Thinking Before You Snap

by Anitra Cottledge

Last week, our staff took a group photo wearing our new Women’s Center hoodies. We took pictures facing toward and away from the camera (as our hoodies have design elements on both the front and back), but I instructed one of our communications interns to only use the one facing away from the camera on our blog and social media sites. Why? Because not everyone had expressed consent with having their image used in the office’s marketing efforts.

I feel very serious about this issue. Remember my intro post from earlier this year where I talk about the fact that if I didn’t work in a Women’s Center, I might be an intellectual property lawyer? Yeah. I’m that person who brings stacks of photo release forms to every event. I know that some people feel that there is a reasonable expectation that one might be photographed at a public event, but I just don’t feel satisfied with that view. As someone who attends a lot of public events, I don’t think that my very attendance means that I’m OK with someone taking my photo. My attendance doesn’t mean that I’m going to be OK with seeing a photo that I don’t even remember taking up on Facebook the next day. (Actually, if you know me, you will know just how not OK I am with that scenario.)

In case anyone is wondering, I definitely believe that this issue has everything to do with social justice and feminist practice. It seems like a very basic concept that someone should not only have the right to determine what to do with their bodies, but should also, to whatever extent possible, be able to control their images and consent to those images being used or shared with others. Again, some people might talk about celebrities or public figures, although one could argue that they, too, have a right to not want to be photographed. I’m willing to have that conversation, but for the purposes of this post, I’m talking about the rest of us: the non-celebrities and private citizens. To go back to the opening paragraph of this post, I also don’t believe that just because people work for an office, they should be expected to publicize their images. For instance, if you have an office contact page on your website that features photos of staff, I really believe you have to be OK with a staff member who, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to post their photo.

This is also a technology issue; we (the collective we) use and take all sorts of images everyday, whether we are professional or hobby photographers, or people who utilize images in poster and web design. Are we using images appropriately, or taking them with consent?

I think about this particularly in the context of how organizations use photos to communicate with their constituencies about their goals and initiatives. What does it mean when an organization takes a photo without permission or consent, and uses it on its website or in its brochure? What then happens when the people in the unauthorized photo stumble across the website or receive the brochure in the mail, and see themselves? They may have never had any substantive interaction with the organization, and the organization’s practices may not really align with whatever values they were using the photo to communicate in the first place. It’s complex stuff, stuff that if not properly thought out, can quickly turn squicky and sometimes unethical.

On an individual basis, if a person runs to the store in a wacky outfit, they’re not doing that with the intention or expectation of being filmed or photographed. They’re going to get some potato chips and some iced tea. It’s true that sometimes, photos that are taken without consent can spark interesting discussion. A great example of this is the photo taken of the Sikh woman with facial hair a couple of weeks ago. Her response to the photo created a space where people could talk about issues of spirituality, gender, gender presentation, and bodies. Environments where dialogue can flourish are wonderful. However, I have to agree (with someone mentioned in the article) that one of the things to think about is, “…that it’s not ok to take photos of strangers and post them on the internet without permission.” In short, I really believe that people should pause and think before they pull out their smartphones and snap that photo of some unsuspecting person.

How do you feel about this issue? Does your office or organization have policies regarding the use of event and staff photography?

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  • Kristen Abell

    Anitra–Love this post. I’m a big believer in getting consent for photos, too, for many of these reasons. As a former women’s center staff member, we also were aware that we needed to be extra cautious of our constituents when many were there because of abusive and/or stalking relationships and were trying to not let others know where/how they could be located. Just imagine how a photo of them in our center could lead a stalker right to them!

    One thing that I think it’s important to announce at larger events is that you will be posting pictures from the event on Facebook and that anyone who does not wish to have their picture posted needs to let the photographer and/or staff know.

    Thanks for another great post!

  • Brenda Bethman

    Anitra — agree with Kristen (we were, in fact, talking about this at an event tonight where we were taking photos). And I’ve been discussing it a lot with my class as we work on the “Who Needs Feminism?” project, so this is a good reminder.