Airbrushing history? Photos of Oxford Student Celebrations Raise Questions About Privacy Rights and Journalism

A former Oxford University student asked image agency Alamy to remove photographs of her celebrating the end of exams. Now, the photographer accuses Alamy of “censoring the news”.  Is this a threat to freedom of the press, or has the woman’s human right of privacy been correctly protected?

The end of exams are a liberating and happy time for university students around the world. At Oxford, students take their celebrations to another level by partying en masse in the streets, covering each other in champagne, shaving foam, confetti, flour and silly string in a tradition known as “Trashing.”

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An Alamy photo of Oxford celebrations from 1968. “Trashing” has become a bit more crazy since the 1990’s.

Speaking to the Press Gazette, Photographer Greg Blatchford explained that during the 2014 Trashing, a student invited him to take photographs of her celebrating on the public streets. Some of the images show her swigging from a bottle of champagne, while in others she is covered in silly string.

Blatchford then sent “about 20” images to Alamy as news content. The former student subsequently stated that she “loved” the images in email correspondence to Blatchford, and even shared them on Facebook. This summer, four years later, the woman contacted Alamy to have the photos deleted. The company removed the images – much to Blatchford’s dismay.

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An Alamy stock image of Oxford University Trashing celebrations. Note: THIS IS NOT ONE OF THE SUBJECT PHOTOGRAPHS.

The right to be forgotten under the GDPR

Because the woman was able to be identified from the photographs, they constitute “personal data” as defined by Article 4 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Under Article 17 GDPR, data subjects have the right in certain circumstances to compel the erasure of personal data concerning him or her.

For example, if the data was originally collected or used because the individual gave their consent, and that consent is subsequently withdrawn, the company may honour the request for deletion (Article 17(1)(b)). However, a company can also use a “counter attack” if an exception applies. Importantly for news and media agencies, if keeping the data is necessary for exercising the right of freedom of expression and information, they may be able to refuse the request and keep the data (Article 17(3)(a)).

For more details on how the right to be forgotten works in practice, see my earlier post, Now You’re Just Somebody That I Used to Know.

Are journalists under threat from privacy lawyers?

Blatchford explained that although they are now considered “stock images,” they were originally “news” photos and should not have been removed. By deleting the photos, Alamy “are censoring the news. I’m incensed that someone can influence news journalism and censor the past where clearly if photographs are taken in public, with the full consent of participants they can turn around and say ‘sorry, that’s not news’ later. This sets a precedent for anybody to walk up to a news organisation and say I don’t like the pictures of me. Journalists will then start feeling the threat of lawyers.”

In a statement to the Press Gazette, Alamy’s director of community Alan Capel said the images were submitted as news four years ago, but moved 48 hours later to the stock collection. “Therefore we are surprised that this is deemed to be ‘censoring the news.’ As per our contract with our contributors, we can remove any images from our collection if we see a valid reason to do so.”

The university said that participating in trashing can lead to fines and disciplinary action since it is against the university’s code of conduct
The comical images of students wearing sub fusc (formal academic attire) while partying are often published in newspapers around the country in May.

Privacy and press freedom have long been considered competing interests, but that’s not to say that striking an appropriate balance between the two is impossible.

On some level, I do sympathise with the photographer. I also struggle to buy Alamy’s argument that the images are not “news content” and are now “stock images.” The classification of an image should be based on its context, purpose and subject matter – not the time that has elapsed since the event, nor the label attributed to it on a website.

Stock images are, by definition, professional photographs of common places, landmarks, nature, events or people. By contrast, the Oxford Trashing photos are attributed to a specific time (May), place (Oxford), category of people (students), and event (celebrating the end of exams). They are popular for several reasons. Firstly, they illustrate a charming and comical juxtaposition. Although these students attend one of the oldest and most prestigious Universities in the world, they are – after all – entitled to a bit of fun. Secondly, Trashing has received increased press attention in recent years, as students have become subject to complaints fines, disciplinary action, and even police enforcement. These images clearly show, in ways that words alone cannot, matters of public interest.

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In this particular instance however, I think Alamy have made the right decision in deleting the images.

Although the Press Gazette does not name the woman, it does note she is “a marketing director in New York.” It’s entirely plausible that she has valid concerns that the images of her participating in Trashing may negatively impact her reputation and career, or otherwise cause some sort of harm or embarrassment.

She claims that “there was no consent given to publish or sell my photos anywhere. I am not a model nor have given permission to any photographers to take photos of me to publicly display or to sell. This was a complete breach of privacy.” This contradicts what the email records show, but even if she had lawfully consented to the photographs being taken at the time, she is entirely within her rights to now withdraw consent. 

On balance, Alamy probably has dozens – if not hundreds – of images from the 2014 Trashing at Oxford. The likelihood that the images of this woman in particular are somehow especially newsworthy is minimal. Had Alamy refused to delete the photos, the woman would have been entitled to raise a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office. ICO enforcement action can include injunctions, sanctions, or monetary fines. Furthermore, Alamy would risk becoming known as an organisation that doesn’t care about privacy laws, thereby damaging its reputation.

Contrary to Blatchford’s concerns, it is doubtful that an organisation would delete a genuinely newsworthy image, simply because someone doesn’t like how they look. The right to be forgotten is not an absolute right to be purged from history, but a right to regain control of how information about you appears online.

For more details on how the right to be forgotten works in practice, see my earlier post, Now You’re Just Somebody That I Used to Know. If you’re interested in how celebrities control images of themselves, see Fame and Fortune: How do Celebrities Protect Their Image?

Header image by Alex Krook via Flickr

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