The Crown Jewels

Thy Phu and Sarah Parsons discuss the visual and political economies exposed by recent photographs of Kate Middleton and Prince Harry.

Thy Phu: A few weeks ago, tongues wagged widely in response to the publication of photos of a topless Kate Middleton, taken while vacationing with her husband in a privately rented house in France. The story, not to mention the paparazzi photos, quickly went viral. This is only the latest controversy involving cameras whose lenses are increasingly powerful and pervasive.

Buckingham Palace sent their lawyers after Closer, the French magazine which first published the photos. These lawyers argued that, because the paparazzi invaded Middleton’s privacy, the photos should not publicly circulate. But the role of the camera in mediating the public and the private is far more complicated than this summary suggests.

In your research, Sarah, you point out that the camera has a surprising relationship to the concept of privacy. You note that a landmark article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, titled “The Right to Privacy”(1890), reveals that rather than simply breaching privacy, photography invented our present understanding of privacy. The tensions between private and public arose because of a problem of photography generated by the 1884 release of Eastman Kodak’s first handheld camera.

Warren and Brandeis pointed to the then-recent case of the popular singer and actress Marion Manola, who was photographed during a performance on Broadway. The role she was playing at the time required her to wear tights that exposed her legs. She promptly sued for an injunction against the use of the photograph, which the theatre manager wanted to use for advertising purposes. Manola argued, and Warren and Brandeis agreed, that to circulate images from this professional space in newspapers, on posters, or for sale in shops was to invade the domain of her private persona.

Marion Manola

There are interesting parallels between the case involving Manola’s leg and the more recent example of Middleton’s breasts. Both express concern for protecting reputation and female virtue–Will was reportedly livid when he heard that the photos of his wife were circulating.

A different contrast, between Manola and Middleton, is also interesting. Whereas the illicit photos of Manolo were taken in a commercial and semi-public space–rather than the domestic space that we usually think of as the domain of the private–the latter photos were taken precisely because a prying lens intruded into a private compound. In other words, Buckingham Palace wouldn’t have a case if Kate had cavorted topless, as some Europeans do, on a public beach.

What’s changed, from the turn of the last century to now, is the shrinking of places where we can assume our privacy can be protected. Today, it seems that we can’t protect our privacy, at least in the face of a camera that pries into our lives, unless we can prove that this intrusion breaches our private spaces.

Social media sites have obscured the distinction between public and private spaces still further. My private photos (of course, none of which are remotely risqué) are not owned solely by me. By using sites such as Facebook, I’ve ceded ownership to this publicly traded corporation, although they keep promising me they won’t use them in ways I would not approve.  I’m starting to worry about my privacy even in the sanctity of my own home! There’s now an inverse relationship between the camera and privacy: although lenses are now longer, the spaces in which our privacy is protected are shorter.

In your own essay, “Privacy, photography, and the art defense” (forthcoming in 2013), you point out that in the United States, everything is up for grabs when it occurs in public spaces. That is, each and every one of us is vulnerable to public scrutiny—and to anyone wanting to take a photo—when you appear out in public. This is a frightening and, frankly, depressing vision you draw. Sarah, how does this shrinking view of privacy help explain the royal photographs?

Sarah Parsons: The case of the topless photos of Middleton is complicated by the fact that they were taken in France where legal conceptions of privacy and control of one’s image are strongly enshrined in law. In the US, the only place individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy is behind closed doors, preferably their own. Photographs that use telescopic lenses to pry into windows are unseemly, but photographing outdoor spaces on private property would be hard to prosecute. It may seem greatly unfair to those who crave the sun and privacy in equal measure, but it is difficult to prevent outdoor spaces from being visible whether from a higher vantage point or a viewing device.

Thy: Only a short while before the topless photos surfaced, the Palace was rocked by another scandal involving photos, this time of a naked Prince Harry behaving in way that tabloids were quick to describe as un-princely. What happens in Vegas is supposed to stay in Vegas… but that was before everyone, not to mention their pool party friends, owned a smartphone.

That the Palace was keen to preserve Middleton’s modest feminine image is obvious in the rush of lawyers to suppress the topless photos in Closer. Yet these very lawyers did not move to suppress circulation of her brother-in-law’s embarrassing photos.  Rather, British tabloids published them, whereas they tactfully–and dutifully–refrained from publishing images of Middleton. The Leveson Inquiry into press standards likely plays a large role in this self-censoring, as papers and magazines scurry to avoid harsh crackdowns. Sarah, what are the chief differences between these two sets of photos, and how would you account for these different responses?

Sarah: There seem to be key differences in the way the images came about as well as the visual economy in which they circulate. Although the palace claims that both royals were in private spaces where they had expectations of privacy, Harry invited his photographer into that private space. When his crack security squad failed to confiscate cell phones upon his guests’ entry to the hotel suite, Harry basically surrendered that expectation.

Kate’s pictures fit neatly into a defined category: beautiful topless woman. Even the more recent, grainier though revealing images of her body as she changes bathing suits are not sexual per se. They might be sexualized by their voyeuristic quality and their presentation of nubile breasts, but they do not depict Kate engaging in anything other than subdued, if ill-advised, leisure with her husband. In a sense the fuss being made about privacy by the Palace and others is a direct result of the banality of the images, of the fact that they sit comfortably with the image we have been sold of Kate as this pretty, well-behaved, normal upper-class girl, who is also hip enough to partake of elite European norms like skiing in Gstaad and sunning in Provence.

Then again, part of Will’s outrage and anger, which was shared by many in the UK, stems from bitter memories of the fraught relationship between the paparazzi and another princess, Diana. Some still blame the paparazzi for her untimely death, and the shadow of this tragedy no doubt tinges today’s reception of another group of “princess photos.” Although in the 1980s and 1990s, UK newspapers would have clamored for risqué images of the princess, nowadays it seems unthinkable for many of them to publish such images. Indeed, the editor of the Irish Daily Star was suspended for breaking rank and publishing the Middleton photos.

Contrast this with hot-Harry’s Vegas photos. The two rather fuzzy cell phone photos sold to the press both feature a fully nude prince, but they are actually quite different in ways that seem to have garnered little discussion. In one, he stands cupping his crown jewels (a benign, almost prudish gesture) while a naked young woman snuggles behind him. The other photo has been widely interpreted as picturing Harry locking his naked female companion in a bear hug while giving the photographer a prime rear-end view. But, what makes us read this collectively as good-natured, if drunken, revelry? Is it the presence of a camera and thus another person that causes us to see this as romp rather than a mutually satisfactory or forced sex act? Apparently, in the UK these photos were viewed as rather a harmless, if unseemly, case of a boys being boys.

Whether or not Harry is giving her the business from behind is not really my concern. The point here is that these photos of Harry and of Kate enter systems of looking, and expectations about class and gender, that shape what we see and how we interpret what we see. Although the Palace is not as keen on Harry’s public reputation as they are on Kate’s, the discussion around these photographs of the “Party Prince” do as little to alter his reputation as Kate’s images. In both cases, the Palace did ask the British press not to publish. The tabloids complied in Kate’s case, but not in Harry’s. (Oddly, the limit of representation in these photos concerns Harry. Though his photos don’t present full frontal nudity, neither do they disclose a fully rear view: the picture is universally circulated with a prudish patch discretely covering his butt crack.)

Thy:  I’m glad that you raise the point about the graininess of these covertly taken photographs. It’s obvious that their value lies not in the quality of the images themselves, but rather in the currency of their subject–as you put it in a visual economy. Like you, I find it fascinating that these two recent cases tellingly reveal the importance of protecting Kate’s reputation, more than Harry’s, for the Palace, likely as part of the monarchy’s fairly recent and largely successful attempt to rejuvenate its public image. In this instance, it seems that the “crown jewels” are staked on the modest portrayal of a “commoner”–though as others have noted, it’s only in the UK that the daughter of millionaires could be considered a commoner. Suppressing these grainy topless images from circulating further, at least in paid venues like tabloid magazines, enables the Palace to restore luster to the Crown.


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  1. Thomas Demand via Visual Culture | writing light - June 5, 2013

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