I discovered a programme on Amazon Prime TV called “Casual” and I think I like it because of the quirkiness of its characters and their dysfunctional family relations. I am a latecomer to the show since it is now in its third season but I like knowing there are good programmes available to treat myself at the end of the day. One of the characters Laura, a sixteen-year-old who is finding school challenging, has an eye for photography according to her teacher. He encourages her by giving her some “old Nikon” lenses and taking her out to a petrol station to take people in unguarded moments. Laura uses a film based camera which I find puzzling in this day and age of instant gratification but I suppose it allows Laura a place in which to set her fantasies about her teacher. I digress.
The whole “hiding in a bush taking pictures of people without their knowledge” issue is something that I think needs a bit of exploration. Interesting enough (I thought), when Laura sees her father pull up to refuel his car and sees him kissing his new girlfriend (Laura’s parents are going through divorce proceedings), her teacher takes a picture of her and sends it to her as an example of an “unguarded moment”. The picture is later exhibited in a local gallery and is titled something like, “Laura at the petrol station”. At no point is Laura asked about exhibiting the photo during the programme or asked whether her name can be associated with it, though perhaps this is done behind the scenes since Laura is aware of the picture.
I am sure some people would protest if they knew somebody was taking pictures of them without their permission and cite it as an invasion of privacy. This is certainly true of people in the public eye and paparazzi, though any cases fought in the law courts come to light when the public figure is on privately owned land.
I have been a photographer ever since I could hold a camera but aside some weddings and other family occasions, I have never felt the need to take pictures of strangers. If I do take informal pictures of people then they will tend to be family and friends. I find this a bit strange really because I have survived in the world by studying other people. I am a natural people watcher because I want to understand how “normal” people interact and get along with each other. Yet I am more comfortable taking pictures of plants and landscapes as I come across them. I am not a deliberate photographer really, that is one that plans and executes a project. I like the idea of street photography, that is capturing of people in chance encounters, but sitting in a public place snapping pictures feels rather vulnerable to me. The idea of hiding to achieve a similar result is therefore very attractive to me.
Is it right though to take pictures of people without their consent? I have always believed that photography is an art form and that if you are in a public place you have a right to capture pictures of what you see since how would you practise this art otherwise? We take pictures of our friends in front of famous places but those pictures also contain other random people that are part of the environment at that moment. Is that an okay photo to take? Remove your friends from the picture. Is that still an okay picture to take? Focus not on the building but the people in front of it. Is that still an okay picture to take?
I have friends who object to their picture being taken and then put onto Facebook without their permission. I think their objection is that the picture then becomes available to view by anybody on the internet and can be traced back to them. A photograph which identifies themself is available to anybody and they haven’t given permission for that to happen. If the identification is taken away, is it now okay for that picture to be accessible to others?
Imagine taking a good photograph of someone that captures the result of the Brexit vote coming through perfectly. You enter the picture in a competition, or perhaps you just publish it on your WordPress site. People see the picture and put you forward for an award which you win. It comes to the attention of a marketing company and without your knowledge they use the image to promote a political party’s point of view. Driving to work one day, you see the photo on a billboard and discover it is being used all over the country. So does the person in the picture. So do the friends of the person in the picture. One of them is an avid Twitter user and suddenly the anonymous photo is not so anonymous anymore.
It seems to me that if I took a photograph of others with the possible intention of promoting that image for whatever reason, then I would need to make an effort at getting permission from the people in the photograph to use it. If I took the photograph only as a way of practising the art form, I am not sure I would bother. Wouldn’t it be better to be safe than sorry though? Tricky for an autistic. Perhaps I will stick to family and friends after all.