September has been a challenging month for the British royals. First, photos of a naked Prince Harry partying in a Las Vegas hotel room spilled onto the Internet. Shortly after, a grander scandal broke out. Catherine Middleton, an epitome of modesty and taste, was photographed topless while sunbathing with her husband at a villa in southern France. The photos (there were quite a few of them) taken by a paparazzo's potent long-lens camera, were then published in the French tabloid Closer as well as a few other European yellow editions.
The scoop's headline in Closer France was “Oh my God! Les photos qui vont faire le tour du monde!” (“The Photos That'll Go Around the World”). And did they.
St. James Palace immediately condemned the publication, calling it a “grotesque and totally unjustifiable invasion of privacy,” comparable with the infamous paparazzi hunt of the former Princess Diana. The magazine got sued, fined, police-raided and forced to hand over all the furor-provoking digital material. Its publisher might face even more charges, including criminal ones.
However dubious this incident might seem, especially in the context of much more fateful world news and events, it spiked some interesting debate.
Wasn't the royals' reaction a bit too extreme? Wouldn't persecuting one kind of photography affect the status and the reputation of photojournalism in general? What should then be prioritized – freedom of press or privacy issues?
How about the celebrities' own responsibility, especially since so many of them thrive on paparazzi attention? Why did the Duchess of Cambridge, being a highly sought out public figure, choose to sunbathe naked anyway?
And why did the British tabloids refuse to print Kate's topless photos while running an array of female nudity daily? Isn't it a bit hypocritical? Could this also signify the nearing decline of the print tabloid business as camera phones and Internet make it possible for anyone to instantly and freely distribute any material globally?
And finally, why is there such a voracious demand for this stuff at all? Why on earth are we so eager to look at Kate Middleton's breasts?
Actually, the latter intrigues me the most. According to a recent poll of Guardian readers, 72 percent disapproved publication of the Duchess' topless photos. And yet almost half of those polled admitted to having looked at them.
I have to admit that before writing this column, I took a glance at them myself. Reasons? This is an instinctive, low form of curiosity most of us humans are prone to.
Ironically, when it comes to celebrities or those we consider more privileged than we are, this curiosity often turns into compulsive voyeurism. Especially when we get to see the rich and famous off-guard and in a vulnerable state, just as happened with an innocuously vacationing royal couple.
I guess that unconsciously we might get some weird satisfaction from that, feeling something like: “Hey, they are no different than us common folks.” In that sense, the paparazzo who had snapped shots of the royal couple during one of their private moments had simply been feeding this voyeuristic demand. And it doesn't have much to do with freedom of press, I believe, or with the public's right to the information access.
Closer magazine's French publisher defended himself by saying the photos were in no way vulgar or offensive, and simply pictured a “beautiful couple in love.” Still, I do see a severe privacy violation here. The princess didn't strip on a public beach but at a secluded residence and wasn't aware she was being photographed. Compare that to the belles who daily appear in tabloids worldwide and do consent (and often get paid) to appear topless or naked.
Then again, in the Digital Age, privacy is a tricky issue. On one hand, most European countries, including France, have very strict privacy laws, making it, among other things, quite challenging for journalists to do documentaries – because of potential privacy lawsuits. Yet those of us who use Facebook and other social networks make our private lives prone to intrusion anyway. Our online accounts can be broken into, we can be tagged in the photos without having agreed to it, our body parts could pop up on the so-called “creep shot” or “revenge porn” sites - you name it.
With the emergence of camera phones and other digital technology, it has also become incredibly easy for anyone to become a “reporter” or a “photojournalist,” or a “paparazzo.” The line between savvy amateurs and trained professionals does seem fine these days, and the competition is fierce.
So in the end it all comes to responsibility and respect – for oneself and others, on the personal and professional level. Just as Mickey Osterreicher, a veteran photojournalist and general counsel for the US National Press Photographers Association, recently wrote in his blog about the distinction between a photojournalist and a paparazzo:
“No matter how quickly we deliver it, the message should still be worth hearing. No matter how up-close we can get, the images should still be worth viewing. No matter how advanced the technology, we are all still human.”
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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Svetlana Kolchik, 33, is deputy editor-in-chief of the Russian edition of Marie Claire magazine. She holds degrees from the Moscow State University Journalism Department and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has worked for Argumenty i Fakty weekly in Moscow and USA Today in Washington, D.C., and contributed to RussiaProfile.org, Russian editions of Vogue, Forbes and other publications.