myself and with the help of my friends, it was EASIER. No outside entity could ever give me the control I needed, the control I was being asked to exercise.

There is legality, rules of a space/place and community/individual ethical standards to wade through when making imagery. I just wanted to clarify a few things. Documentary work that will be used in an editorial settings, such as a newspaper or magazine, does not require a model release. I published a small photo series from the book on The Advocate site and on The New York Times when it came out and they did not ask for model releases, nor does any other publication of their type. Nor do galleries where I have exhibited the work from this book. The basic principle behind legal consent in this country is that if you are using something for commercial purposes, say selling toothpaste with an image, you need consent from those pictured.

HOWEVER. When you are on someone's private property, such as the Festival land, they can set their own rules. I knew from the beginning that Michigan was its own unique space with its own rules. I agreed to follow them. The program from 2009, for example, explicitly says, "No photo or video can be published or used for any commercial purpose or for public distribution without specific written permission of each person in the photo and the permission of the Festival itself, etc."