Her picture, but not

This story first appeared in the Daily Maverick

By Hagen Engler

In the wake of the tragic killing of model Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend, athlete Oscar Pistorius, images of her were flashed around the world to accompany the stories of this uniquely South African nightmare.

But where did these images come from? And does Reeva’s estate, or her family, get to benefit from this massive use of her image?

It appears not.

Copyright in images as intellectual property, while indeed a fraught issue, is mainly an area of contestation between photographers and employers. Usually the creator of the “artistic work”, ie. the photographer, will own copyright in the images. Exceptions are if the images are created in the course of his/her employment. If a client commissions a photographer to take an image, copyright rests with the client.

Writing on the website GoLegal.co.za, intellectual property lawyer Mariette du Plessis points out that these exceptions can all be changed by prior agreement between the photographer and the employer.

Models, though, appear to left out of this arrangement.

Images of models, though, are collaborative works. The process of making a model look a certain way results from art direction, hair, make-up, modelling, lighting and photography. Photographers compose the final image, but that may again be altered, touched-up or airbrushed in post-production.

The skill of modelling lies in interpreting direction and client requirements and posing/acting accordingly.

Model remuneration is generally agreed contractually between model and client and relates to the usage of the stills or video images. Generally, commercial work pays a lot better than editorial work.

Model and model agency owner Shashi Naidoo says editorial pay is relatively modest. “A model might get a couple of grand for an editorial magazine shoot because the use is quite narrow – in one magazine, for one month.”

Calculating models’ commercial remuneration is a relatively complex affair. “Depending on her role, the model usually gets a higher day rate,” says Naidoo. “Then her usage fee comes on top of that and is calculated as a percentage of the day rate. She might get, say, a R10,000 day rate, plus 100% of the day rate for every month the image is used on a billboard.

“It can pay quite well, but once a girl appears in an ad for one car brand, for instance, she can never work for another car brand.

The truth is modelling is not a particularly lucrative career, and all but a tiny minority of models do it part time. To even be able to support oneself on modelling alone is an achievement. That being the situation, models are not in a position to be arguing copyright issues at jobs they do.

“Unless the agency itself organises a special test shoot with a photographer. The model will not own any of the pics featuring her,” says Naidoo.

Reeva Steenkamp was a model in her prime. She was working “steadily” says Jane Celliers, operations director of Reeva’s modelling agency, Ice Models. “What really set her apart was she made an effort to be professional and to build relationships with everyone on set. That meant she would be cast time and again by clients who enjoyed working with her.

“But the film and images she shot all belong to the clients,” says Celliers.

Many of these glamour and commercial images have suddenly become the stuff of hard news stories following the gunning down of the 29-year-old model.

Prime sources for Reeva pics have been Tropika Island of Treasure, the branded reality show she was set to appear in at the time of her death. Stills images from the Tropika show have been supplied free to news outlets, although Britain’s The Independent has reported production company Stimulii charging $3 000 a pop to use a video clip from the show, raising questions of profiteering from her death.

Local picture agency Gallo Images has been selling images of Reeva, including images of her shot for Media24 magazine title FHM. An FHM bikini pic of Reeva graced the cover of Britain’s The Sun on Friday morning, prompting a Twitter storm over the ethics of featuring a murder victim in her bikini.

“Reeva pics are selling. But at about the same rate as any other celebrity,” said a cagey Gallo MD, Pam Wills. “We’ve had lots of requests for pics of her and Oscar.”

The ethics of selling images of dead people is a minor subplot to the shock and outrage of the unfolding Oscar-Reeva saga. It lives alongside such other considerations of commerce vs commiseration as should the Tropika show be broadcast, should Oscar’s sponsors drop him, and should journalists camp outside the late girl’s family home to film her shattered dad and add an extra dimension of tragedy to this grim tale.

Our morbid fascination has been piqued, and a long-established industry is ready to feed that. Some of us will benefit from it. Reeva Steenkamp will not.

Writer for television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Editor and writer of books. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). The last whitey at umsebenzi. Latest book 415 Action-Packed Neighbourhood Marketing Tips with Basil O'Hagan, out now. @hagenengler

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