Typically, when we've talked about photojournalists in the past, it's been about how they will occasionally make demands for payment for the pictures or videos they've taken with little to no regard for the way fair use works. For the times we've instead focused on stories involving any kind of trouble for photojournalists, the stories are usually about how law enforcement harrasses anyone who tries to document it doing its job. That makes the story of Maya Vidon-White, a photographer in Paris, a new one for me. Maya is currently the subject of criminal charges in France. Her crime? Documenting the aftermath of the now-infamous Paris terror attacks.
Vidon-White was in Paris at the time of the attacks and managed to snap photographs of the immediate aftermath just outside of the Bataclan concert hall, where gunmen murdered 89 people and wounded hundreds more. One photograph she took and later sold to a news outlet for publication showed an injured man, Cedric Gomet, on the ground receiving medical attention. Under an obscure French law, this is apparently a crime.
About two months after she took the photo, Vidon-White was told that she was being prosecuted under the so-called Guigou law, which prohibits the publication of photos showing the victims of terrorist attacks in a way that violates their "human dignity." The lawyer for Gomet's family, Jean Sannier, says the photographer and VSD violated the law by publishing the Bataclan photo on a double-page spread, and by not blurring out Cedric's face. The family has filed charges against both Vidon-White and VSD, and are seeking damages totaling €34 000, in addition to legal fees; the photographer could face a fine of up to €15,000.
"The fact that VSD thought it was right to publish this photo on November 17th, saying that Cedric was still alive, was extremely painful for the family and those close to him," Sannier said in a phone interview. "Even if the family knew he was at the Bataclan the night of the 13th, his friends were not necessarily aware, and they were all happy to learn [from the photo] that he was alive."
Part of the issue here is that French weekly magazine VSD mistakenly stated in its story, of which the picture was a part, that Gomet was still alive. In actuality, he had died after the photo was taken from his wounds. There is nothing to suggest that this mistake was anything other than an error, yet the family and its lawyer keep bringing up the point. It's hard to imagine that an honest mistake would suddenly open up a news organization to criminal charges and civil damages, nevermind that Vidon-White had nothing to do with the facts relayed within VSD.
As for this application of Guigou law itself, the attempt is every bit as ridiculous as the law itself. The legislation invoked here appears to be named after Elisabeth Guigou, one-time Minister of Social Affairs and Minister of Justice in France. In 2000, she had sponsored the law which was aimed at keeping news publications from publishing photographs of those accused of crimes if they were wearing handcuffs or in scenes where it might somehow indicate a presumption of guilt. That in itself is a silly bit of control exerted by government over what might otherwise be a free press...but it's difficult to see how its aims would apply to the photograph taken by Vidon-White.
Vidon-White's lawyer appears equally confused.
The lawyer representing Vidon-White, Vincent Tolédano, says the case should be thrown out because the law only applies to victims who are still alive, and therefore does not cover the families of the deceased. The Guigou law was passed in 2000, after survivors of a 1995 metro bombing filed a lawsuit against a magazine that had published images of them. In an email, Tolédano pointed to a document circulated by the Judicial Ministry, which says that images violating the law must contain a "degrading" element, and that an image of a victim, in itself, isn't "sufficient."
"The image produced by Maya Vidon-White... does not contain the 'degrading' dimension required by law," Tolédano said in an email. "We must therefore not confuse, in the horror of an event, the pain of the victims, who command the utmost respect, and the work of journalists."
After all, there's no implication that the victim of the terrorist attack shown is guilty of anything at all. He's a victim. On top of the questionable application of the law, someone is going to have to explain to me exactly how we're supposed to operate in an age where the picture, or video, is everything in news stories, but we're going to attempt to legislate limits of those depictions that can be shown to the public. If a photojournalist isn't allowed to faithfully portray the aftermath of one of the most newsworthy and important events in recent French history, one with global implications, then don't pretend to have a press anymore. There's no point.
The case currently sits before a French judge who will decide whether the case can proceed. It should be tossed immediately.