We have become immunized to what a bizarre, invasive, and bullying action it is to take a picture of someone you don’t know and share it on the Internet.
A few years ago, on the beach path along Lake Michigan, I was waiting for a friend, hopping from foot to foot to avoid the burning sand, when I noticed a random guy taking my picture. “Don’t do that,” I said. “Come on,” he replied, camera still aimed at me, “You’re at the beach!” I told him more forcefully to stop, but he snapped one more photo before walking away.
Who knows what happened to that photo. Maybe he tweeted it, posted it, or shared it on his creepy blog. Maybe it’s part of a Reddit thread making fun of chunky girls in bikinis. Maybe it just sits idly on the dude’s phone, long forgotten. Maybe, just maybe, he felt a twinge of guilt and deleted it.
For a long time, I thought this guy was the problem. But it’s not just him, and it’s not about the bikini. These days, we all feel entitled to take pictures of strangers to post, share, and mock.
Rule #1: Don’t take pictures of strangers without their permission.
Rule #2: Seriously, don’t take pictures of strangers without their permission.
Every day, I see pictures of strangers on Instagram and Twitter. There are pictures of bare legged girls braving Chicago winters, pictures of drunk Baseball fans behaving badly, pictures of women with great asses going through airport security. I am guilty of it too. This week I shared, while laughing, a tumblr that collected pictures of men taking up too much space on the subway. It’s hard to remember that each person whose photo is in the gallery is a real human, one who may feel pretty shitty to look up to see a stranger’s phone in their face.
We have become immunized to what a bizarre, invasive, and often bullying action it is to surreptitiously take a picture of someone you don’t know and share it on the Internet. In the most extreme cases, we are outraged, like when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that taking upskirt photos on public transportation is not prohibited, or when a photo making fun of a Sikh woman sneakily taken at the airport was posted on Reddit. She wrote back and the Internet rallied around her.
I’m not a lawyer and I’m not interested in the conversation about what’s legally prohibited or allowed, so please don’t post in the comments anything that starts with “But there’s no law against…” We’re all adults here; it’s OK to consider the ethics of a situation without testing the limits of the law.
People should, whenever possible, have the ability to control their own image and how its used. Just this week, an Instagram account was launched called You Did Not Eat That, mocking thin people holding food. These photos are taken from people’s personal accounts and then repurposed to be ridiculed. Yes, they posted them publicly in the first place, but no, it’s not cool to repost a stranger’s photo just to make fun of it. Illegal? No. Asshole move? Yes.
Are there exceptions? Of course. An actress on a red carpet posing for photos has generally signed up for having her picture taken and published. Panelists at an event have typically signed off on photography. Ditto for politicians giving speeches. These are not the same circumstances as someone riding the train to work or sunning themselves at a local beach.
Rule of thumb: If you think what you’re doing is complimentary to the stranger, then you should be able to ask permission. “I’m working on a gallery of photos of street style and I think your look is really cool, do you mind if I take a picture?” If you’re not comfortable explaining why you’re taking the photo, chances are high that your plans fall on the mocking, bullying, slimy side of the spectrum.
We live in a strange time. We see something noteworthy and we can’t help ourselves from claiming it and sharing it and collecting the requisite digital accolades. I saw a minor celebrity at a Nashville restaurant having a casual dinner with his wife and the impulse to discreetly take a photo was intense. Only the intervention of my friend, who reminded me that I normally think that’s shitty behavior, pulled me away from my phone.
I don’t think we’re ever going to break the habit of document-and-share; it’s become too ingrained in our lives. Posting a photo of a beautiful cupcake might be twee and annoying, but it does no harm. But posting a photo of a stranger’s bad fashion choices, hot bod, or annoying public transit behavior? Potentially harmful. How would that person feel to see their photo on your Instagram with your clever, cutting caption? Are the likes really worth it?
Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.