Photographing Strangers (Take 2)

After a good deal of sweating and heart palpitations, my individual presentation is over! Woohoo! I survived! Due to the brevity of the presentation, I’m taking this blog post to elaborate on some of the research I did when exploring my topic– photographing strangers. Just in case you were as tired as I am when 8 pm roles around and can remember little to nothing, let me reiterate some basic points about my chat.

It’s super weird how comfortable we are in this day and age to take pictures of strangers! I do it all the time. I know you do it all the time. We Snapchat and Instagram and post to Facebook groups pictures of people (or dogs) that are #mood without thinking about it twice. And if we’re not posting it, we’re regramming/retweeting/liking memes of strangers doing things that catch our eye. Like this kid, Gavin.

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We know nothing about his life! Is he okay with being an Internet sensation? Did someone steal this picture from his mom’s Facebook page? Being 5 years old, Gavin hasn’t had to deal with some of the pressing issues of becoming a viral meme. And just so you know, Gavin’s parents are actually capitalizing on his Internet fame and putting it into a college fund. All is good, for now.

But for every good meme, there is a bad meme. By bad I mean non-consensual. It features someone that didn’t know they were being photographed. Or even if they’re looking at the camera, they’re definitely not their best selves. The Internet loves to grab embarrassing photos and run with them, as well all know. What I’m interested in is the part we, Boston College students who seek no harm, play in it.

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With the rise of social media, photography has become just as much a medium of exchange as it is a form of documentation. Instagram and Snapchat built their houses with these bricks, and may I remind you Facebook had its humble origins as FaceMash– a “hot or not” platform that rated photos of Harvard students. Most students didn’t agree to have their photos featured, as Zuckerberg hacked the “facebooks” Harvard maintained to identify its students, sort of similar to classmate roster but for the whole school.

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There have been times where a friend would ask me where I am or what I’m doing and I would reply with a picture (or a bitmoji). The picture I send isn’t meant to be documentation of a past moment, but rather a message of my present situation or mindset. I think this new role of photography, coupled with social media platforms, has created the perfect breeding ground for pictures of strangers to be spread online. In my presentation I spoke about the ethics and legality of this new phenomenon, and now I’d like to delve deeper into the sociology and psychology behind it.

Halla Beloff, author of Camera Culture, insightfully notes, “…how much more clearly must the taking up of a camera in the first place be psychodynamically motivated– obeying a need to look? And we remember the crucial point that with high-speed film, people could be ‘taken’ unbeknown. The candid makes us all voyeurs and the object of voyeurism.”

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In general, I think people take photos of strangers because something about that stranger sparks their interest. The psychology behind interest is quite complex. It’s an unpredictable mental state that stems from curiosity and combines with a little bit of comprehensibility in order to create genuine interest. Where does curiosity come from, you may be thinking? Well, psychologists are still arguing whether it comes from within humans or as a response to the outside world.

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As third parties look at the photograph of the stranger on social media, they vicariously experience the seemingly benign pleasure, disgust, or amusement of the photographer. The photograph separates the observer from the observed “with the one-way mirror of objective surveillance” and social media furthers this separation. There is something inherently unequal in taking or spreading a photograph of a stranger. The camera becomes a double-edged sword that establishes a power dynamic between the photographer (/people that spread the photo) and person being photographed.

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Once the photo is posted onto social media, there is an added element of depersonalization. Because the photograph of the stranger is a meme, somehow the person in the photo does not seem real. Because the photograph of the strangers is on an Instagram account that aggregates Boston College students making out, the people in the photo do not get the respect nor privacy they deserve. Because the photograph of the stranger is part of a Snapchat story and will disappear within a couple of hours, the life of this stranger isn’t considered.

This behavior is increasingly problematic and I urge you to think about these strangers, empathize with these strangers, before photographing them without permission and posting it onto social media.

13 comments

  1. This is a very interesting topic from your presentation. As we become more increasing digital, where does privacy stop? I have been on both ends of the spectrum, taking a video or picture of a stranger and having a friend/random stranger take a picture of me without my awareness. This definitely is a major issue especially when someone takes an offense picture of you. It is hard to think of any legislation that could be issued or even if we need any legislation on this topic.

    What do you think?

  2. francoismba · ·

    I agree that photos (particularly memes) posted on social media are depersonalized. I admit that I sometimes forget that the individual featured in a meme is in fact a real person. Therefore, I do not reflect on how the image’s fame has impacted the guy/girl in the photo. As a grad student, I was appalled to hear about the BC makeouts Instagram page. I believe that individuals should be able to protect themselves from unwanted publicity. What steps do you think social media platforms could take in order to prevent these types of pages from being created?

  3. mikeknoll98 · ·

    First off, great job with your presentation. It was one of my favorites all year. I see memes of people all the time and always think about how it comes back to haunt these people in their real lives. I was starting to wonder if I was the only one who thought this way! Also I agree that the memes become depersonalized and make it difficult for use to realize these are real people and real implications. Awesome post.

  4. polmankevin · ·

    Great post! I really enjoyed your presentation, I thought it was an extremely unique and refreshing topic. I totally agree with the main points of this blog. Somewhere down the line of social media adoption it became commonplace to post pictures of strangers online (Maybe this habit has roots in the crazy behavior we see from the paparazzi in Hollywood). I don’t know when this tipping point occurred but it isn’t even questioned anymore. People are objectified and dehumanized in stranger’s pictures. Viral images are critiqued by thousands of people, sometimes with the person in the picture not even realizing it. I think we accept this behavior because there have been so many people who have benefited from viral attention. But as you mentioned, there have been even more who have been hurt.

  5. Great post! When you first mentioned the topic of photographing strangers, the first thing I thought of was that model (Dani Mathers) who took a Snap of a naked woman changing at the gym and captioned it “If I can’t unsee this, then you can’t either.”. She claims that she only meant to send it to her friend but accidentally set it to her Snapchat story (not that it makes it much better tbh). There was a lot of outrage over her promotion of body shaming, and she actually got charged with a misdemeanor of invasion and could be jailed for up to 6 months and faced with a $1000 fine. I think this kind of stuff isn’t that relevant for businesses per se, but for people whose businesses are themselves and them being their own brands, this is really something that, although I feel like should go without saying, they need to be cautious of.

  6. Great blog! I was not in your section for the presentation, but really liked this topic and things it brings a lot of issues to life. Many of us are starting to realize (because we are guilty of it ourselves) of this type of phenomenon in our “camera culture.” Beyond the paranoia of a “big brother” type of surveillance, I know I find myself always on edge about a stranger’s iPhone pointing towards me. In being the photographer, we are knowledgable that we may also be the photographed to another. Even my own friends unknowingly put me on their snaps stories without my consent, so what is stopping a stranger who is even more disconnected from me as a person. I truly agree with you in that this instant click and post dehumanizes the one on there other side of the camera. As Kant would put it, we are using humans as “means” to and “end” of humor or attention for ourselves. But another human, with a soul and conscience, should never be used as a means as they are an end in themselves. Just because you do not know the person, does not mean they don’t care. Great topic and great post! I wish I saw the presentation in person.

  7. copmania12 · ·

    Awesome post! I wish I could have been in the later section to also see your presentation- the legality and ethics behind this phenomenon are really interesting! I think you make a really good point with needing to consider the person being photographed- I would be mortified if a terrible picture of me went viral and became a major internet meme. I presented last week on cyber voyeurism and the idea that it has become so normalized for people to willingly put so much information about themselves on the internet, but it is really interesting (and also a bit terrifying) to look at the other side of that as well and think about the idea that there could very well be picture and information about us out there that we have no idea exists. Scary.

  8. Great post! Unfortunately I’m in the earlier class and wasn’t able to see your presentation, so thank you for summarizing the key points. I think you made a great point about how easy it is to desensitize ourselves from the life of these very real people. By taking a picture and posting it somewhere on the internet, we immediately remove any context about the photo and the subject. While internet fame goes well for many, there are also the cases where it turns into cyber bullying and trolling. As you mentioned, our generation is becoming more and more comfortable with violating the privacy of others, and it’s pretty terrifying!

  9. Nice follow up to a solid presentation. Sorry you were nervous, but it’s valuable experience!

  10. olearycal · ·

    Very interesting topic. I agree, I never really think about the people pictured in memes. It can definitely be harmful. I think the intention of what you are doing with the photo is important and people have to constantly check themselves and their actions. Nonetheless, some beautiful moments have been captured by strangers on camera that have touched people.

  11. Tyler O'Neill · ·

    Incredibly interesting post! Unfortunately I wasn’t in your section to hear you present, but your blog does a nice job covering the topic. People are constantly on their phones sharing information and photos with friends, which creates an opportunity for this misappropriation and disconnect. I think it’s also important to consider the benefits that come from this constant sharing of photos. Movements life Humans of New York capture pictures of strangers but use them to bring people together and spread awareness of the human suffering and small acts of kindness.

  12. Great post Masha!! Also great job last week!! You picked a truly unique topic and I love how your integrated it into the framework of the class. I found myself actually thinking of your presentation today as I was eating a banana in the Rat, fearful of someone taking my picture of course. I think you brought attention to the issues of photographing strangers from two very interesting angles! You warned about the dangers, the lack of respect, the concerns, and the nerves which come with photographing stranger, but you also showed the artistic light and appreciation. I am really glad I got to read more about your topic in this blog post! Great job!

  13. Great post. This reminds me of our discussion in the 4pm class about how Ken Bone became an overnight internet sensation after one of the Presidential debates. Immediately, people were investigating his family and past internet usage, pulling up Reddit comments he had made many years prior and then shaming him for his comments (something about how Jennifer Lawrence was pretty “bangable?”) He probably had no idea that he’d become a topic of conversation in a BC classroom, let alone a pseudo-Uber spokesperson. Awesome topic!

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