The Ridiculed Image

[Spring 1999]

by Franck Michel

In 1997, Jean Beaudry began to shoot a documentary on Quebec photography.1 Featuring an introduction that traces the history of photography in Quebec, interviews with people active in the photography milieu, and exhibition scenes, the film, L’objectif subjectif, follows three Montreal photographers – Raymonde April, Pierre Guimond, and Gilbert Duclos – on St. Jean Baptiste Day.

The artists, each with a very different practice, make and comment on images and discuss their views of photography for Beaudry’s camera. Well-documented and dynamically edited, L’objectif subjectif paints an effective portrait of various approaches to contemporary Quebec photography. The last part of the documentary is devoted to what is now called the “Duclos affair,” and this is where things get galling. A reminder of the facts: In 1988, Gilbert Duclos and the defunct magazine Vice-Versa were accused of publishing a picture without the consent of the person it portrayed. The initial trial in provincial court found in favour of the plaintiff. The verdict was the same in the court of appeal, and the case went to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1998. The verdict was upheld, on the pretext that “the right of the respondent to the protection of his image is more important than the right of the appellants to publish the photograph of the respondent without having obtained his prior permission.” It set a precedent in the history of photography: from now on, in Canada, taking a photograph of an unknown person in the street or any other public place and publishing it is illegal.

Jean Beaudry’s documentary was to be broadcast on Télé-Québec on February 7th in the La culture dans tous ses états series. Several days before the broadcast date, the television network, seeking to respect the court’s ruling, decided on its own to censor many of the photos in the film using various visual devices (blurring, blocking out, scratching, etc.) to make the faces of the people portrayed unidentifiable. Neither the director nor the photographers concerned were notified. When Beaudry heard about it, there was still time to cancel the programme. However, feeling that his film should be seen on television, he decided to co-operate with Télé-Québec; he repressed the offending images by using special effects to place a label on them with the word “censored” – an intervention that at least had the merit of being obvious. The programme was broadcast the following week. The content of the documentary remained the same, but more than half of the photographs in it were mangled in the name of “the right to anonymity.” It goes without saying that the photographs decked out with their “censored” banners did absolutely no justice to the photographers who took them, which is utterly paradoxical for a documentary on photographic production. Anonymity was respected to the detriment of creativity and freedom of expression. Among the censored photographs were several from a project by Israeli produced more than 20 years ago, which are now part of the history of Quebec photography. Why censor photographs that have already been seen by thousands of people and that were, at the time, included in a book and a special supplement in La Presse?

Télé-Québec was probably being alarmist; probably, no court action would have been taken if the photographs had not been censored. Still, it is strange to note that a television network that presents itself as different and cultural, whose goal is to inform and educate its viewers, censored photographs that are not at all disturbing and could not have done serious damage to the people photographed. In a society where we are constantly under the lenses of surveillance video cameras, and where television programmes present footage from video surveillance, often of very doubtful content, one may well wonder why there is this sudden obsession with portrayal of the individual in the photographic image. The answer likely lies in the fact that it is much easier to sue a photographer than a television network.

People involved in reportorial and documentary photography – and, following Télé-Québec’s move, directors as well – are uneasy: if it is no longer possible to photograph people, how can one make a fair portrait of our society, denounce its abuses, show its successes, or just relate facts? Photography will have to be voiceless and faceless. Or else, we will have to act within the law – that is, play the power game and produce a biased reality by showing only what we have permission to photograph. No doubt, this apocalyptic scenario is a bit exaggerated, since photographers, we can hope, will always be ready to take risks. However, it is less certain that the media will be as ready to run the risk of finding themselves in court following complaints by a citizen who feels that his or her private life has been compromised and wants to make a little money through the justice system. The brutal act of censorship committed by Télé-Québec is proof of this.

1 Jean Beaudry, L’Objectif subjectif, Synercom Téléproductions inc., Montreal, 1998, 52mn 30s.