Judge: Photos of slaves belong to Harvard, not a descendant

Mar 16, 2021

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Judge: Photos of slaves belong to Harvard, not a descendant

Mar 16, 2021

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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In 2019, Tamara Lanier sued Harvard University claiming that she was the rightful owner of daguerreotypes of an enslaved father and daughter. A Massachusetts judge has dismissed her claim, ruling that it’s Harvard that should own the images after all.

The haunting daguerreotypes depict Renty and Delia, a father and daughter who were enslaved in the 19th century. They were taken in 1850 as “proof” that Black people were inferior. That theory had thankfully been discredited, and the images stayed hidden in a Harvard museum until 1976. It is believed that these are the earliest known photos of American slaves.

Tamara Lanier, who filed the suit against Harvard, is Ranty’s direct descendant. She discovered the images in 2010 when she started tracing her genealogy. So, she claimed that she was supposed to be the rightful owner of his images. In her lawsuit, she claimed that Harvard had “exploited the images for financial gain.” For example, the university used Ranty’s photo on a book cover.

However, judge Camille F. Sarrouf rejected both of Lanier’s claims. As the New York Times reports, the judge acknowledged that the photos “had been taken under ‘horrific circumstances.’” She also didn’t dispute Lanier’s proof that she was Ranty’s linear descendant. However, she explained that Lanier couldn’t be the owner of the daguerreotypes because Ranty and Delia didn’t own them when they were taken either. “It is a basic tenet of common law that the subject of a photograph has no interest in the negative or any photographs printed from the negative,” the judge explained.

As far as “exploiting images for financial gain” goes, the judge rejected this claim as well. She ruled that “the right to control commercial use of the photographs had expired with the deaths of the subjects.”

Harvard said in a statement that the daguerreotypes were “powerful visual indictments of the horrific institution of slavery.” The institution hopes that the court’s ruling would allow it to make them “more accessible to a broader segment of the public and to tell the stories of the enslaved people that they depict.”

Tamara Lanier said that she plans to appeal the judge’s decision, according to the New York Times. She argues that the judge “completely missed the humanistic aspect of this, where we’re talking about the patriarch of a family, a subject of bedtime stories, whose legacy is still denied to these people.” She also added that “she hoped her lawsuit would draw interest to the bigger issue of who owned the ‘cultural property’ of enslaved people.” She had been working with Harvard students on legislation that would protect the rights of families like hers, the New York Times reports.

You can read more about this topic here, and let us know your thoughts: who should own these images of Ranty and Delia?

[via PetaPixel, New York Times]

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Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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9 responses to “Judge: Photos of slaves belong to Harvard, not a descendant”

  1. Alec Davies Avatar
    Alec Davies

    Oh FFS!

  2. Rik Trottier Avatar
    Rik Trottier

    Its 2021. Make copies.

  3. Jolyon Ralph Avatar
    Jolyon Ralph

    They should be public domain.

  4. MegaNickels Avatar
    MegaNickels

    LEGALLY speaking I agree that Harvard should own the photos but MORALLY speaking the photos should be given to the descendants. Lucky for Harvard, morals don’t really mean much these days.

    1. William James Avatar
      William James

      It isn’t a matter of morals not meaning much. Courts make decisions based on law, not morality.

      1. MegaNickels Avatar
        MegaNickels

        yeah that’s pretty much what i said

  5. AZHaunters Avatar
    AZHaunters

    Obviously anything that old is public domain.

  6. timothyf7 Avatar
    timothyf7

    I feel that after 200 years, it should be considered ‘Public Domain’. So I voted belong to ‘someone else’ (actually everyone). Even film and written pieces have protection for a finite amount of time.

  7. allenwrench Avatar
    allenwrench

    Archives would be stripped clean if the lawsuit was successful. But in 2021, where looting = reparations anything is possible with dems running the show.