The American University of Harvard does not have to hand over famous photographs of two slaves to a woman who says she is descended from the photographed persons. A judge ruled that the woman cannot claim the photographs.
Bet are two of the first photographs ever taken of American slaves. They are daguerreotypes taken in 1850 by enslaved Renty and his daughter Delia. Both were photographed bared from different angles on behalf of a Harvard professor because he wanted to prove that the white race was superior to the black.
Tamara Lanier got to know the photos when she did pedigree research on her family. According to her, she‘s a descendant of Renty, whom she affectionately calls Papa Renty. According to her records, Renty was abducted from Congo around 1800 and grew up as a slave in South Carolina.
She started a lawsuit because Renty was forced to cooperate with the photos and Harvard would only treat the images as research material. “It was a humiliating act that had to prove that he was inferior,” Lanier explained her point of view.
She also blames the university for still making money on the images. She therefore demanded that the photos be handed over to her and wanted compensation.
Powerful visual charge
The judge acknowledged that the case is sensitive and called the images “a powerful visual charge of the horrific slavery system,” but could not go along with the demand. In the US, portrait rights lie with the photographer, not with the person depicted. In addition, the case has already been stamped.
Lanier calls the verdict disappointing but not unexpected. She’s planning to appeal. Her lawyer wants a verdict of principle from the highest judge, because, according to him, this is not a regular case about portrait law. “If every photograph had been taken in this way – forced and undressed as part of a repulsive study – then portrait rights would have been arranged differently.”
Harvard says in a comment to find the best place for the photos, “so that they become available to a wide audience and the stories of the depicted enslaved ones can be told”.