That Louis Agassiz held some views which are regarded as both wrong and distasteful these days is true. That he organised for photographs to be taken of some slaves back in 1850, that Harvard currently has those pictures is also true. It is even true that slavery was an appalling blot on humanity and we’re very glad we all got rid of it, even if too late, well over a century ago.
However, all of that doesn’t mean that the descendants of the slaves should have or own the photographs. The law doesn’t work that way, it just doesn’t.
So, this case isn’t going to get that far:
In 1850, a Swiss-born Harvard University professor commissioned what are believed to be the earliest photos of Americans slaves. The images, known as daguerreotypes and taken in a South Carolina studio, are crude and dehumanizing – and they were used to promote racist beliefs. Among the photographed: an African man named Renty and his daughter Delia. They were stripped naked and photographed from several angles. Professor Louis Agassiz, a biologist, had the photos taken to support an erroneous theory called polygenism that he and others used to argue African-Americans were inferior to white people.
Now, a woman who claims to be a direct descendant of that father and child – Tamara Lanier, the great-great-great granddaughter of Renty – is suing Harvard over the photos. She’s accused Harvard of the wrongful seizure, possession and monetization of the images, ignoring her requests to “stop licensing the pictures for the university’s profit” and misrepresenting the ancestor she calls “Papa Renty.” The university still owns the photos. Lanier, who resides in Connecticut and filed the suit against Harvard in Middlesex County Superior Court on Wednesday, is seeking an unspecified amount of damages from Harvard. She’s also demanding that the university give her family the photos.
The photos never did belong to Papa Renty. No, not just because he was a slave and couldn’t own anything – not entirely true anyway. But rather because photos don’t belong to the people they are of. As it’s possible to work out by reading the captions of any picture in any newspaper. That Getty Images or whatever copyright assignation does not mean they’re collecting on behalf of the model, or the field or factory portrayed. No, the money goes to the person who took the picture for that’s who owns it:
Under U.S. law, copyright in a photograph is the property of the person who presses the shutter on the camera — not the person who owns the camera, and not even the person in the photo. Unless a written agreement exists that makes the photo a work made for hire, any person you ask to take your picture with your camera owns the copyright in that photo — not you.
Copyright belongs to whoever took the picture. It never did belong to Papa Renty, it couldn’t have done.