The Face in Digital Space

Published in ‘The Culture of Photography in Public Space’, edited by Anne Marsh, Melissa Miles and Daniel Palmer, Intellect, Bristol, 2015

GALLERY OF ILLUSTRATIONS

That configuration of eyes, nose and mouth stuck to the front of our heads, which we call the face, not only connects the outer sociological self to the inner psychological self— the old ‘window on the soul’ idea — but it also connects one person to another in a relationship. For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas the face was the place of authentic encounter between self and other: ‘The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation’. (Levinas 1979: 210) According to Levinas, when two faces face each other, each demands something from the other, even if it is only recognition. It is the power of ideas such as this that still underpin controversies around the role of the face in public places of social interaction. For instance, the debates around recent attempts by various European governments to ban the burqa and the niqab in public, place the face at the very centre of contemporary definitions of personal autonomy and public citizenship. (Chesler 2010)

In order to perform this social function of human interaction the face has to be abstracted away from the body so that it can enter into a system of semiotic exchange. Deleuze and Guattari called this ‘faciality’, a process that over-codes the organism of the body with other strata of signification and subjectification. (1988) To them, the face is an abstract machine of ‘black holes in a white wall’ — a technology increasingly becoming enmeshed with other technologies.

Facial history

But in many ways this process of abstraction and ‘over-coding’ begins much earlier, with John Caspar Lavatar’s popular Essays in Physiognomy from the 1770s. Lavater defined his new science of physiognomy as the ‘the science … of the correspondence between the external and the internal man, the visible superficies and the invisible contents.’ (Lavater 1885: 11) He established that correspondence by either visual analogy, where a bovine-looking person must exhibit dull, bovine personal characteristics; or by biometric algorithms, where the slope of a brow, for instance, indexed cranial capacity and thus intelligence. A brow at a high angle above the nose was the mathematical index of a large brain, but also the visual equivalent of Roman nobility. A brow at a low angle indicated a small brain, and was also literally simian. Lavater’s analogical mapping and algorithmic vectorization allowed him to compare and classify faces, but they also removed the face from the ranks of the purely human, and placed it into an abstracted morphing space which was also shared by animals. Plate 80 of his Essays in Physiognomy demonstrates this with startling clarity as Lavater’s illustrator morphs a drawing of a frog’s face through twelve separate frames. In the first frame the angles of the isosceles triangle between the frog’s eyes and its lips is, Lavater tells us, just 25 degrees. Frame by frame the frog’s eyes slowly become more almond shaped and the whole face lengthens until, by the final frame, we find ourselves looking into the face of an androgynous human. The angle between the eyes and lips of this face has now increased to 56 degrees, a facial angle shared, according to Lavater, by Aristotle, Pitt, Frederick the Great, and Apollo.(497)

Eighty years later Charles Darwin completed the project of placing the human face within the realm of animals with his development of the theory of evolution. In his wildly popular follow-up book of 1872, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he homed in on the mechanics of the face and established that human facial expression was an instinctual animal behaviour, rather than a social language. (Darwin1 872) He demonstrated the automatic, biological mechanics of expression by artificially decoupling the external hydraulics of the facial muscles from their usual inner, instinctual motivations. For instance, for plate seven he obtained from the French scientist Dr Duchene a photograph of the facial muscles of an intellectually impaired man being twitched into the expression of ‘horror and agony’ by the external application of the terminals of a galvanic battery. He then juxtaposed this with a photograph he had commissioned of the photographer Oscar Rejlander acting out exactly the same expression. By photographically proving that muscles could be manipulating by two entirely separate methods — electricity and pantomime — to produce exactly the same expression. In this plate Darwin demonstrated that the face lay on top of the self, the face alone, without the self, could enter the plane of abstracted analysis and comparison.

Lavater’s physiognomic analogs and algorithms, and Darwin’s muscular decoupling, had the effect of conceptually delaminating the face from the body. But it was photography that then circulated that face within society. The greatest celebrity of Victorian England was the royal courtesan, partygoer, actress, beauty, and endorser of Pears Soap, Lillie Langtry. Through photography her face left the realm of her body and entered other media spaces. In Victorian England the most lubricious place where newly mobilised images bumped up against each other was the stationer’s shop window, and Lillie’s photographs were right in the middle of every window, disturbing the pre-existing social order. A writer at the time commented on:

… that democratic disregard of rank which prevails in our National Portrait Gallery of the present day — the stationer’s shop window — where such discordant elements of the social fabric as Lord Napier and Lillie Langtry … rub shoulders jarringly. (Ewing 2008: 22)

 Langtry was also the very first person in the world to find herself in a photographic feedback loop, that is, to feel the effects of her photographed face, as it circulated though Victorian visual culture, reflecting back on to her actual body. In her autobiography, The Days I Knew, she recalled:

Photography was now making great strides, and pictures of well-known people had begun to be exhibited for sale. The photographers, one and all, besought me to sit. Presently, my portraits were in every shop-window, with trying results, for they made the public so familiar with my features that wherever I went — to theatres, picture galleries, shops — I was actually mobbed. Thus the photographs gave fresh stimulus to a condition which I had unconsciously created. One night, at a large reception at Lady Jersey’s, many of the guests stood on chairs to obtain a better view of me, and I could not help but hear their audible comments on my appearance as I passed down the drawing-room. Itinerant vendors sold cards about the streets with my portrait ingeniously concealed, shouting ‘The Jersey Lily, the puzzle is to find her’. (Langtry 1925: 40)

 

Facial velocity

In the subsequent 130 years, of course, the velocity of that photographic circulation has only increased in speed and brutality. And now it is not just the mega-famous who find themselves caught up in photographic feedback loops. Erno Nussenzweig has become the chief exemplar of the ever-present possibility that any one of us can suddently become an accidental celebrity. One day in 1999 this elderly, bearded, orthodox Jewish man innocently emerged onto the sidewalk from a subway at Times Square. It wasn’t until five years later that he discovered that at that decisive moment he had been photographed by Philip-Lorca diCorcia who had set up a bank of flashlights on scaffolding to capture random passers by as they came into his camera’s plane of focus. diCorcia had exhibited the portrait at the prestigious Pace/McGill Gallery, published it in a book called Heads, sold out its edition of ten prints at between twenty and thirty thousand dollars each, and had eventually won London’s prestigious Citibank Prize with it. Nussenzweig sued for 1.6 million dollars claiming the photographer had used his face for purposes of trade, as well as violated his religious beliefs. His lawyer, Jay Golding, put his case best succinctly to the New York Post who in their report ‘What’s a picture worth — he wants 1.6 Mil’ quoted him as saying: ‘It’s a beautiful picture. But why should this guy make money off of your face?’. (Hafetz 2005: 23) diCorcia’s lawyer, however, was able to convince the judge that the photographs were taken primarily for the purpose of artistic expression, not commerce, and were therefore protected by the First Amendment.

Or consider the case of Neda Soltan. In 2009 she was videoed by the mobile phones of three separate pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran as she lay dying from a government-sniper’s bullet. After the videos went viral on the internet her face was even turned into a mask and worn by pro-democracy demonstrators at a protest in Paris. (Wikipedia ‘Death of Neda Agha-Soltan’ 2013) Meanwhile, in the hours after her death, some eager journalists mistakenly harvested a photograph of another Iranian woman with a similar name, Neda Soltani, from her Facebook page. It was this face that was used in many improvised shrines to the other, assassinated Neda. Iranian authorities then began to harass Soltani in order to get her to cooperate with them in claiming hat the original murder had been a set-up by the western media. After twelve days of harassment the other Neda was forced to flee Iran and seek refuge in Germany, from where she wrote a book about her experience, My Stolen Face. (Soltani 2012)

Or put yourself in the shoes of Nicole McCabe, an Australian citizen living in Jerusalem and pregnant with her first child. She also had her photograph harvested from Facebook. In 2010 the Israeli Government had stolen McCabe’s identity for a Mossad agent to use in order to assassinate a Hamas official. When the story broke and the passports the Israeli’s had forged were circulated in the media, complete with their actual passport numbers, Nicole McCabe decided she did not want to talk to Australian journalists, or be photographed by them. But after having the door slammed on them by McCabe’s angry husband, the journalists simply sourced photographs of her from Facebook, where friends had posted her wedding photographs. Nicole said she felt:

‘sick, angry, embarrassed and upset … even if Facebook is public, they have no right to take what they want without asking. I was more determined than ever not to let anyone take a photo of me.’ (Media Watch 2010)

 Or consider the fate of the footballer Sonny Bill Williams. In 2007 he embarked on an afternoon drinking session at the Clovelly Hotel with his team-mates and a group of football groupies that included celebrity iron woman Candice Falzon. Later that night one Clovelly local got a message on his phone. The local reported: “It said Candice Falzon had followed Sonny Bill into the toilets upstairs at the pub and everyone knew about it. The next message I got was an … um … action shot.” The shot, taken by putting a mobile phone under the toilet door as William and Falzon had sex, was soon being widely circulated amongst the mobile phones of Clovelly, and when it was eventually published on The Daily Telegraph’s website, it attracted a record number of hits. Williams reportedly had to spend all the following morning buying up copies of newspapers in his area in a futile attempt to stop his girlfriend learning of his toilet tryst. Although the person who took the photograph could have been liable for two years jail under the summary offences act for taking lewd photographs in toilets and change rooms, the newspaper itself could not be successfully prosecuted for posting the photograph once it was taken. (The Daily Telegraph 2007)

Incidents such as this show that faces don’t just have features, they also have velocities. The more famous you are the more recognizable you are to more people, but also the faster your face is circulated in the media. Even if you aren’t famous, a lightning bolt of sudden celebrity can dramatically, thought temporarily, catapult your face into a higher strata of recognizability, which propels exchange at a faster velocity.

While some have felt themselves suddenly swept up into these currents of facial velocity, others have attempted, with mixed success, to ride those turbulent currents to even greater fame. Consider the career of Lara Bingle. Once an ordinary bikini model, her celebrity stocks rose in 2006 when she was chosen for a tourism campaign. The men’s magazine Zoo Weekly then published revealing photographs of her that had been taken eleven months earlier, before she was chosen to be the wholesome face of Australia, on which they superimposed sexually suggestive speech bubbles. She sued the magazine for defamation. She won the case when the judge accepted that the magazine was smutty and had implied that she had willingly consented to pose for the sexual titillation of its readers. (Sydney Morning Herald 2006a, 2006b) However by the end of 2006 the tourism campaign had flopped, and Bingle was having an illicit affair with the married footballer Brendan Fevola. But by 2008 her stocks had risen again, she was engaged to the cricketer Michael Clark, and they were one of Sydney’s foremost celebrity couples, even endorsing an energy drink. By early 2010 she had even signed up with celebrity agent Mark Marxson. But then Woman’s Day published a mobile-phone photograph her ex-lover Brendan Fevola had taken of her in the shower back in 2006, which his football mates had been circulating between their mobile phones for some time. Her engagement with Michael Clark broke down and the energy drink company dropped them. Mark Marxson threatened to ‘strike a blow for women’s rights’ by getting her to sue Fevola, but she did not have a case because, unlike in the Zoo Weekly case, no specific laws of defamation were broken. (Byrne 2010) Bingle’s stocks in the celebrity marketplace plummeted but, after a period of careful career management including charity work, family-friendly television appearances, and the avoidance of footballers, they begun to rise again. They rose so far that by 2012 she successfully negotiated with a TV production company to become the subject of a ‘reality’ TV series Being Lara Bingle on a commercial television network. Conveniently, just before the premiere was about to air, another controversy erupted when she was supposedly photographed surreptitiously by the famous paparazzi Darryn Lyons (who was in fact a business partner of Bingle’s) standing nude near the window of the Bondi flat that had been rented for the show. This confected ‘invasion of privacy’ allowed her to tell breakfast radio that: “There should be a law against someone shooting inside your house …. it’s just not right”, thus garnering pre-publicity for the series, and conveniently forming the content of the first episode. That first TV episode rated highly, however subsequent episodes in the series steadily lost viewers, to the point where Bingle’s career languished once more. (O’Brien 2012) Bingle then climbed back in the celebrity news cycle after she began to date the Avatar actor Sam Worthington, reportedly introducing him to the use of social media platforms such as Instagram. In February 2014 the couple suddenly hit the celebrity gossip headlines when Worthington was arrested in New York for allegedly assaulting a photographer who had allegedly kicked Bingle in the shin. (Clun 2014)

The camera has ruled Lara Bingle’s career as celebrity, someone defined by our desire to look at her. But this has been the case ever since Lillie Langtry. However the roller coaster ride of Bingle’s value as a bankable celebrity has also been ruled by the sudden eruptions or irruptions, whether planned or not, ‘authorised’ or not, of particular recognisable photographs which re-attach the ‘face’ of Bingle to the ‘brand’ of Bingle in different ways. The speed of their circulation through both social media and the mainstream media, create the volatility of the market for her images. Celebrities are sometimes even forced to engage in this market directly. For example, in 2013 the TV and radio presenter Chrissie Swan, who had acquired her celebrity status dispensing homespun wisdom to ordinary women, was photographed smoking whilst she was pregnant, something she herself had campaigned against. So that they could never be published, she engaged in a bidding war with two magazines for the photographs, eventually pulling out after offering $53,000, two thousand dollars less than the winning bid by Womens Day. (news.com.au 2013)

Facial vecotorisation

These examples indicate the high speed of facial velocity. But what of facial vectorisation? The terrain of the face continues to be the site of scientific research that updates Lavater’s and Darwin’s pioneering efforts and re-affirms the face’s muscular mechanics as central to our humanity — although now not by indexing some immutable inner person as Lavater had supposed, but through their intrinsic role within language comprehension. Contemporary cognitive psychologists such as professor Rolf Zwan, from Erasmus University Rotterdam, are researching the ways that facial muscle-movement directly feedbacks to the brain. For example experiments have shown that if you are smiling you can read sentences about emotions quicker than if you are frowning; and if you have had Botox you have more difficulty interpreting photographic portraits of emotions because in conversation your facial muscles subtly enter into a feedback loop of micro-mimicry with your interlocutor, which Botox decouples. (Lingua Franca 2011; White 2011; Zwaan 2013) Other experiments suggest that if you are in the presence of the representation of a face your moral standards are higher. (Bourrat, Baumard, McKay 2011; Smith 2011)

 

While these examples of cognitive research indicate that the face as a concept remains central to discourses of the human, individual faces are also increasingly caught up in ever-finer meshes of delamination, vectorisation, and mobilization. For instance plastic surgery is moving down the social scale from being the prerogative of the famous and the fatuous, to being a commonplace conventional practice for all of us. ‘Extreme makeovers’ are increasingly re-mapping everyday faces, and recalibrating with the scalpel the vectoral angles between eyes, noses and chins in order to ratchet their owners up in scales of beauty.

If the facial structure itself can be morphed through surgery, in other instances the facial pixel maps representing the person can be manipulated. The regular Photoshoping of celebrity portraits in our magazines simply replicates in two dimensions the effects of the cosmetic surgeon’s scalpel, and the amount of pixelated deviation away from the ‘truth’ can even be algorithmically calculated and given a value. (Fahid, Kee 2011) Photoshop can also be used to disguise faces. Consider the case of Christopher Paul Neil who liked to post pictures of himself sexually abusing Vietnamese and Cambodian children on paedophile websites. He applied a swirl filter to his face to disguise his identity, but German police simply applied the same filter in reverse and unswirled the pattern and reveal his face. Interpol then posted the image on their website where he was recognised by five different people and identified. After his face was picked up by a surveillance camera at Bangkok Airport he was eventually arrested in October 2007. (Daily Mail 2007; Wikipedia ‘Christopher Paul Neil’ 2013)

Neil was recognised by a human being, but the technological possibility exists that eventually his face could have been recognised by a machine. Facial recognition software applies algorithms to the same sets of vectors between eyes, nose and mouth that Lavater originally identified. Australia is at the forefront of facial recognition research. We have not only already introduced ‘smart gates’ at our airports to match our facial algorithms with a database, but National ICT Australia (NICTA) received 1.5 million dollars from the Cabinet to research what it describes as the ‘holy grail’ of surveillance: ‘real-time face-in-the-crowd recognition technology’. Concurrent with these Australian research projects, international protocols are also being developed. For instance the US Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology hosted the Face Recognition Grand Challenge open to entrants from industry, universities and research institutes. This means, according to NICTA, that:

The surveillance industry is currently undergoing the same revolutionary changes that shook up the computer industry when internet use took off in the 1990s. Instead of each supplier providing a unique product, the sector will soon be dominated by standards and interoperability. Surveillance will eventually merge into a virtually seamless multimedia network embracing social media, location services, mobile devices, maps, and 3D models. (Advanced Surveillance Project 2013; (Bigdeli, LovellMau, 201abc)

However even though technology is yet to actually deliver on its promises, the idea of facial recognition and facial manipulation has already become commonplace in the media, and almost domesticated. For several years it has been something we can all indulge in as a kind of game. A whole class of smart phone apps are based on face recognition software. We can also apply face recognition algorithms to the vast reservoirs of faces on the internet, or on Facebook, or in our iPhoto libraries, in order to locate friends we are looking for even when the metadata tags aren’t available; or to look for celebrities; or to calculate how much we look like a celebrity; or to calculate which of our children most looks like us. Many new cameras also have face recognition software built in which recognises, automatically focuses on, and tags, particular people even before the shutter is clicked.

In a way of thinking about the face that is very similar to Lavater’s and Darwin’s, the frontier of contemporary 3D computer animation is the mapping of actual micro-muscular movements onto animated wire-frames. The most famous example of this so far has occurred in the movie Avatar, 2009, where actors, including Sam Worthington, wore head-rigs which filmed the movement of motion-tracking markers on their faces. This digital information was then ‘peeled’ off the actor’s face and re-applied to a 3D animation wire-frame model. The use of the same rigs on the actor Andy Serkis for the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011, finally placed the human face and its expressions in the realm as animals, as imagined by Lavater 230 years ago. Significantly, this technology has also become domesticated in on-line games such as Macdonald’s website Avartize Yourself. Other games take forensic ‘age progression’ software used by missing-persons bureaus, and turn them into games such as the iPhone app Hourface.

Facial Privatisation

Why is it worthwhile looking so closely at tabloid trash and trivial on-line games? Because they, as much as high-end cutting-edge research, are the symptoms of two new tendencies in the valency of the face. Firstly, we are all becoming celebrities, at least potentially. The velocity of our own faces can suddenly speed up when we least expect it. Secondly, our faces are all part of what NICTA calls a ‘virtually seamless multimedia environment’. This is not just analogical space, the bit-mapping and point-by-point comparison of appearances, but algorithmic space, where faces are vectorised and turned into equations that can instantly interact with a myriad of other equations. The pervasiveness of celebrity culture, combined with the explosion of algorithmic biometrics within merging media and data spaces, has had a profound effect upon the ways in which every one of us regards our own face. The face is congealing as a bastion from which to advance privacy rights and proclaim property rights.

 There has been a consistent and inexorable drift in legal opinion in Australia towards a tort of privacy — which we currently do not have — that is ultimately focussed on protecting the human face. Back in 2001 Justice John Dowd was able to confidently claim that a person ‘does not have a right not to be photographed’. But by 2003 Justice Michael Kirby was commenting that extending the law in Australia to protect the ‘honour, reputation and personal privacy of individuals’ would be consistent with international developments in human rights law. (Nemeth 2012)

 By 2008 Professor David Weisbot, president of the Australian Law Reform Commission, was saying that during their inquiry into privacy law, the ALRC had:

consistently heard strong support for the enactment of a statutory cause of action for serious invasion of privacy. While the debate overseas has focussed on the activities of paparazzi photographers, interestingly, most of the concerns expressed to the ALRC related more to the private sphere than the mainstream media — and to the protection of ordinary citizens rather than celebrities. People are extremely concerned about new technology and the ease with which their private personal images may be captured and disseminated. (Australian Law Reform Commission 2008)

 In their recommendations the ALRC called for: ‘a private cause of action where an individual has suffered a serious invasion of privacy, in circumstances in which the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy’. (2008) And in 2011 the NSW Law Reform Commission agreed, releasing draft laws that stated that an invasion of privacy should exist where a person ‘has a reasonable expectation of privacy’, which could potentially even include a public place. (New South Wales Law Reform Commission 2010; Marr 2009))

So, why this paradox? Why, when our personal information is flowing more freely than ever before, when 80% of people want CCTV cameras in their public spaces, and when the vast majority of Facebook users are happy to use its default settings where there is little or no privacy at all, why are we getting increasingly paranoid about our faces? I think it is because the face is caught up in a wider transformation. It is swimming against the tide that is pulling the private into the public because it is part of a stronger current, from signification to possession. Those of us feeling the effects of both celebrity culture and algorithmic data-media are regarding privacy less as a singular inherent right, and more as a fungible personal commodity which can be exchanged in a market place. For instance Nicole McCabe knew her participation in Facebook was not free, she knew she had ‘sold’ it some of her privacy in order to enjoy its benefits, but suddenly and unexpectedly she came to realize that perhaps she had ‘traded off’ too much of her privacy. This mercantile logic is also beginning to pervade other environments of facial interaction, such as public places. Within the politics of the face the receding sense of the private, in the sense of the ‘the discreet’, is being overtaken by an encroaching sense of the privatised, in the sense of ‘the owned’. We all increasingly agree implicitly with Nussenzweig’s lawyer: ‘why should this guy make money off of your face?’.

The abstraction, delamination and mobilization of the face has led to its reification. The face is closing down on the sense of openly mutual obligation that, in Levinas’s terms, once arose when one face faced another, and is replacing it with a sense of commercial enclosure. This reification is intensified by the way that all faces, even our own, can be peeled away from our bodies to enter new virtual and algorithmic spaces. Celebrities are merely at the vanguard of this transformation. Celebrities believe they are their own commodity. They believe that their face is the result of their labour and their talent. It is their capital, their brand, their corporate logo. The velocity with which their face travels through the neworks of the media is what determines their value as a celebrity. They believe they therefore have a proprietary right in it. In America their faces are even protected by a common law ‘right of publicity’ which grants them, in the words of one key judgement, ‘the exclusive right to control the commercial value and exploitation of [their] name, picture, likeness or personality.’ (Wikipedia, ‘Personality Rights’ 2013) And, just like them, we ordinary people also feel that our own faces are also becoming more monologic, less a window or an interface, and more a logo for ‘Brand Me’. That configuration of eyes, nose and mouth stuck to the front of our heads, which we call the face, is now not so much a portal to the inner self, or a species of physiognomic autobiography, or an interface to our fellow citizens, as much as a rebus of identity, or perhaps a corporate logo for the persona. It is clear that laws of privacy, photography and reproduction will eventually be changed to confirm for everybody what has already happened in facial valency to a select few. They will come to protect not only the integrity of the personal autonomy and public citzenship of the individaul as accessed through the face, but also the value of the face itself — as an individual’s property

 GALLERY OF ILLUSTRATIONS

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