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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.