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?????
What 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.
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.
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:
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 decide. My 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?”