Singers see photography issue as a matter of control
Hundreds of smartphone screens illuminated the bowl of the Times Union Center as Kanye West knelt before a Jesus-like figure and then handed him a bejeweled mask he had been wearing during his performance Wednesday evening.
Some fans recorded shaky videos, others used their phones to capture still images of the rap artist. By morning, social media was littered with grainy and bleached images of the Yeezus Tour’s swing through Albany.
Conspicuously absent, however, were professional photos of the hip-hop icon.
Local news outlets were allowed to send reviewers to the concert, but all photography was banned by West’s public-relations company.
That meant images of the self-proclaimed “rap god” didn’t appear in any of the Capital Region’s newspapers or broadcast outlets. Mention of West’s rousing 21⁄2-hour performance also received scant mention in online media, save for fan content pumped onto sites like Twitter and Instagram.
Of course, West isn’t the first performer to impose harsh restrictions on professional photography. Bob Dylan barred professional photographers from shooting his AmericanaramA Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in July.
Other performers make professional photographers sign release forms that give the performers say over how the content can be used. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers thrust a waiver release at news outlets seeking photo credentials to the performance at SPAC in June; the releases gave the band right to use any images taken at the show.
“Unfortunately, this is nothing new,” said Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association. “It’s the content creators trying to take control of their content.”
Publicists and managers have always sought some control over the content coming from performances, dictating when photographers have access or even the angle from which they can capture an artist. But some artists insist on outright control when it comes to media.
Recording artist Beyoncé initially barred photographers from her 2013 world tour after several unflattering images of her were posted from her Super Bowl halftime show.
“There are no photo credentials for this show,” reads a release from the tour. “Local news outlets, including print and online will be given a link to download photos from every show. They will need to register to access the photos.”
Beyoncé’s publicist also tried unsuccessfully to get the unflattering pictures scrubbed from the Internet. West did the same with pool photographs taken at a Madison Square Garden benefit for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Pictures showing West wearing a skirt similar to one he wore during parts of his Albany performance vanished from Getty Images, apparently after another rapper knocked his outfit.
Osterreicher said politicians also try to control public images, including the most powerful politician in the nation. Increasingly, the White House hosts events that are closed to photographers and then releases its own images for publication.
“Newspapers and television are the worst offenders because they use the images,” Osterreicher said. “They think nothing of taking those same images and running them with the story.”
Some photographers aren’t convinced the atmosphere today is any different than it was several years ago. Martin Benjamin, a Schenectady freelance photographer who shoots concerts and teaches photography at Union College, says the restrictions ebb and flow.
Benjamin recalls having to turn over his car registration before being allowed to shoot a Britney Spears concert and being told he could photograph Engelbert Humperdinck only through the third song or when he started to sweat — whichever came first.
“It’s all about control,” he said. “It’s part of the game.”
Able to negotiate
Others find ways to work within the boundaries. Julia Zave, an Albany-area freelance photographer, views copyright agreements as contracts that she can freely edit before signing and returning them to a publicist or manager.
“That piece of paper is technically considered a legal contract,” she said “And if it’s a legal contract, then we should be able to negotiate it.”
The problem comes when photographers sign the release forms without reading them. Daniel Knighton, a West Coast photographer who shoots for Getty, said most artists aren’t draconian with their demands from photographers, but the trend is toward more restrictions.
“It is a problem though, and it’s something the press is having to deal with more,” he said. “The only thing we can do is to encourage photographers not to sign them.”
And then there are photographers who try to get around bans. Benjamin recalled buying a ticket and sneaking his camera past security at Albany’s Palace Theatre after professional photographers were barred for a performance.
The concert? Bruce Springsteen’s visit to the city in 1978.
“This has been going on forever,” Benjamin said.