In Brisbane, at one of the city’s main intersections, a local photographer gets into position to take snaps of the city’s passing parade. In photographing people who make their way along city streets, he is of course following in the footsteps of famous artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson. But according to some of those whose pictures have been taken, he is also invading their privacy and causing them acute embarrassment and distress.
A protest petition has been started by Change.org asking street photographers, and particularly the Brisbane photographer behind Oh-hi.info, to: “stop taking unwanted photos in Brisbane City”. Accompanying comments testify to many of his subjects feeling “violated and sickened”.
Meanwhile, in Britain, journalist Sophie Wilkinson felt “hurt and humiliated” last month when she discovered a photograph of herself eating a salad, posted along with other images taken on the London underground of women eating, on the Facebook group for Women Who Eat on Tubes.
Much comment blames new media for such intrusions, but they are not so novel. More than 100 years ago, one woman wrote in the Ladies Home Journal:
It is difficult for some people to understand that there are those who have a strong prejudice against being promiscuously “snapped at” through a camera … Amateur photographers have an idea that everything and everybody may be considered as fair game for their cameras, and that no-one should interpose objection.
The annoyance of street photography is almost as old as the camera itself, as is the question it raises of who should have rights in relation to photographs – those who take the pictures or those “snapped at”. Developments in online media have intensified such debates. Facebook, Instagram, Flickr and the blogosphere are festooned with photographs taken professionally or casually, published without their subjects’ knowledge or consent.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may have declared that privacy is over, but technology’s erosion of privacy and our calls for its legal enforcement have always gone hand in hand.