PS I just took your picture

Today’s post is a guest post by the novelist and essayist, Jane Devin. We’re delighted she stopped by to bark and walk in our back yard and welcome her any time she wants to wander in. If you haven’t already, buy her book, Elephant Girl. It is nothing short of amazing.

I have social media friends who would be appalled if someone reposted one of their tweets and didn’t give them credit as the original author—even if the tweet was mindless and casual. They’d be outraged if another blogger lifted a picture from their site and republished it without permission—even if it was a picture that required no particular skill or time to take.

Yet when it comes to taking stealth pictures of other people’s faces or bodies for the purpose of putting them online, these same bloggers rigorously defend the practice. It’s not theft, they claim, but art. Their subjects tacitly agreed to the invasion by being in public.

People in public shouldn’t expect any level of privacy.
If people want privacy they should stay home.
It’s not illegal.
I have the right.
But photographers have been getting crowd shots for years.
It doesn’t harm anyone.
Asking permission before the fact would be embarrassing.
If I ask permission after the fact they might tell me no.
I might not get the candid shot I want.
The government and businesses videotape us. What about that?
It’s art.
It’s fun.
It’s funny.
Everyone’s doing it.

I’ve disagreed, sometimes hotly, with my blogging friends about the phenomena of covertly taken cell phone pictures being posted online. I’m not likely to change my mind and neither are they, but for those sitting on the fence about the issue I’d like to offer up a few thoughts on the subject.

The essential question is: To whom does a person’s face and body belong? The logical answer would seem to be that these things belong to the individual who possesses them—and if we believe that, then we should also believe that people have some rights as to when and how their own image is used.

Being out in public shouldn’t negate all reasonable expectations of personal space and privacy. As a matter of social decorum, most of us don’t purposely brush up against strangers or stand too close to them in a line or an elevator. We consider it rude to purposely eavesdrop. Very few of us would think that it was okay to record and podcast the intimate dinner conversations of others without their consent. Most of us would agree that an up-skirt shot would be less likely to identify a woman than a picture of her face, but as a matter of social propriety (and in some states the law) it’s considered the aberrant act of a Peeping Tom.

So why do some cell phone users believe it’s okay to secretly photograph strangers and post their pictures online?

The argument that there’s no expectation of personal privacy in public comes from the same faulty reasoning of the underwear snappers: The shot was available and they took it. People in public shouldn’t expect others to respect their bodies, particularly if they’re dressed in a way or engaged in an activity that piques a photographer’s interest. If the photo-snapper asked permission, they would probably be told no. If some states don’t have a specific law against cell phone owners using other people’s faces and bodies for their amusement, then it’s legal and therefore a right.

There are a host of unpleasant things people could legally do in public, but that we don’t do as a matter of courtesy and respect for others. Most people don’t step outside their door in the morning wondering how they can make the world a more uncomfortable and invasive place for others, yet for many a cell phone camera seems to be a license to do just that.

It doesn’t matter if the picture is bitter, sweet, repulsive or beautiful. The pretty woman dining with her lover probably may not feel any better about her picture being posted online than the unattractive young woman with the pockmarked face who’s dining alone. The well-dressed elderly man taking his dog for a walk may feel as uncomfortable about a stranger taking his picture as the toothless old man who’s asleep on a park bench. The point is, without asking permission, the photographer doesn’t know. Without asking permission, the integrity of the photographer is already questionable. Whether they post a picture for people to laugh at (look at this overweight woman in Lycra shorts!), cry at (see how thin and frail this homeless man looks), or ooh and ahh over (isn’t this young couple cute?), the fact is that they’ve invaded someone else’s life in order to get their shot. They’ve unapologetically stolen someone else’s image for their own purposes. They’ve put their own impulsive wants above any consideration and respect they might have for other human beings.

There’s a world of difference between accidentally capturing the faces of strangers while snapping photos of your kids at Disneyland and purposely whipping your cell phone out to take a picture of the 400 pound man in a scooter so you can post it online and rouse the disgust of your friends and readers. There’s a difference between historical event photography, like taking crowd shots of the #OWS movement, and sneaking a picture of someone who’s quietly shedding tears as she talks with a friend inside of a Starbucks.

As for those who insist that what they’re doing with cell phone cameras is no different than what photographers of bygone eras did when they captured scenes from their generation, I’d remind them that in those days cameras were a lot more noticeable. Photographers couldn’t pretend they were doing something else while snapping pictures. In those days, cameras didn’t fit into the palm of one hand — journalists and artists alike would have found it hard to take stealth photos while carrying around a tripod and twenty pounds of photo gear. The Internet also didn’t exist then. Photographers were lucky if their photos made it to the pages of a local newspaper. Today, anyone can post photos online, where they can be seen worldwide, by a potential audience of millions after being blogged, commented on, reposted, shared, catalogued in Google images, Facebooked, Tumbld and re-tweeted.

In general, the video cameras at the mall or on city streets don’t publicize the pictures they take unless there is a genuine public interest at stake, such as catching a suspected child abductor. To suggest that because some city police departments and businesses use video cameras without the explicit consent of each person filmed somehow makes it ethically “okay” for citizens to do the same is the worst kind of slippery slope excuse. Taking pictures of strangers slurping their spaghetti, kissing their partners, or wearing hideous shoes has nothing in common with protecting the public or a store from criminals.

There are times when cell phone pictures do serve the public interest. Citizens have caught police brutality and even murder on film. Citizens with cell phone cameras have filmed historical events, like the tragedy of 9-11 and the capture of Gaddafi, and have opened up a cross-cultural exchange of images that might never make it to the network news, such as the early protests in Egypt or the treatment of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Images like these aren’t taken for amusement, though, nor are they being posted without regard for their subjects under the guise of “art”. There’s an inherent value to pictures that relate to news and events that is not shared by sites like PeopleofWalmart.com or, unfortunately, most of the stealth pictures being posted online today.

What are your thoughts? Do you feel that being out in public suspends your right to privacy? Have cell phone cameras and the Internet made everyone a public figure? Would you be surprised to find a candid photo of yourself online? Do you think common courtesy should prevail or do we actually need laws that cover new technology?

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About Jane Devin

Jane Devin is a culture critic, essayist, and author. Her memoir, Elephant Girl, is available in paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com. In 2010, Jane ended an extended road trip across the U.S., which was blogged on Finding My America. She also blogs at The Huffington Post. You are welcome to follow her on Twitter or fan her on Facebook. She can be reached at jane [at] janedevin.com.
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2 Responses to PS I just took your picture

  1. ModernSauce says:

    Thank you for saying this, Jane! I came across this post recently (http://fatheffalump.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/i-am-nobodys-freak-show/) about how it feels for someone as the subject of the photos.

    Sometimes I feel like these kinds of pictures reduce people to objects for our enjoyment/ridicule and even if it might appear artistic or unfortunately inspire a giggle or two (hey, we’ve all gotten the People of Walmart emails) I don’t trust the “photographers” with my image. It often feels like stripping people of their humanity. (Maybe I’m overreacting here?!)

  2. Lisa says:

    A photographer has to have a signed release to publish a person’s image, whether it’s in print, online, or on a billboard for everyone to see. In the past only pros followed this practice because they tended to be the only people actually publishing photos, but the Internet has changed all that. Now anyone with a smartphone can publish someone’s image without their knowledge or consent. That doesn’t make it right. I think people either are ignorant of their subject’s rights or think they won’t get caught in the act. Sooner or later, though, someone will get caught, and the legal brouhaha will hopefully clarify the laws regarding the practice. There will always be people who don’t follow those laws, though. Look at all the bit torrent sites still active.