The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on a former partner’s keeping sensitive photos after a breakup.
When my father died, my family took photos of his body before he was cremated. The photos were of him at home, peaceful in bed; my mother wanted to tenderly remember him both in life and in his death. My partner at the time uploaded these photos to their computer, storing these and other images in their cloud server as we archived memories from the trip home to say goodbye to my father.
One evening later that year, my then-partner pulled up the photos and did a slide show of our trip for their family. When my partner got to the images of my father’s dead body, they went through every image instead of skipping over them. It was immensely painful, compounded by the fact that my father is a Black man and these images were being shown to an affluent white family. The race and class dynamics here were staggering — it felt as if this white family was viewing these images as entertainment. This was among the incidents that triggered my ending the relationship; my ex didn’t quite understand why this was inappropriate or painful.
As we were breaking up, I asked that they erase the images from their drive. Since that time, they’ve made a million excuses as to why they can’t erase the images — the drive is in storage, they’ve moved, etc. It’s now been nearly six years. Still, I am deeply disturbed by the lack of control I have over these images. Currently my ex lives in the U.K., and I live in the U.S. What is the correct course of action here? Do I let it go? Seek legal action? My great fear is that these images will circulate into the future without my or my family’s consent. — Name Withheld
From the Ethicist:
Your letter raises a number of issues, not least about your and your ex’s differing experiences of this slide show. Perhaps, in your judgment, this family wouldn’t have used the image of a white person of their class background in this way. If so, then this was indeed a case of the “racially based disregard for the welfare of certain people” that the philosopher Jorge L. A. Garcia once identified as “the heart of racism.”
Perhaps you feel that even if the family would have treated pictures of a deceased white person in the same manner, doing so would have been less unseemly because of the history of the abuse of images of Black suffering and death by white people (not least the lynching photographs that circulated around the turn of the 20th century). An awareness of that history may well have conditioned your response. Still, they were seeing these images in the context of a family member’s visit to the funeral of a partner. Details matter, and not knowing exactly how your ex’s family reacted to the pictures, I can’t say whether your appalled response was justified.
What’s incontestable is that you’ve been greatly pained by what happened. Whether or not your ex understood your reaction, they should have complied with your request. Your ex doesn’t own these images and isn’t entitled to circulate them without permission. Indeed, the person who took the photographs could formally register the copyright, and a lawyer’s letter could be sent giving formal notice that the copyright holder asks that these images not be reproduced or publicly circulated. That would at least further underline the seriousness with which you regard the issue.
Given that these images don’t seem to have been further circulated, though, it’s unclear what grounds you’d have for pursuing legal action. How would you even establish their continued existence? Which brings us to a curious feature of your situation. At any point, your ex could simply have claimed to have deleted them; you had no way to verify this claim. Yet you’ve been denied this assurance, real or spurious. You’re not being told no; you’re being told “not yet.” The natural inference is that your ex wants to maintain a status quo in which you’re regularly in touch.
Letting go of this issue — if you can manage it, psychologically — means letting go of your ex. That’s the main reason I’d urge you to try. Six years after your breakup, your demands, however legitimate, are keeping you in each other’s lives. That outcome may suit your ex. I don’t think it suits you.
The previous column’s question was from a woman whose neighbors regularly left their young child outside, sometimes in foul weather, screaming and crying. She wrote: “I don’t know the family at all, and they’re not chatty. But what I’m seeing is heartbreaking. I’ve thought of leaving an anonymous note with a list of helpful resources for new families and for parents of children with special needs, and at times I just want to call the Department of Children and Families. What to do?”
In his response, the Ethicist noted: “I grew up in a place where the adults in our neighborhood (not least the many older women honored as “aunties”) accepted some responsibility for any children they encountered. Against that West African background, telling parents they’re being too hard on their children is an acceptable form of neighborly communication. I doubt the family next door will share this view. … Calling social services isn’t something to be done lightly, but if what you describe is indeed occurring regularly, a child is being seriously mistreated. Even if the social-services experts look into the matter and decide not to do anything, the family might gain some instruction, and you will have done your duty.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
This is not a situation for waffling: A 4-year-old, left outside alone, sobbing for up to 45 minutes, every day, is child abuse — plain and simple. As a society, it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that children are safe. What has “looking the other way” ever done for the futures of our children? They become scarred, damaged adults. — Cathy
Heavens, yes, call child protective services. I think an anonymous note would just signal to the parents that they need to punish the child in a way that’s less visible to neighbors. It sounds like the experts need to intervene here. — Mary
I generally love Professor Appiah’s explanations, but I’m deeply concerned that he casually referenced calling child protective services without alluding to the great harm caused by these agencies. They have a long history of separating children from their families when what’s really needed is just basic resources. Additionally, it’s not at all guaranteed that a child will have a better experience in a foster family or a care home; both options have astronomical rates of child abuse. — Erin
As the mother of an autistic child who would have hourslong meltdowns every day, I spent years worried that the police or social services would be called by a neighbor or passer-by, triggering an investigation — or worse. Before “reporting” the neighbors, I would urge the writer to first talk with them to express their concerns and offer resources as needed. Lead with concern and compassion before moving to something more extreme. — Patti
I like the West African response; it smacks of humanity. Where are we that a child crying for hours in the rain becomes a matter for the law? — Robin
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.