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Faire is Not a Photo Safari

This weekend, on September 3, 2022, a man took a photo of me without my consent, and posted the image on his public Facebook account with a copyright mark. I became aware of the image when an acquaintance tagged me, and the man then tagged my performer Facebook page. I’ve never heard of this person before, and while I recognize the time and setting of the photo I did not see him as he was taking my picture.

The photo and post were not meant to be derisive, even if I personally found the photo to be unflattering. Knowing nothing of me he labeled the picture “A Dancer” (probably for my bare midriff?), and filed it with other images he took that day. But the violation of privacy, even if completely legal, was upsetting.

I contacted the poster via Facebook Messenger and asked him to “please remove the unflattering image of me taken without my knowledge or consent.” I said this explicitly to acknowledge from the first that I was upset over his guerilla methods. Within thirty minute he removed the photo, without argument. But his actions at the Renaissance Festival, and the brief text exchange following, has left me frustrated.

In response to my initial request he affirmed the removal of the image, asserted that he did not think it was unflattering (thus, I believe, clarifying that he did not post a picture to make fun of me), but finished his message with “Just so you know, it is legal to take photos of you while you are in a public place, without your consent.” Of course, being legal does not mean something is morally or socially acceptable, and I think we can all think of countless examples of actions that were once legal and are now recognized as abhorrent. Our conversation then followed:

Me: “Thank you for removing the photo.
I am aware of the legality, but being legal does not mean something is appropriate or welcome. There is a well-established custom of asking for photos, widely practiced and preferred at faire.”
Him: “Sometimes asking alters the subject’s mood/vibe and the photographer doesn’t get [the] beauty that originally caught the photographer’s eye. I do make a practice of asking, especially since I lived in the middle east for years. There [it is] required to get permission first. Of the photos in this post, about half I asked permission for. You can see the difference in the expressions. I apologize if you did not like the photo I posted of you. That truly was not my intent.”

The argument he offered is one I’ve heard extensively before: that asking someone to take their photo can “spoil” the shot, and so the photographer – legally, I’m aware – will photograph a person without their awareness. He and I are emphasizing different priorities: I am arguing that unsolicited photographs of me as a private citizen are unwelcome, and he is arguing that the preferences of private citizens are of no concern when he observes a person he wishes to photograph.

My final message to him was thus: “Please understand that my primary concern is not over whether or not I like the image, but how it was captured. I’d encourage you to consider that Faire is not a photo safari: attendees are not there to serve as subjects, but to enjoy the festival. Regardless of legality, or intent, surveillance makes many people uncomfortable.” I wanted him to recognize that, hey, maybe people don’t want their pictures taken. Maybe the people who have paid to attend the festival as private citizens would prefer to not be regarded as subjects, and instead respected as private attendees attending an event to relax and have a good time. Which is not to say that photos can’t be taken, but that asking – and respecting the answer – is part of the social contract. He disagreed.

“I have been attending the fair for 40 years
and taking pictures there for 40 years
I understand what you’re saying. And I am sensitive to Surveillance also. As I mentioned above, I have been taking photos at the renfest for a long time. In that time, you are only the second person to have me remove a picture in the last 15 years (basically how long I’ve been on Facebook). I am happy to do that for anyone who is uncomfortable. In general, I get very positive feedback from people I take photos of. Often requests for more photos.”

I did not respond, because it was clear to me that, though he “understand[s] what [I’m] saying and is “sensitive to Surveillance also,” he was unwilling to consider that his actions may not be welcome. But doing something for forty years … does not make it right or socially acceptable. Posting photos of strangers on the internet for fifteen years does not mean that everyone in those photos are happy to have their photographs posted publicly by a stranger. And the fact that I am “only the second person” to ask for my photo to be removed is meaningless, considering the number of people (50%, he said) don’t even know he’s taken their photo, have no idea who he is, and may have no mutual acquaintances to bring these photos to their attention.

This person was reasonably polite, responded to my request immediately, did not wish any harm, and defended his right to photograph strangers without their consent despite a keen awareness of cultural taboo and concerns of surveillance culture.

This is the first conversation I’ve documented with a faire patron taking unsolicited photos, but it’s far from my only interaction. I’ve had countless requests for photos, which I nearly always honor, and know those photos have been widely shared across social media. Not all of these photos are flattering, true, but that’s fine – there is awareness and mutual agreement which fulfills a social contract of mutual respect. But I’ve also spent days dodging patrons with large cameras trying to sneak photos from a distance – photographers who persist even when I signal that I do not consent to a photo. The worst is when my young child slipped at faire and I crouched to comfort them, only for a tourist with a large camera to crouch down with us and literally stick their lens in my child’s crying face. Regardless of legality I argue that this is wrong. Amateur photography does not trump a person’s right to privacy and freedom from surveillance.

I am not naming the faire attendee because it's not really about him, but rather a common experience of which he proves a concrete and specific recent example. He and I have said what we wanted to say to each other, and continue to disagree; but for all he respected my wishes after the fact, there are more who walk into social spaces and dehumanize others by treating them as "subjects" rather than people. Is taking a secret photo the wort thing that happens at festivals and conventions and public spaces? Certainly not. But it's rude, it's uncomfortable, and it's a violation of privacy.

If you want a photo, just ask - most people will be happy to oblige when given an opportunity to respond. And if someone declines, respect their choices - they're not there for your camera.

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