Does Everyone Have The Right To Take My Picture?

Existing in public space might mean that our bodies and images are free for all, but if I don’t want to passively or actively participate, I don’t think I should be required to offer an explanation.

Feb 3, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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Walking into an Italian restaurant for a local dinner club/pub crawl-type event one night last week, I was met with a warm smile from the host. Then, as I reached for a nametag, she tried to thrust a sheet of paper into my hand.

“You need to sign this release to have your photo taken,” she instructed.

I looked around in confusion. I’d just walked in the door. How often do you go to a casual event and immediately confront a consent form?

I shook my head. “No thanks,” I smiled. “I don’t want to have my picture taken.”

She looked confused and waved the paper in the air. “You have to sign this. Otherwise, if we use your picture somewhere, you could sue us.”

I stared at her. I looked around again, spotting my already-laughing pal Genevieve in the corner. We haven’t been friends for long, but she understands me well enough that she knew what was happening.

My partner, who had also waved away the paperwork, spoke before I could figure out what to say -- and was arguably more blunt than I would have been. “That’s not our problem,” he said with a shrug. Then he guided me away before there could be further discussion.

Genevieve got up and embraced us, teasing, “Hey, troublemakers. Want some tapas?” Then she pointed to a gal at our table. “It’s OK. She didn’t want to sign either.” (I later found out that under pressure, the woman had caved and signed anyway.)

Photography has been a weirdly ubiquitous part of our lives. Alli rightfully wants to know why everyone photographs their food all the time, and Lesley gave us helpful pointers on looking better in photos because taking random pictures has become such an inevitable part of our lives. But there’s a line between fun with friends and passively becoming marketing material. There’s also a limit to how much you want to lose control over your own image.

I think particularly because I’m a serious if amateur photographer, I get rankled when anyone demands that I allow myself to be photographed. Don’t get me wrong; I tote a camera around like everyone else, albeit an old Canon 35 mm SLR. I just don’t believe the world is my modeling agency and don’t flounce around in public expecting everyone to oblige my desire to capture every interaction or fleeting exchange. I’m just as likely to be the subject of unwanted photography as the next person, and I keep that in mind when I’m out on a photo walk or cruising around town.

If I feel compelled enough to snap someone, I make sure they can’t be identified. Even then, I usually ask nicely ask if I may take their picture. Sometimes I offer a complimentary explanation. “You two look so lovely on that bench. May I take your photo?”

One photographer friend of mine hands out small, informal cards with his Flickr account listed. If people want to find the photo or ask for a high-res copy -- and likewise, if they want the pics removed from the Internet -- he is happy to oblige.

I take a similar stance on most public interactions. Basically, consent is hot. I don’t want to be leered at or cornered by a stranger in public. Is having my photo taken any different than being ogled? Existing in public space might mean that our bodies and images are free for all, but if I don’t want to passively or actively participate, I don’t think I should be required to offer an explanation.

Meanwhile, while my loved ones and I trekked between bistros with a handful of friendly foodies, we were followed closely by one of the shutterbug event organizers. I ducked my head whenever she leaned over my table, and only once, a popping flash mid-bite indicated that she caught me jamming salad into my mouth at the Italian restaurant. I had to wonder, did she really need to capture that?

This is also where preparing-to-IPO Facebook comes in. I’ve purposefully avoided writing about it here because I know many people don’t care about folks like myself who hold out against Facebook. Everyone’s doing it, blah blah, I should be bullied into joining Facebook or risk ruining my life. (You cannot possibly imagine the number of people who still ask me to sign up, as if my absence might just be an oversight.)

No amount of condescending pressure or insulting assumptions about my supposed snobbery will convince me to join, and that’s even an old story these days. But for me, it’s a persistently relevant argument that involves the frustration with and pitfalls of publicized relationships, the future of facial recognition software, and the knowledge that privacy is fleeting and nothing digital can ever truly be erased.

I know loads of people don’t care about being photographed or having their image splashed online. Otherwise, social media in its current form wouldn’t exist today. I also know people who are deadly serious about protecting their privacy online (and off) and go to great lengths to curate what appears on the Internets.

The question is, where do you draw the line, and why?