[update: November 30, 2020: The French government has backtracked and will rewrite article 24 which criminalized sharing of photos and videos depicting police actions]
The first major stab came in 2006. Powerful, famous people got the french government to issue and pass a law that made unlawful any publications of people without their consent. Protection of personal privacy. It destroyed candid (street) photography, made world-famous by Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau, or Jacques Henri Lartigue. More so, it devalued any publicly taken image via a horrific black banner or heavy pixelation of any visible face. Suddenly, to French readers, the whole world appeared populated by ghosts with featureless blurred faces or wearing black banner masks.
The second stab came a few years later, in the aftermath of a series of tragic and horrific terrorist attacks. The same law banned the taking and publication of any identifiable victims. Protection of the decency of the victims. Suddenly, violence, for the french, became victimless. You heard about victims, but you did not see them. It became an abstraction.
The third stab is about to happen. The French legislature is currently reviewing a proposed law that would criminalize the distribution of photos and videos of law enforcement, especially in action. Its motivation is to prevent eventual retaliation against identifiable policemen. Protection of civil servants. This will make punishable by one year of jail and/or $54,000 any publication of photographs that depict police brutality “with an intention to harm”. The latter left to the interpretation of the usually very pro law enforcement judges.
With the fear of strong legal retaliation, fewer images will be shared. Abusive law enforcement agents will only have to debunk eye-witness accounts to walk out free. For French readers, their police will become uniformed gentlemen helping old ladies safely cross the street.
For a country that is widely considered the cradle of photography ( Nicéphore Niépce), where candid photography became art and is the birthplace of photojournalism (Paris was for a long time the epicenter of all the world news photographs), these laws are an insult and a death sentence. While their origin is commendable, their application is not only catastrophic for photography but for democracy as well.
Restricting the photographing of people in public places, the depiction of the consequence of violent attacks, and the recording of abuse of power is dramatically limiting citizens’ access to information—the type of information needed to have a healthy democracy. If similar laws were considered in countries with an established fascist regime, it would not surprise anyone. They all start by suppressing access to information.
The irony is, in a reversal of responsibility, these laws make photography the culprit for what it depicts. It is not photography’s fault if they are victims of terrorist attacks. Banning their publication will neither make victims disappear nor make terrorist attacks stop. People looking to retaliate against what they feel is police abuse happens and trying to eradicate it by punishing any photograph will not solve it. In fact, by making police brutality invisible, it could make it worse. Photography is not responsible for those acts.
The second irony is that, in an age where everyone is a publisher, those restrictions will only hurt an already dying press. Since they will not see those images in their censored professional news outlets, viewers will find them unfiltered, unverified, and probably biased in their favorite social media. Instead of seeing professionally taken and vetted photographs, they will only get access to altered snapshots of dubious origins. Rumors will replace facts. We all know where that leads us.
There is a reason for a professional press produced by experienced journalists. There is a reason for professional photographers. They document events with the most proximity to the truth. Denying them access to facts is denying a whole nation of citizens access to these facts and information. It’s called censorship and it’s wrong.