Resist: The Tyranny of Photo Releases

Update on this topic. A data expert from the European Union comments on the questionable legality of bullying users into providing data. Giovanni Buttarelli writes,  The E.U. is seeking to prevent people from being cajoled into “consenting” to unfair contracts and accepting surveillance in exchange for a service.” What is a blanket photo release but an agreement to surveillance in exchange for participating in a conference?

Those of us in the U.S. likely won’t benefit from this effort to prevent the practice of requiring consents in exchange for delivering an unrelated service. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who finds this practice intrusive and onerous.

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Warning: this is a wayward rant about a writing conference practice that intersects with another favorite topic: business. 

Lately I’ve been thinking about what ails our world, and my thoughts have centered on the role of predatory capitalism— an approach to business that maximizes the delivery of wealth to investors and executives at the cost of customers, employees, communities, and the environment. Its practices have permeated most facets of life in the U.S. One tenet of this belief system holds that it’s good for a business to minimize internal risk and any activity that increases cost. This often takes the form of externalizing risks and costs to stakeholders.

A practical example of the reach of this belief system became visible to me last month. I sometimes attend a writers conference sponsored by a local non-profit, usually as a volunteer. It’s a big event for area writers, a worthy cause that I like to support. It’s also an opportunity to connect with writer acquaintances. 

This year I volunteered, and because they weren’t offering any sessions that interested me, I decided not to register. I was informed that volunteers were required to register, albeit at a discounted price. I balked, but decided to be a good sport and register, that is, until I discovered that the on-line registration form required me to agree to a boilerplate photo release.

The release requires that for the duration of the conference, I grant the conference the use of my name and image in any and all media for purposes such as publicity, advertising and Web content. Thus, the situation became more tangled. Registration is a requirement of volunteering, and the release is a condition of registering. 

I understand that blanket photo releases are sometimes required at public events. While I take issue with such releases in general, I especially object to the use of this particular boilerplate form in this context. Its dense legal language suggests that the organization sees its stakeholders as adversaries. When requiring that I hold them blameless for injury resulting from their use of my name and image, they further infer that they may, in fact, be doing just that.

What’s silly here is that the organization doesn’t typically post photos of obscure members like me. So the need for a legalistic blanket release takes on the aspect of a farce, as if Barney Fife has gotten it in his bureaucratic head that he needs to protect Mayberry from Aunt Bea’s litigious streak. 

Sure— It’s not unreasonable to obtain releases from the noteworthy guests attending the conference. I wouldn’t object if signs were posted at the conference informing attendees that their images may be used on social media. I also appreciate a regard for copyrights and understand the awkward challenge of capturing group photos for promotion. 

But this particular approach seems unnecessarily ham-fisted. I was irritated, and after stewing on the topic for a few days I understood why.

The conference sponsor is operated as a non-profit business. The staff and volunteers managing its work act in good faith and apply best practices they’ve learned in other business settings. And given that pretty much most business these days operate in the model of predatory capitalism, they have simply followed its practices.

The use of a blanket photo release is one such practice. Here’s how it works: the release is an effort to minimize internal risk— i.e., the risk of being sued. By requiring all registrants to accept the release, it reduces costs, i.e., the labor and planning required to obtain specific releases; and it relaxes their need to actively manage their use of images and names. Less work for them.

So who is responsible if an attendee is hurt by the misuse of an image or name? The attendee who signed a release. That’s how the risk and cost is externalized to a stakeholder.

As you may have discerned, a certain amount of coercion is implicit in this activity: release all rights to manage how your name and image is used; or, decline the release and don’t attend the conference. 

We see such moves all the time in for-profit predatory businesses. Social media platforms have earned a bad reputation for requiring that we sign away rights to our privacy. Such releases make it easier to maximize investor returns. But is this practice in keeping with the spirit of a non-profit writers conference?

I know that many will respond, “But this is how everyone does it.” And that’s how predatory capitalism has become so pernicious. It’s a belief system whose dogma has penetrated a community non-profit world. And few question its practices.

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