Reframing Perspectives: Concluding Our Series on Photography and Consent

Wrapping up a series on photography and consent, with more thoughts on the subject...

Reframing Perspectives: Concluding Our Series on Photography and Consent
Photo by Charles Postiaux on Unsplash

In the present day, billions of people around the world own smartphones. Every day, people carry with them a pocket-sized device with a high resolution camera, video recorder, and a device connected to the internet that can shoot, upload and share media instantaneously.

From Analog to Digital

As a photographer and filmmaker, I remember what the world was like before the advent of smartphones – what it was like to capture photos and videos with devices not connected to the internet... When you had to go develop photos at a lab (if you didn't do so at home) and transfer videos from a little tape to a computer. I believe it's crucial to reminisce about these erstwhile practices when engaging in discussions about photography and consent; they invariably recast certain current behaviors as inappropriate, rude or creepy.

It's 2002. Out of the blue, one day I start yearning to try out photography. Black and white photography to be precise. I purchase a 35mm camera, black and white film, and develop the habit of going on photo walks around my city, capturing interesting moments. I take photos of street scenes but I never photograph strangers up close, clearly showing their faces. The only portraits I do are those of friends; I ask them if they would like to pose for me, they typically say yes, we go on photo walks together and that's when I take their photos. I have negatives developed at a lab. I make multiple copies of my favorite portraits and I share them with friends who have posed for me.

A few years later, when I upgrade to my first DSLR camera, I pursue street photography with a passion - but make it a point to preserve the anonymity of strangers through light, shadows and framing:

Bastille Day fireworks - under the Eiffel Tower (photo by Elena Rossini)
Street art by Jef Aerosol - in Paris’ 5th arrondissement (photo by Elena Rossini)

This is the early to late 2000s. Before smartphones and powerful social networks become popular, accruing hundreds of millions of users.

Let's jump forward in time to 2023.

In a previous blog post I shared a story about my suspicions about my toddler being surreptitiously filmed at a park by a group of young students earlier this year. Well, it happened again.

Last week we were walking in a grassy area at the park and my daughter approached three youngsters - two young women and a young man - who were sitting on a blanket, feeding a bird. My daughter got close to the bird and squealed with delight whenever it nibbled on a piece of bread. The young man said to her "The bird is called Lou." I noticed that one of the young women in the group held her smartphone up vertically, pointed towards us. She didn't say anything to us but kept staring at its screen. I wasn't sure she was filming or simply reading something. I had that bad feeling again... that feeling of having our personal boundaries crossed, our image potentially captured and exploited for social media views and likes. Or maybe not. Was I being paranoid? If she was indeed filming us, she did so without hesitation. And that's tolerated behavior in 2023.

Road Rules?

Billions of people have owned smartphones for over a decade. A plethora of resources exists teaching us how to use these devices, yet there is a glaring absence of guidance regarding proper etiquette. It's akin to a world where we all drive vehicles without any prior training, free from the obligation to obey road rules, heed traffic signs or respect stoplights. It can be a landscape of unmitigated chaos.

Let's get back to 2002. Imagine I'm at the park with my toddler, with three young adults sitting on a blanket and feeding a bird. A young woman holds a camcorder in her hands. I can't be so sure of what she is doing: is she reviewing footage she just captured? Or is she filming us?

If we are in 2002 and I think she has been filming me and my young daughter, that would feel like the apex of creepy behavior. I would speak up. I would clearly ask "Excuse me, are you filming us?"

But in 2023, it's incredibly hard to broach the subject with strangers - it feels intrusive and aggressive. It's almost as if YOU - the unwilling participant that didn't give consent to being potentially filmed or photographed - are in the wrong. You don't want to ruffle any feathers or seem unhinged, in case the person in fact is not filming you. There are no words for this feeling. But it's incredibly uncomfortable to be in this scenario, not knowing if your image is being captured and exploited for internet points. A photo or video that - if it is indeed being shared on a stranger's social media without your consent - will live on an online platform forever. Because the internet IS forever. That's what so unsettling about it. And I'm having these uncomfortable episodes more and more frequently when I'm out and about with my adorable toddler.

Poll Results

Wondering if I was the only one feeling this way, I created a poll, to gauge your point of view on these subjects. Here are the original questions and how you answered.

Photographing strangers

Poll results to the question: Do you believe it is important to obtain explicit consent from individuals before posting their photos online, even if they are taken in public spaces? 45% of participants say YES
Poll results to the question: Which of the following actions do you consider ethically acceptable when it comes to photographing and posting pictures of strangers in public places?

Photographing friends and family

Poll results to the question: Do you believe it is important to obtain explicit consent from family members and friends before posting their photos online?
Poll results to the Q: Which of the following actions do you consider ethically acceptable when it comes to photographing and posting pictures of friends/family members on your social media?

What I find interesting is that there is a big different for many of you, when it comes to photographing family/friends and strangers. You seem to be far more willing to ask for permission before capturing and posting on social media a photo of someone you know (70% of you think it's important to do so)... than a complete stranger (45%).

Rules and Regulations

Poll results Q5: Should there be specific legal regulations in place to protect individuals from having their photos posted online without consent, regardless of where the photos were taken?

Question 5 was about legal regulations when it comes to photography and consent. In the country where I live - France - there are strict laws in place.

In my early days in Paris, I took up street photography and I noticed that people would put up their hands in front of their faces when they saw me with a DSLR camera, taking photos in the street. Someone once approached me and sternly reminded me of the French "droit à l'image" (the right to one’s own image). This crucially concerns both private AND public places.

Here is what the French law says:

In case your image captured in a public place, your authorization is required if you are isolated and recognizable.

The image may be distributed via the press, television, a website, a social network...

In practice, the photographer/videographer must obtain your written consent before distributing your image.

Your (oral) consent to be photographed or filmed is not enough.

Your agreement must be precise: on what medium is the image to be used? For what purpose? For how long?

And yet nowadays it seems that most people are ignoring these rules and laws.

Poll results Q6: How concerned are you about your own privacy when it comes to being photographed and having your photos potentially shared online without your consent?

The vast majority of you are concerned when it comes to being photographed and having your photos potentially shared online without your consent – 53% of you are somewhat concerned and 26% are very concerned.

I feel it's crucial that we have these conversations and that we emphasize the value of privacy, of dignity, of agency and power over one's own image.

Whistleblower Ed Snowden said about privacy:

Privacy isn’t about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect. And that’s who you are. That’s what you believe in. That’s who you want to become. Privacy is the right to the self. Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are on your own terms.

It's worth repeating: "Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are on your own terms." Isn't this something we should hold sacred and protect at all costs?

Will you speak up next time you think you are being photographed or filmed by a stranger?

Will you say something if a friend captures images of strangers without their consent?

Are you seeing this issue in a new light?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks for being here!

- Elena

I hope to be able to keep up posting 2-3 times a month throughout the rest of the summer. I suddenly find myself without any childcare as my child’s beloved nanny had an emergency surgery. Thankfully she is doing well (huge sigh of relief). I have moved to 24/7 childcare - if I post less frequently this summer, now you know why. P.S.: childcare workers are heroes.

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