Tag Archives: privacy

But What About Vivian Maier?

My post this week for Role/Reboot about not taking pictures of strangers is getting some traction. I’m always grateful for that kind of attention not only because it stokes my ego (stoked!) but because the more people who read something, the more likely it is that I get asked some tough, interesting questions. Shocking, I know, that I didn’t think of everything.

To refresh your memory, on the off chance that my words are not indelibly etched in your brain, I argued that the modern habit of snapping photos of strangers in public (at the beach, on the train, behaving badly, etc) and posting them online to mock is tantamount to bullying. I hinged my argument on permission (as always, consent is sexy), suggesting that if what you’re doing is complimentary (i.e. street style galleries, etc), you’d be comfortable asking permission of your subject. If you wouldn’t be comfortable asking, you’re probably being a creep. Note: Not a criminal, but a creep; this is an ethical argument, not a legal one.

So what’s the counter argument?

BUT WHAT ABOUT ART????? 

1954, New York, NYWhat about art? What about photography like that of Vivian Maier, the little known, recently discovered photographer who left her nannying job in Oak Park every weekend to come into the city and take photographs? Many of her photos are of average citizens waiting for stoplights, smoking on corners, or, like Instagrams of today, dozing on  buses. Some are head-on portraits that imply willing participation of her subjects, but many are clearly not.

December 2, 1954, New York, NY

Why is Vivian Maier’s “art” more valid than the ‘grammer on the train capturing the guy picking his nose and hashtagging it #digdeep? Can we call one nonconsensual stranger photo art and another harassment? Aren’t both equal invasions of privacy? Our modern age gives us tools to share our invasive “art”, whereas Vivian’s photography lay dormant in boxes for decades. But don’t we think that had Vivian been alive in 2014, she’d be Instagramming along with the rest of us?

In my post, I made a blanket rule “Don’t take pictures of strangers without their permission,” and many people pushed back that, if obeyed, my rule would eliminate the work of artists like Maier.

Yes, it might.

April 7, 1960. FloridaBefore we continue down this path, let’s weed out the dickwads who are straight-up bullying on purpose; we can all agree that their intent is to mock.

But many of us fancy ourselves capturers of beauty or longing or the human experience or whatever; we don’t think we’re bullies, we think we’re artists. The only way to justify our invasion of someone else’s space is to convince ourselves that the thing we’re producing is more valuable than that person’s comfort.

Let me give you an example: I just got back from Chile. In the many hundreds of photos I took, there are a few in which I am intentionally taking pictures of strangers without their permission. A handful are of performers, people on stages or performing in parades; though I’m still a little uncomfortable with that, let’s even discount those as potentially justifiable. But what about this one:

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This guy is just hanging out, watching the parade from his house. He didn’t wave at me, we didn’t acknowledge each other, he in no way, shape, or form gave an OK for me to take his photo, much less post it on FB*. Which I did. Without even thinking twice. Am I mocking? Teasing? Shaming? Not intentionally, no. But, as we discuss all the time, I don’t get to decideMy intention taking this photo is not what makes it ethically sound or not; his perception of me is. Does he feel like the gringa is abusing her privilege? Does he feel patronized or reduced or mocked? Does he feel like he’s being treated as a Chilean prop I’m using to commemorate my travels? I don’t know, I didn’t ask. Although I didn’t intend the photo to be any of those things, in this case I’m equivalent to the cat-caller/harasser/privacy-invader/slur-slinger who “didn’t mean it that way.”

So what now? Let’s say you believe that the world is better with Vivian Maier’s photography in it. I sure appreciate it. I’m pretty uncomfortable with how we got it, but let’s say there actually is small portion of art for which we are willing to make ethical compromises. We do it all the time, right R. Kelly fans?  Picasso fans? Hemingway fans? Roman Polanski fans? We separate our appreciation for art from how it was made or the crimes of the people who made it, especially when those crimes contribute to how it was made (you think when R. Kelly sings about panties and pussy he’s always talking about women over 18? Really?).

What percent of nonconsensual pictures of strangers are worth the ethical compromise? A very, very, very, almost microscopically small percentage. Which ones? Whose bar are we using? Well, obviously, I don’t get to decide, and neither do you. The question is, is the photo you’re about to take one of them? Is the photo I took of the Chilean man in that microscopically small slice of pictures worth the queasy feeling that someone’s privacy is being invaded? Hell no.

The question is, do you think you’re Vivian Maier? If not, then knock it off.

*I’ve since taken it down, ditto any other non-performance pictures of strangers. 

Related Post: My memoir will be called “Is My Optimism Really Just White Privilege?”

Related Post: When you’re feeling attacked, you’re probably just having your privilege challenged.

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Stranger Pics & The Pope

Contrary to the title of this post, this is not an essay about stranger pictures and the Pope, but rather two separate essays for Role/Reboot. This week, I wrote about the first rule of fight club: don’t take pictures of strangers without their permission. Very obvious corrollary: Don’t post pictures of strangers that you took without their permission.

On rare occasions, stranger pics are meant to celebrate and compliment, in which case, ask permission before snapping and sharing. The rest of the time, when we are taking photos of strangers with the intent to mock, we are actively contributing to a culture of bullying. We all do embarrassing things, accidentally wearing a shirt inside out (a stranger photo recently seen on Twitter), or trying to surreptitiously pick a wedgie (Instagram). If you would like your moments of private shame or your brief lapses in fashion judgment generously overlooked by the Internet, you have to give people the same courtesy. “Being in public” is not equivalent to “giving permission to be photographed and/or mocked/idolized/lusted after/bullied/captioned/edited”. Maybe legally it is, I have no idea, I’m not a lawyer, but ethically it is not.

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Last week, after the Pope commented that married couples without children will find bitterness and loneliness, I wrote about what he calls “the culture of well being”, and why wanting to be a parent is the best possible reason to become one, and not wanting to be one is a pretty damn good reason to not.

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Related Post: Stranger pic example, hot girls of Occupy Wallstreet.

Related Post: “Don’t take my picture,” “Come on! You’re at the beach!”

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Privacy, Surveillance and Generation TMI

Cory Doctorow, editor of Boing Boing, talks about internet privacy and generation overshare (photo: JonathanWentworth.com)

Last week, I read a phrase that really stuck with me, “digital birthright,” used to describe the instantaneous tech savvy of the up and coming generation of gadget users. For the life of me, I can’t recall where I read it, or who wrote it, but props to them for succinctly describing this texting/facebook/twitter/social networking generation.

And then yesterday, I read a Jezebel post about Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt that described our current epoch as the “Post-Dignity Era.” We are Generation Overshare, Generation TMI.

That’s the flipside of the digital birthright. The pressure (desire? expectation? obligation?) to participate in extensive sharing is strongly encouraged, and sometimes coerced, on these forums. One can’t really be a passive participant and still be a full member of the club. Hence, my parents are on facebook, but they aren’t really on facebook.

Cory Doctorow’s latest TED Talk delves into this conundrum, discussing questions of surveillance, privacy, and internet insurrection. He argues that parents monitoring their kids’ content on the internet teach kids that surveillance is to be expected. Monitoring demeans the notion of privacy and consequently, when Facebook/Google/the next big thing demands ever more information, kids are primed to give it without question. The goal, he says, is to teach your kids that every time a site or service asks for your social or your date of birth, your response should be, “why do you need this?”

The internet is, no doubt, a crazy place. I’m fascinated by how parents and schools will handle all of its wonders and dangers with upcoming generations. Although maybe the real question is, how much will kids teach to their parents?

Related Post: Another favorite TED Talk… Jane McGonigal on video games saving the world.

Related Post: Hans Rosling on the relationship between washing machines and Cat in the Hat.

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