Harassing photography and recording; ethics and policies

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

We’re starting to collect some examples of photography/recording harassment experiences (still open , and some of the kinds of problems people mention there and elsewhere are:

  • photography/recording conducted in a way that is designed to hide the fact of the photography/recording from the subject both before and after the shot/recording happens
  • photography/recording that is indifferent to or careless of the subject’s feelings about being photographed/recorded
  • photography/recording that is othering: “wow, women! *click click*” or “hey, babe, smile for the camera!” or later posted with othering, sexist or creepy commentary
  • failing or refusing to stop photographing/recording on an explicit request or appearance of discomfort (eg turning away or frowning or covering one’s face, etc)
  • publishing photographs without the subject’s consent, or after the subject’s explicit refusal of consent
  • use of photographs to implicitly or explicitly endorse an event or community, eg, using pics of smiling participants from the previous year in publicity materials, without consent

Now most of these things are legal in my region (see NSW Photographer’s Rights, which as you will guess from the title is not focussed on subject’s concerns, but which is informative) and in many others. I believe the only exception (in NSW) may be the last, because the use of someone’s image to promote a product requires a model release, that is, consent from the subject. Whether/when using someone’s photo on a website is considered promotion I don’t know but that’s a side point.

For that matter, I’m not even arguing that they should be illegal or actionable (in this piece anyway, perhaps some of them are arguable). I’m sympathetic to many of the uses of non-consensual photography, even (art, journalism, historical documentation). I’m arguing more narrowly that in the context of geek events, which are usually private and which can therefore impose additional restrictions on behaviour as a condition of entry, that restrictions on photography could prevent some harassment. (As a short and possibly sloppy definition for people who haven’t seen many harassment discussions, I would define harassment as “unwelcome interpersonal interactions, which either a reasonable person would know are unwelcome, or which were stated to be unwelcome but continued after that.”)

I’m arguing that this collection of behaviours around photographs makes geek events hostile to some participants, especially women. After all, even though it’s (I think) legal to sneak-photograph a woman’s face, write a little essay about how attractive you find her and try and get it on Flickr Explore even as she emails you to say that she’s upset and repeatedly request that you take it down, that doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

Now, obviously it would be nice not to have to spell ethical behaviour out to people, but the need for anti-harassment policies (and, for that matter, law) makes it clear that geek events do need to do so.

There’s quite a range of possible policies that could be adopted around photography:

  • the status quo, obviously, which at many geek events is that any photography/recording that would be legally allowed in public spaces is allowed there;
  • photography/recording should be treated like other potentially harassing interpersonal interactions at an event, that is, when one person in the interaction says “stop” or “leave me alone” (etc), the interaction must end;
  • photography/recording shouldn’t be done in such a way as to hide from the subject that it’s happening, and upon the subject’s request the photo/footage/etc must be deleted;
  • subjects cannot be photographed/recorded without prior explicit consent; and/or
  • the above combined with some kind of explicit opt-in or opt-out marking so that one doesn’t need to necessarily ask every time if one can see the marking (in various conversations on this I have to say my main concern tends to be the need to peer closely at people’s chests to see their “PHOTOS/VIDEOS OK” or “NO PHOTOS/VIDEOS” marking on their badge, however, Skud says it works well at Wiscon).

There might be certain additional freedoms or restrictions regarding crowd photography/recording and/or photography/recording of organisers, scheduled speakers and people actively highlighted in similar formal events.

What do you think? Whether a photographer/videographer/recorder or subject of same, what do you think appropriate ethics are when photographing/recording at private geek events, and what do you think could/should be codified as policy?

Note to commenters: there are a couple of things that tend to come up a lot in these sorts of discussions, which are:

  1. “but this is perfectly legal [in my jurisdiction]”
  2. some geeks, including geek photographers, are shy and asking strangers for permission to photograph them is a confronting interaction, and thus very hard on shy people

I’m not saying that you need to totally avoid discussion of these points in comments here, but you can safely assume that everyone knows these points and has to some degree taken them into account and go from there. (My own perspective on the last one is that it’s odd at best to pay an enormous amount of heed to the social comfort of photographers at the expense of their subjects. You could, of course, consider both together.) Also if talking about legal aspects, do specify which jurisdiction(s) you are talking about: this is an area where laws vary substantially.