i don't mind stealing mug shots, but i can't feed on the powerless
jim walsh at minnpost reports on a new exhibit of mary gibney's mug shot paintings. the paintings work as art -- clearly conveying the emotional weight and human drama of the moment. that said, an element of the project just as clearly exploits some vulnerable subjects. most notably, said subjects gave no consent (and got no cash) for the use and sale of their images in such a vulnerable moment. the artist's description:
Inspired by vintage mugshots. Intimate color portraits of the harshly-lit faces of criminals and unfortunates from the 1920s through the 1960s painted with a sympathetic rendering of human emotion.They allow us a voyeuristic view of people caught on camera, guilty and innocent.
of course, artistic license extends far beyond social-scientific license -- and artists need no stamp of approval from human subjects committees or internal review boards. while i agree that most of the paintings are rendered with sensitivity, portrait titles like "psycho" and "porn dealer" don't sound so sympathetic. also, this quote gave me pause:
"A friend of mine who works at the police department downtown said they’re purging their files, throwing stuff away, and she brought me this huge envelope with all these mug shots from the ’80s," she said. "I was like, 'This is gold!' She said, 'I’ll get you more.' They’re all public record, so. ..."
the images may be "public record" but the subjects are not public figures -- and, of course, the project's legality doesn't grant ethical carte blanche. don't get me wrong, i think ms. gibney is doing good work for good reasons and she's not profiting (not much, at least) from the human misery she's portraying. i'd just feel a whole lot better if a taste of the proceeds were going to inmates or their families.