Eye See You: Privacy & Consent In Public Spaces

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Written by Jenna Dreisenstock

As is obvious, the life of a musician in the public eye can rise to levels of fame unimaginable; to the point in which often the musicians themselves can barely cope. Finding oneself in the spotlight may be a blessing, a curse or a combination of both for many. However the intrigue of a difficult question must be raised – by actively putting ourselves in the public eye, are they, or even we, consenting to being photographed, or filmed; without even having to give consent?

The mediums that are photography and film absolutely terrify me: yet, I am also a photographer and aspiring filmmaker. How can I be terrified of my own passions? It sounds ridiculous. Perhaps one of the main reasons I find the medium both incredibly beautiful while objectively horrifying is that the camera is probably one of the most powerful weapons one can yield in this world, an unbridled fire with the ability to capture anything, anyone – in single moments in time, forever. Forever. What is it that we choose to capture? Most importantly, who is the one capturing it – and why?

The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” – Susan Sontag

When we allow ourselves to be seen in a public space, are we allowing ourselves to be seen however we are in that split second, or are we consenting to be seen, as we are, in that split second for the rest of our lives… and so on? Ethics in photography are a moral grey area; at the end of the day, as photographers we will probably always be doing something, that is, in someway, unethical. However there are ways in which we must remain critical. To photograph a stranger without their consent – would you say it’s a violation? Personally, I would – unless I spoke to that person afterward and received full consent to share. However approaching individuals for example, as an event photographer can be tough – so does that mean that whenever someone attends a festival, they are giving free reign to the media to capture them however they so please?

Or is it the duty of the photographer to remain conscious of their ethics at all times?

Personally I believe as photographers we should be held accountable for acting shady, unethical; we should be the ones wary of crossing lines, refusing any actions that may feel as though they are a violation of privacy – as I mentioned before, who is it that we are choosing to capture and why? When we take photographs of people, we are capturing an image of them through our own gaze, in a way they have never seen themselves; and that can be beautiful, yet also somewhat creepy. Not long ago, I asked on my Instagram if we are automatically consenting to being photographed or filmed when attending an event. The majority vote was 92% no. Someone messaged me asking why people would be opposed to having themselves documented in certain ways but not in others.

Well, considering the majority of people would prefer to be documented with their friends on the beach as opposed to, I don’t know, half-naked and black-out drunk at the end of the night, well… The majority of people would prefer to be documented by a filmmaker who has asked them, or received their consent to be in the video; not by the shady male photographer who sneakily follows womxn around at events and individually films them – yes, that happened to me a few weeks ago. I was taking photographs of a band – I thought the other guy was also taking photographs of the band; he was filming, and while trying to get a shot I noticed his camera pointed straight in my direction, red light recording flashing…at first I thought he was filming the audience (even though the venue really was too small to get a shot that isn’t awkwardly intimate) but after an uncomfortable period of time; realised he was still focusing on me specifically. I ran away because I felt totally creeped out. Later on at the bar he accosted me, because of course he did.

It felt like a violation, the thought that this man specifically spent time filming me – whereas, my friend’s friend taking a candid photograph of me taking photographs, and then sending it to me – it feels like a totally different experience? Photography and film is steeped in the grey area. There are no black or white answers to the ethics behind it.

Except when there are:

For musicians in the public eye this type of issue delves even further – as the parasites who call themselves paparazzi latch onto people’s lives, invading every corner of their personal existence; tabloids, exploiting creatives by embarrassing them in every way they could possibly see fit, by harassing them; by telling stories of strangers lives through imagery as though they are leeching the blood out of their veins. Being behind the lens is a genuine ethical responsibility, and although the lines may seem indiscernible at times; it is critical that as photographers we are mindful, respectful. We don’t get a special pass to someone’s most intimate moments just because we can S-E-E them. When we speak about privacy and consent in photography regarding the public eye, there is a thin line between what is and isn’t ethical to the tiniest details, questions with no absolutes; yet there is an exceptionally clear distinction between photography, film and harassment.