In May, 1968, with students rioting in the streets and Paris teetering on the brink of anarchy, graphic news photos of bloodied demonstrators etched in the French consciousness the social upheaval that was convulsing the nation. In 1976, when a mild-mannered young fishing enthusiast who had participated in the search for a seven-year-old boy was arrested for the child’s murder, photographs of a manacled Patrick Henry being taken into custody were splashed across France’s front pages. But in the country that invented photography and has long nurtured the art of photojournalism, indelible images like these of the news events that shape a nation’s collective memory may soon be much harder to come by.Late last month, as part of Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou’s sweeping reform of the criminal justice system, the French Parliament passed legislation designed to reinforce the legal presumption of innocence until proof of guilt. The new law, which takes effect next year, will prohibit the publication of two crucial categories of photographs. Suspects who have not yet been convicted of a crime can no longer be shown handcuffed, although shots that do not display the cuffs can still be used. More controversially, photographs from crime scenes or accidents that are considered to jeopardize the dignity of those depicted will also be banned. Where press freedom impinges on personal dignity is a hazy legal line, which the new rules draw firmly in favor of privacy. If a terrorist attack takes place in France the French media will no longer be allowed to print photos of any of the victims unless those individuals had each consented to the use of their image—an unlikely scenario given the chaotic circumstances of such an event.Guigou has said that these enhanced privacy safeguards will show that France “remains the home of human rights,” but critics argue that the new restrictions are symptoms of a disturbing trend toward the over-privatization of public space. Under French law, for example, everyone owns the copyright to his own image, and for the past decade people have become ever more willing to go to court to claim whatever benefits may accrue from this right. In 1998 the parents of a young demonstrator whose picture ran on the cover of the weekly L’Evénement du Jeudi sued for the unlawful use of their son’s likeness—and were awarded nominal damages. When France won the 1998 World Cup, the Champs Elysées was crammed with a million jubilant supporters, dozens of whom tried to cash in when their photographs were then published.Not all news photos will require a quid pro quo exchange of cash or a formal release, however, even under the new law. Using highly subjective guidelines, Guigou has said she would exempt, for example, stills of a dying Robert Kennedy “since they do not show him in an undignified fashion.” Guigou justifies the iconic Vietnam War image of 9-year-old Kim Phuc running naked down a road, screaming in pain from napalm burns, as a historical document, overriding concerns about intrusions of privacy or compromised dignity. Some believe that this selectivity reflects a kind of hypocritical colonialism. As Göksin Sipahioglu, founder of the photo agency Sipa, puts it, “there is no reason to forbid photographing misery close to home but not that at the other end of the world.”The full impact of the “Guigou law” won’t be clear until it goes into effect, but some members of the French media fear the worst. The growing preoccupation of French law with the private rights of the individual means that many publications have already stopped showing life in France as it is really lived. Some editors prefer to avoid legal risks and instead choose posed images produced by specialized agencies to illustrate everything from weddings to drug addiction. “The law has killed any hope for photojournalism to survive in France in its most pertinent and glorious form,” says Derek Hudson, a British photographer who lives in Paris and publishes his work in both France and the U.K. On assignment for Le Monde in Cannes this year he shot only celebrities. Taking candids of ordinary people in the street would have been far too risky. The editor of Paris Match has pledged to flout the law “in the name of the right to inform” and promised to bring the matter before the European Court if the magazine is prosecuted. Until then, editors are finding that much like the suspects whose images they will have to censor, their hands are bound.
Reported by Patricia Strathern/Paris