‘Controversy’ at Prague’s Rudolfinum

Czech Position

Thousands of words behind these pictures: Exhibit showcases photos that have sparked outrage or legal proceedings over the ages

“The exhibited photographs may be shocking. The organizer recommends that sensitive persons, minors and those who do not wish to be confronted with shocking images consider whether they wish to visit the exhibition.”

This warning, on the large wooden doors leading into the marbled rooms of the majestic Rudolfinum auditorium in central Prague seems misplaced — there’s a photo exhibit in there, not some immoral film or other wicked media. But “Controversy: A Legal and Ethical History of Photography” looks more at the why of the photos presented than the what.

Originally prepared by the Musée de l’Elysée, a photography museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, the exhibition’s focus is on photographs that have been the subject of legal proceedings or controversy. The aim of the curators was to get a better understanding of how culture looks at itself and how it debates contemporary topics — whether in the 19th or 20th centuries.

“At the end of the ‘80s, the question of legality became very important in our daily work,” Daniel Girardin, Senior Curator at the Musée de l’Elysée, told Czech Position. “The law doesn’t say that’s yellow, it’s forbidden; that’s white, it’s ok. It’s a question of interpretation.”

Legal, social and political

Girardin and Christian Pirker, an attorney, along with about 20 researchers spent ten years gathering photos. “At the beginning, we decided to find photos that had been ‘on trial’ and found between 200 and 300. We did research to find everything from the 19th century till now, minutes from the trials, etc.” Girardin said. “The law is just one thing though, many had controversy but not by law, but social or political.”

One of these is an haunting photo by Kevin Carter entitled Sudan. The South African photographer went to Sudan in 1993 to document the aftermath of a civil war and famine. He photographed a tiny girl struggling to get to a food distribution point. There’s a vulture in the background. Published in the New York Times, the photo became instantly famous, with thousands of readers wanting to know what had happened to the little girl.

Carter, however, was also criticized for his apparent lack of compassion in assisting the starving child. His photo won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994, and two months later, Carter committed suicide. This is just one example from the exhibition of the ethical problems photographers face — do they intervene, or is it enough to take the picture?

Times they do change, and with it people’s attitudes and acceptance of what is and what is not art. There are, for example, a number of photographs of quite young, naked girls on display.

“There are photos taken of young girls 40 years ago, printed and distributed; but if you published something similar today, you’d end up in court,” Girardin said. “Why is the question coming now? It is interesting for us to explain the historical context.”

Photographers vs. subjects

The antics of the paparazzi date back hundreds of years, as proven by the controversy caused by a photo taken in 1898. A picture snapped of a recently deceased Otto von Bismarck in his bed netted two photographers the present-day equivalent of $300,000.

In actuality, the pair bribed someone to tip them off, and then broke into von Bismarck’s home to get the shot. Bismarck’s family was none too amused, and upon learning of the photo’s existence, immediately instituted legal proceedings against the photographers, who were subsequently sentenced to jail time. The photo was actually not published until 1952.

Other controversies studied include the rights of a photographer to his photo versus the right of a contemporary artist who uses an altered version of said photo in his work. Or who has more rights — the photographer or the subject?

“We looked at the rights of photographers; it’s very complex, and there’s a contradiction. A photographer has the right to take a photo but also there’s the rights of the people in the photo,” Girardin said. “Plus, the politically correct movement began in the ‘80s, photographers have to get permission, ask people to sign a statement …”

Reality or image?

One photo that produces a lump in your throat is that of a man crying over a dead woman’s body, lying in a mass grave. On her stomach is a tiny dead baby. Reading the description you learn the picture was taken in Timiroara, Romania, following the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime.

The city of Timiroara had experienced horrible repression and journalists were invited to document the aftermath of the violence. A media hungry for sensational news leapt on the photo and distributed it widely.

In reality, though, the three subjects of the photo were unknown to each other; neither the woman nor the baby had been murdered, and revolutionaries had actually exhumed the bodies from a communal grave in the cemetery.

This example gives rise to two questions: Can we trust photographs, and how can photographers ensure their work isn’t misused for someone’s own personal agenda? But even knowing the stories, most of the photos are chilling.

It’s a very special exhibition; it’s not about aesthetics, or the subject,” Girardin said. “Our goal was to cover the field, we didn’t choose a photo because we liked it, but because it represented or was emblematic of one controversy. Some are banal and some are dramatic but every photo has a story. The photo from Abu Ghraib … we don’t like it, but it is here as an example.”