Controversy In a Bar

A while back I went to London with the intention of taking some street shots, but rather than go to my usual haunts I decided to travel a little further on the Tube.

The rush hour had just finished and the subway carriage was empty when I got in it. I studied my reflection in the window opposite: clean shirt, safari jacket, cowboy hat for sun protection, camera stowed in a canvas bag.

A couple got on at the first station and sat opposite. I’m not sure what the woman said to her partner after glancing at me, but in response he took out his mobile phone and snapped a shot of an empty seat a little way off to my right.

How curious! I did a rough calculation of the angle. He was holding the phone horizontally and although he didn’t even glance at me I’m absolutely sure that I was the subject. I felt like taking out my own camera to snap him in return — or possibly his partner, who was better looking. But really, I didn’t mind. I’ve taken thousands of candid pictures of other people, so I can’t complain, can I?

The Complainers
Alas, in the UK — and in the USA and elsewhere — we’ve evolved a culture of complaining, even when it’s outrageously inappropriate.

For example, there was an incident in which a hotel saved the life of a guest during a party, but this didn’t stop another guest from complaining online about the waitress’s overly strong perfume.

Needless to say, people are always complaining when someone takes their photo without asking. When I arrived at my destination I took several shots, then ran into a problem when one man objected strongly. I explained that my shots have to be candid — and that I couldn’t ask, otherwise it would spoil the shot. However, he was adamant and insisted I should ask. I finally agreed with him and beat a hasty retreat.

The Full Huffington
I think I got off lightly. Not so lucky was the man described by a female journalist in an article in the Huffington Post. The man took a picture of her with his phone “in a crowded bar,” and, basically, she went ballistic.

Well, that’s not quite correct…she went nuclear.

She told the bartender, who alerted the bouncer, who removed the man, who resisted. The bouncers called the police, who arrived at the same time as the man’s wife, who looked at the journalist, who averted her gaze.

I fully take the point that the man in question may have been taking sneaky pictures — and he was certainly not a bona fide street photographer. Yet I can’t help thinking that the lady complains too much. I think her “predator” was just idly playing with the camera on his phone, with no intent to harm or harass anyone. Maybe he thought her attractive, in which case the act of photography could be interpreted as a compliment.

In a way, the mobile snap of a pretty woman is a bit like a silent wolf whistle — and we all know how well a loud wolf whistle goes down these days! Women confront building workers and try to “bust their balls” (sorry, I’ve been watching “The Sopranos” again). Men now try to be more discreet, but their discretion is not accepted. Snaps are out! Soon it will be unacceptable even to look and there’ll be police outside every bar.

Police outside bar

What’s the Difference?
After all, what’s the difference between snapping a photo and just looking? Personally, I don’t think there’s as much difference as people commonly suppose. I’m fortunate to have a good visual memory and can recall what someone looks like if I’ve seen them in reality.

Certain people (not me) have an “eidetic memory” which enables them to recall every detail of a person or scene in their “mind’s eye,” after a brief viewing. An “afterimage” on the retina seems to linger in the mind for a short while, before it fades away.

Most of us have the ability to recognise the faces of people we’ve met. General Eisenhower was said to have been able to put a name to the faces of hundreds of people under his command. You don’t need a camera or a photograph to store a person’s image in your mind.

There are all kinds of issues surrounding the incident with the journalist I’ve mentioned, not least of which is her complaint that he also photographed her friend’s (fully clothed) bottom.

Ah, well, it’s not a hanging offence, is it? I feel a measure of sympathy with the man in question because of the furore which followed his misdemeanor. Please note: “misdemeanor: a nonindictable offence, regarded in the US (and formerly in the UK) as less serious than a felony.”

The Forum Speaks
Forum members on DPReview made some excellent comments — and some ludicrous ones — while debating the Huffington article. For some, the journalist’s draconian response was outrageous, for others it was fully justified.

What I found most depressing was the comment by an anonymous poster who said: “One of the reasons I don’t do street photography is that I would feel too weird just taking pictures of people I don’t know.”

“Marie” wrote: “I can’t even imagine taking someone’s picture without asking, unless it’s a celebrity or something.”

Another poster self-righteously noted: “I never take photos of a single person without asking permission first.” Then added: “Does not apply to groups of people, couples, etc.”

The idea that photographers should take pictures only of people they know is so absurd as to be not worth rebuffing. Without candid street photography we’d never have an accurate record of our way of life.

I agree that certain places are “off limits” — and bars are probably among them. In those places we should be able to drink and relax, and carry on our nefarious activities without having them recorded for possible public distribution. But the street, the park, the museum, and even the mall should be places where photography is accepted and where everyone is “fair game.”

That way, people would have to dress with greater care. Society would benefit greatly if everyone was “camera ready” all of the time. I’m all for it.

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