Saturday, June 27, 2009


I hate having my picture taken. It's genetic: My dad hates having his picture, and in every family picture that he could even be coerced/tricked into, he is hiding in the back with a hat and sunglasses. So that's where it comes from: I hate hate hate having my picture taken, and would be really upset if someone took my picture without my permission (because I would never give my permission) and posted it on the internet. I also am a little bit wussy- I wouldn't have the guts to tell a person with a camera to turn the thing off or away from me, unless I knew them, and if I knew them, they wouldn't be pointing it at me.

Today Jen and I had a conversation about privacy. We both take pictures and post them online, notably to flickr. I take a lot of pictures of people- some with explicit permission, some with implicit permission like a smile and a wave of the camera, or because they're my friends, and some with no permission at all. This might be because I feel they're fair game because they've already got their cameras up to their faces or because they're at some kind of event that makes them a spectacle, almost begging to be photographed.

But is this fair? Technically, it's legal. We can take pictures on public property. Of anyone, even children. There are people who take full advantage of this. They take pictures of unwitting homeless people on the sidewalk and (obviously) unwitting sleeping people. Is this art? Is it humor? Is it documenting social injustices? Or is it exploitation? I have a hard time taking pictures of people down on their luck, whether candidly or asking- it just seems like an abuse of power. Sure, it's legal, but it doesn't feel right. I would be pissed if the same happened to me- if I were just walking my dog and someone took my picture, but even worse if I were huddled on the corner. Photographer Thomas Hawk came up with the idea of giving each transient person two dollars for the opportunity to take their picture. This takes some of the candid element out of the shot, but it also removes *some* of the exploitative nature. Two dollars? 226 pictures have been added to the flickr pool for $2 portraits.

As runningwdogs pointed out in our discussion about this today, everyone has a camera. If you have a cell phone, you have a camera. Most people have the internet, and most people under 25 know how to get a picture from their cell phones to the internet. If you're out in the world, you're liable to be on the internet. That doesn't mean, in my mind, that your picture is going to be easy to find. If someone *did* take my picture while I was walking the dog in the sweltering heat, and put it on flickr, if someone else wanted to find it, they'd have to know a) that it was posted on flickr (not one of the 1836 other photohosting websites) b) where to look- how is the picture tagged? c) have a reason to be looking for me on flickr. Flipping to me being the photographer, if I was out today for any reason other than stalking, it was probably to take pictures of the retarded people walking their dogs in the sweltering heat. I don't know who they are- I'm going to tag them with things like "walking the dog" and "Oakland" and "girl" and "pit bull." Someone would have to be really really dedicated (and slightly insane) to find that picture. According to flickr, there were 6,414 pictures uploaded in the last minute. What about Photobucket, Imageshack, Snapfish, Myspace, Facebook, etc? The point I'm trying to make is that there is a certain degree of anynomity in hosting candid pictures of people that were taken without their permission.

Do I think this is always okay? No. I hesitate posting pictures of kids. I've only posted one or two, and that's not just because I don't like them. It always kind of creeps me out. In fact, it kind of creeps me out when people post pictures of their own kids on flickr (and other sites)- why do they want the whole world to know what their child looks like sleeping, playing with toys, sucking their thumb? When their child is old enough to understand, will they want to know that 100 people looked at pictures of them in the tub? Sure, the same principle of anonymity applies, except that your name is attached. Weird.

I've found some good discussions about this: Red Bubble has a good discussion of how "casual" snappers like me have to deal with privacy in different ways than the papparazzi, and how we overlap. Photo Secrets has an interesting bit about "false light"- it's not a good idea to portray someone in a position that isn't really what they were doing. If you take a picture of me walking the dog but make it appear that I am homeless, that's not good. An historical article by Paul Lester. An interesting blog by a photographer on photographing people.


Steve said...

I believe this accurately highlights the human condition covering all the points of the compass .. Moral obligations vs personal space and freedom of speech vs artistic freedom - for me the answer is the glass is half full - only post what I'm sure the subject will not mind and what I personally would not find distasteful.

Too often I feel people lose touch with the fact that the 'subject' is a person too - hide behind they're glass and metal window and ignore the reality of the scene in front of them.

Thanks for an insightful post on a pretty active subject =]

Meera said...

Nice post and something I think about often. I post pictures of me & my kid on public places (FB, the fo etc) and don't mind it too much. But I limit them to pictures that I wouldn't be embarassed about if they turned up in a newspaper.

As a photographer, if I take pictures of strangers, I think the good-faith approach is to think of it the same way - is this something that you as a person would object to if the image was recognizable as your photograph.

On shoots I actually do for people (aware & willing subjects) I ask if they will be okay with where ever I propose posting it.

On the flip side, my husband hates having his pictures taken or posted on the internet but when a photographer posts it on her blog or FB or where ever, I find myself too reluctant to ask that they be pulled off because I know they have the legal right to do it. Interesting moral dilema.

OT - I've been meaning to email you to chat about Flickr and whether you've found it useful from a critique perspective. That (critique) is something I'm sorely missing in my life.