WARNING: The following post contains some images that may not be appropriate for all readers.
Over the weekend, I came across an article on PetaPixel discussing the Ask First Campaign and how it had upset photographers at the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, California.
The idea of the Ask First Campaign is something that I can get behind 100 percent. Just because someone may be wearing certain clothes and drinking in public doesn't give anyone the right to touch them in a sexual way. There should be no such thing as a "sure thing" when it comes to sexual consent.
The problem that I have, and one that is expressed by the photographers in the article, are rather with the idea that consent needs to be obtained from a subject before a picture can be taken.
Legally, there's no discussion to be had on this subject. In the United States, no consent is needed for a photographer to snap a picture of someone in public.
A participant at a street fair, or a music festival has no legal expectation of privacy.
Rather, the argument falls more into box of ethics. What a photographer can do (legal) and what a photographer should do (ethics), is not always one and the same.
The creator of the Ask First Campaign, Maxine Holloway, gave several answers as to why photographers at the Folsom Street Fair should have to ask for permission from their subjects before snapping their picture, all of them however, I feel, missed the mark and in one case in particular equated photography to something much more sinister. I'll get to that in a minute, but first let me address some of Holloway's other answers.
"Street photography has changed since the days of Gary Winnogrand taking photos on the streets of NYC in the 60’s. The internet, cell phone cameras, and facial recognition technology is a game changer when it comes to ethics and standards of street photography. The repercussions of someone being identified on the internet at the Folsom Street Fair versus being identified at a music festival, and where that image can travel, deserves a more nuanced conversation. As culture changes, the ‘how and why’ we capture people’s image is necessary discourse."
Holloway is of course right in saying that street photography has changed. Cameras are smaller, less noticeable and everywhere; thanks to cellphones. However, this does not change a simple fact that has always been true of photography: a picture has always had the ability to travel anywhere. A photograph taken in 1955 by a professional photographer was just as likely to spread into the homes of the masses as one taken in 2016. The internet simply makes it easier.
Rather than having to go to the local library to find copies of the San Francisco Chronicle to find photos from a recent street festival there, now I can visit their website.
Holloway makes a distinction between those attending music festivals and the Folsom Street Fair, a BDSM festival, and says that the repercussions of the photos taken at the Folsom Street Fair deserve a more nuanced conversation, but to me that is a slippery slope. Repercussions are always a thing, no matter what event is being covered.
A person at a baseball game may wish not to have their photo taken because they don't want to get caught lying to their boss saying they were sick so they could get the day off for the game. A pretty girl may not want her photo taken at the local art walk because she thinks there are too many creepy people who could see the photo, but these dangers are not created by photography. They are created by the person putting themselves into the public space.
The baseball fan's boss could easily have tickets to the game as well and see our hapless hero on the big screen. A sexual deviant could very likely walk by our attractive heroine as they both examine a painting from a local artist. It is not the photographer's job to act as a mitigator of risk.
This is a problem that can be solved mostly by simple communication. Most people, in my experience, don't seem to care that they're being photographed at a large public event, and if they do, most photographers I know, including myself, will make the concession of not using a picture if a person simply requests it.
However, Holloway goes one step further with her statements (emphasis added):
"The 'legal right' right to photograph someone in public is irrelevant. One only has to look to the recent Brock Turner Case to understand that the law does not always allocate what is right, just, or consensual...The Ask First Campaign is also addressing the fact that nowadays everyone has a camera in their hands. At events like the Folsom Street Fair, people are using cameras in offending ways: SLR’s and cell phones are repeatedly forced into people’s personal space when taking “up-skirt” photos and snapping close-up pictures of people’s breasts. These three things are not separate, and are all indicative of people believing they are owed or have the right to someone's body. This is eerily similar to how our society excuses sexual violence and rape culture at large..."
Hold up. What?
Here Holloway makes a direct and specific comparison between candid street photography and rape. Let's get this out of the way, no photographer should be doing things like attempting to get an up-skirt shot, or pushing a camera into someone's space just to get a picture of a breast. And while that may rise to the level of sexual assault depending on the situation, and I will defend no one doing such actions, this is not rape.
The idea of comparing a person doing street photography at a public event to a rapist such as Brock Turner simply because they do not ask for the subjects consent is absurd. Sexual violence and rape is not something that can simply be walked into. Those committing sexual violence force themselves onto their victims, compared to a photographer who observes an event or a moment.
No one is forcing anyone to attend these events. No one is telling them what to wear or how to act. In essence, they are exposing themselves and forcing themselves onto the world at large. What's the difference between thousands of people seeing them in person compared to thousands of people seeing them on the internet? Posterity. Many people are fine acting "the fool" until they realize someone might be keeping a record of it. Suddenly, things change. It's no fun being under the magnifying glass. Going back to my earlier point, it is not the photographer's job to secure a person's ego and protect them from themselves.
Since Holloway is concerned with social media, I would ask her why we do not see campaigns to call for the request of consent to re-tweet someone's racist or hateful tweets, or to post their Facebook diatribe against women, or whoever. These moments, when captured can also cause irrevocable damage to a person's image. Just look at the Justine Sacco incident. However, I see no calls for Holloway to ask permission before retweeting someone's opinion on this matter, positive though it is.
As for possible fears of what a photographer may do once they get home with an image, no amount of consent can affect that. There's nothing stopping a photographer from asking for consent only to turn around and photoshop that image onto a poster into something terrible to then post all over the internet. But, these are the risks one takes when entering into a public place.
I am not attacking the Ask First Campaign. For years I have railed about the amount of sexual violence on college campuses, and I've had my blood boil many times while reading about how sexual assault victims were sidelined in their attempt at justice because those in law enforcement or in some type of power fell prey to the idea of "they had it coming."
The new Netflix documentary Audrie and Daisy, the Jameis Winston incident, and an entire book by Jon Krakauer is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to showing that rape and sexual violence is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with.
No, what bothers me about this is the desire to curtail people's rights for the comfort of people who are not having any of their own rights violated. Contrary to Ms. Holloway beliefs, the legal rights of photographers is not "irrelevant." And Brock Turner does not make a good comparison. Turner violated a young woman's rights, in the worst kind of way, and then found himself a beneficiary of a judge who did not properly carry out the law. A photographer taking candid photos in a public place violates no rights and breaks no laws.
The arena of public spectacle is not meant to be closed off to those you may deem unworthy. Once you enter into it, that means you expose yourself to the entirety of the world. If you do not wish to be seen in specific clothes, or acting in specific ways, or attending certain events, the only sure way to do so is to not wear those clothes, act that way, or attend that event.
Again, protecting you from yourself is not a photographer's job.