Photo by Angela Compagnone on Unsplash
Quick note: This post is the second installment in a series delving into the intricate issues of photographic consent and privacy. In the first post, published last week on Substack, I conducted a poll to gauge readers’ perspectives on these matters. Thank you for contributing!
This topic is so rich and layered that I plan on writing an additional post about it next week, incorporating your answers.
Today, I want to share with you the impetus behind my first post: something that happened to me that prompted me to reflect about privacy and consent.
Cameras everywhere: navigating consent in this brave new online world
On a sunny weekend afternoon, I visited the park with my husband and our 2-year-old daughter. A couple of ducks ventured away from their pond, near a grassy area where we were walking. Our daughter, fascinated by them, motioned towards the ducks to see them up close. Nearby, four college-age foreign students sat on a bench, observing the scene with warm smiles. One of them held his cell phone vertically, pointed it towards us, and alternated between glancing at the screen and shifting his gaze between my daughter and the ducks.
In that moment, a disconcerting thought gripped me—was he filming her for TikTok? Was he using my child as content to garner likes and views?
A more alarming thought followed: what if the ducks were to attack my daughter, and the video went viral, turning her into an internet meme?
Fortunately, my husband was right beside our daughter, ensuring her safety. With the situation under control, I approached the bench where the young students sat, compelled to investigate my suspicions.
I discreetly positioned myself behind the bench, catching a glimpse of the young man’s cell phone screen. Startled by my presence, he abruptly sat up, adjusted his phone, tapped the screen a few times, and began scrolling through his camera reel. I lingered behind, glancing at the carousel of photos—an intrusion I am not proud of. To my relief, I caught sight of grassy landscapes and park scenes, but nothing that revealed my daughter’s presence. Yet, his gestures were fast and I couldn’t be so sure. At least, by being nosy, I managed to dissuade him from continuing to film, if he was indeed doing so.
You may find my train of thought peculiar, but there is a reason behind it. My child was followed by a duck that bit her hand just a couple of weeks before… and recently – with me standing right next to her – she handed a strand of grass to a hen and was bitten by it, too. Both incidents scared her and made her cry unconsolably. So the likelihood of an animal attack wasn’t so far off.
As for the possibility of being filmed without consent, unbeknownst to us, with the video going viral… I know it sounds far fetched and the worst case scenario… but! While doing research for this piece I stumbled upon an article from a mainstream website, about this very thing happening to someone that I personally know!
Everything is content
A talented artist I know was filmed while walking in the street… someone uploaded the video to TikTok, invented a scenario for the caption (which made my artist friend look like a bad person – reminder: it was pure fiction)… and the video went viral. Buzzfeed wrote about it: “What Happens When You Become Viral Content Without Your Consent“.
Buzzfeed reporter Clarissa-Jan Lim wrote:
We film ourselves, we film our surroundings, we film the people we know and the people we don’t, and we post freely and carelessly. This is the age of panopticontent — everything is content for the creating, and everyone is a nonplayer character in my world.
Our appetite to document and post — whether it’s ethical or not — is reinforced by the seduction of social media fame. There are whole genres of online content in which people are being recorded or photographed without their knowledge or consent — on the subway, at a shopping center, in a car, on the sidewalk, at a restaurant, at a bar. Many of these videos present strangers as NPCs, or nonplayer characters, an internet term referring to people who aren’t seen as fully realized individuals and are simply part of the backdrop. These strangers are displayed as a spectacle to gawk at and be judged by an audience of millions around the world.
I deliberately refrain from disclosing the name of my artist friend here because, when I think of them, I envision their incredible artistic talent. I refuse to let them be defined by this unfortunate incident. If you’re curious about the full story, it can be found on Buzzfeed (and my friend kindly granted me permission to mention this story).
I was rattled by my experience at the park. Because in so many situations in this day and age, people don’t think twice about filming or photographing strangers and using these images on their own social media, to increase their popularity – with little thought about the issue of consent.
When it comes to my daughter, I am fiercely protective of her privacy. I haven’t posted any of her photos on social media… or even her name! I’m a professional photographer, with literally thousands of gorgeous photos of her… but I only share them in private messaging groups with family and close friends. Consequently, the thought of a stranger potentially exploiting my child’s image without consent (or imagine, a potentially traumatic animal attack), purely for TikTok views and likes, enraged me and made me feel powerless.
It is imperative that we engage in discussions surrounding photographic consent and establish a clear etiquette with basic rules. It astonishes me that in 2023— SIXTEEN YEARS after the introduction of the first iPhone—there are still no well-defined codes of conduct regarding photographing and posting images of friends, family… or strangers. This contributes to the unbridled nature of social media, where boundaries are absent, and individuals act with little consideration for others.
As someone who places great importance on privacy, the thought of being filmed by a total stranger solely for the purpose of them gaining TikTok views and likes is profoundly distressing. Degrading, really. Some might dismiss this concern as a trivial “first world problem” or an exaggeration. But I find it deeply disheartening to observe a stranger showing a complete disregard for my humanity, personal boundaries, dignity, and privacy, effectively stripping away my sense of agency.
How dystopian has our society become that we must worry about becoming unwitting content in someone else’s feed?
Buzzfeed reporter Clarissa-Jan Lim wrote:
In the grand scheme of our surveillance state, when public and private entities, including TikTok, pose a bigger threat to our privacy and harvest our data in troubling ways, maybe becoming the main character of the day online isn’t the end of the world. But the casual resignation around how our data is used may explain why we’re increasingly comfortable surveilling each other.
That spring day, my husband, daughter and I left the park without incident. No attacks from animals. No more smartphones pointed at us. But thinking that a video of my child was potentially living on a stranger’s smartphone, ready to be uploaded to TikTok, haunted me. That unsettled feeling has stayed with me ever since and it is making me hyper vigilant when we are out in public. I wish it weren’t so.
I wonder – have you ever experienced something like this? Being photographed or filmed by a stranger? Or even seeing an unflattering photo of yourself on a friend’s or family member’s social media feed? Have you ever broached the topic of photographic consent with your friends and family?
I would really appreciate it if you could share your experiences – in the comments, or over email – so that I could incorporate your stories in next week’s wrap-up post.