Say Cheese

When she agreed to pose for a photo at the Miami Art Museum, Amnau Karam had no idea hers would be the face that launched a thousand Metrorail cars

Amnau Karam will never forget the day she learned that her picture was on Metrorail fare cards all over the county. It was a sweltering July morning in 1997 and her husband Clifton Mallery had left their South Beach apartment to pick up some groceries at the nearby Art Deco Supermarket on Washington Avenue. The cashier, who knew the couple, called him over and handed him a fare card. There on the back was a photo of his wife in an advertisement for the Miami Art Museum (MAM). Mallery asked to borrow the card and headed home to show his wife. Karam was furious.

About fifteen minutes later the couple ran into a friend who was carrying a MAM poster, which he had torn off a Metrorail car, featuring the same photograph of Karam holding a glass vase.

Although Karam had cheerfully posed for the photograph nine months earlier while visiting MAM on her birthday, she says she did so on the condition that the photograph be used for a membership drive brochure only -- not plastered all over the county. She says she signed a release to this effect and was assured by the photographer's assistant that she would be mailed a copy.

A former model whose resume includes fashion shows for Givenchy and Giorgio Armani, the 35-year-old Karam is no stranger to the camera, or to the legal procedures that govern the snapping of photographs for public use. She threatened to sue the county for unauthorized use of the photograph. Karam maintains that the illegal use of her image could damage her credibility and earning power should she decide to return to modeling one day.

More upsetting, she says, has been the unwanted attention her image has provoked. "I'm tired of being accosted on the streets," she says, jumping up to re-enact a recent encounter. "This guy comes up to me and says, 'Ooh, ooh, ooh, you've saved me mami. Now I'm powerful!' Another guy came up and said, 'Daughter! You have to understand, you're the daughter of Zion.' I can't go anywhere in peace any more," she laments.

The county, she notes, has been less than sympathetic to her plight. Karam says she spent months trying to get MAM staffers to send her the release she signed the day of the shoot. Last July, after her photograph appeared on the fare cards, she hired Miami lawyer Michele Delancy, who sent MAM's public affairs office a letter demanding that the museum "cease and desist from printing and/or publishing any and all literature, brochures, advertisements, debit cards and any other paraphernalia portraying Amnau Karam's likeness." Delancy also demanded that MAM issue a public apology to Karam "by way of the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, and the Miami Daily Business Review."

In response to Delancy's demands, Assistant County Attorney Deborah Mastin wrote a letter on behalf of MAM stating that Karam had in fact signed a release consenting "irrevocably to the use of [Karam's] photographs for any purposes whatsoever." To bolster her argument, Mastin faxed Delancy a copy of the release.

Karam says the release she signed at the museum was nothing like the document Mastin sent her attorney. "That is a slave contract," scoffs Karam, a striking woman with large eyes and short-cropped hair. "Basically it says you can do whatever you want [with the photos] -- sell them to a porn movie, whatever. How in the world does a public institution get away with something like this? That means that if your daughter walked in there, they could hand that to her and she wouldn't know what she was signing. It's common knowledge in our business that this is a no-no."

So what to make of the release sent by Mastin? Karam insists the signature is forged.

A Louisiana native, Karam spent sixteen years modeling in Europe and New York before moving to Miami in September 1996 with her husband Clifton, a painter. Shortly thereafter the couple founded the Black Artists' Association, a nonprofit group devoted to nurturing artistic talent in Miami's black communities. In fact, Karam was one of 150 people from the South Florida arts community who attended a Miami meeting held by Jane Alexander, then chairwoman of the National Endowment of the Arts.

Karam says she was initially happy to pose for the photo because she wanted to help MAM with its membership drive. She also thought it could lead to connections that would help her promote her husband's paintings, the reason she left modeling. No longer. "I'm nobody to them," she fumes. "I'm just somebody to be stepped on."

MAM director Suzanne Delehanty insists that all of the museum's dealings with Karam have been "very cordial. We really try to be as careful as possible about how we do things. We proofread things. We try to do photo credits. We publish a lot of materials, and we handle a lot of images. I think everybody on our staff is really trained to be as thoughtful as possible about how all of that is managed." As a courtesy to Karam, Delehanty adds, MAM has stopped using her photograph on new museum materials.

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