A Times of Israel article yesterday reported that the newly created Museum of Tolerance, set to open later this month in Jerusalem, removed a photograph of a naked soldier washing himself during the 1973 Yom Kippur War to ostensibly avoid offending religious visitors to the museum. The article then contrasts the reason for the removal with the sentiment of the family of the photographer behind the picture, Micha Bar-Am.
In a statement, the Museum of Tolerance said, “The Museum of Tolerance wishes to respect the feelings of all audiences and communities. The photo in question may hurt the feelings of some of the visitors and therefore it was decided at this stage that the photo will not be included in the exhibition.” In response, Barak Bar-Am, the son of the photographer, was quoted as telling Haaretz, “The Museum of Tolerance probably cares less about hurting our liberal feelings than the feelings of religious people.”
However, one important voice is conspicuously missing from this debate, namely, that of the subject of the photograph. Was he consulted? Did he consent to having a photograph of himself exposing his genitals during a break in fighting in one of Israel’s most catastrophic wars posted for the world to see?
While the debate between balancing the feelings of religious and secular people in public spaces is certainly one worth having, the most important opinion in this controversy seems to be absent.
To be clear, I do not know the history behind the photograph or whether Bar-Am received consent from its subject to post it, but the underlying issue is one not often heard when it comes to the dissemination of art in its various forms.
About 20 years ago during a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, our tour guide, Rabbi Dr. Asher Wade, raised awareness to this matter when he told my group that once a visitor to the museum recognized his mother among a group of unclothed women being tormented by Nazis, and the man had to be physically restrained by museum staff to prevent him from attempting to claw the photograph off the wall. Rabbi Dr. Wade then asked that we keep that story in mind when deciding whether to view those photographs in the museum.
This issue should transcend the religious/secular divide. No one could possibly argue that photographs of people being dehumanized at Yad Vashem are sexual in nature. However, how many people stop to think about whether the subjects of the photos of people in compromising positions – or their families – would be okay with their bodies (whatever the context) being displayed in such a way?
Undoubtedly, many of those featured naked in Holocaust imagery were quite devout and, even many of those who were not, might have rather died again before allowing photographs of their naked bodies to be posted publicly despite the historical and educational value they provide.
The matter of balancing the feelings of religious versus secular people should be secondary to the question of whether the privacy rights of those photographed are being respected.
As a society, we have thankfully become far more aware of matters relating to consent as of late. Many jurisdictions have passed laws against so-called “revenge porn” and the dissemination of nude photographs of others without their consent.
Likewise, just because a photograph of an individual is classified as “art,” does not mean the subject’s expectation of privacy, when photographed in a state in which one would normally have such an expectation, can be disregarded. It is imperative that those featured in such photographs – or, at the very least, their families – have a say in such matters. In an age such as the “me too” era we now find ourselves in, this should be self-evident.