Paleo Retiree writes:
As an artsbuff and an enthusiastic snapshooter, I was fascinated by the debate that kicked up a while back about “creepshots.” (Gawker and Jezebel attack; Reddit bans a few sub-Reddits.) Briefly: young women protested that photographers shouldn’t be posting photos of young women online. At least none that are provocative, and were taken without first asking for and receiving permission. Well, as with so much having to do with young women and their militant political causes, the fact is that it’s hard to tell exactly what the criteria are, beyond “nobody should ever do anything that makes me feel bad.”
This kerfuffle and the debate that followed left me amazed. How naive and childish can people be? Isn’t it common knowledge that if you’re out in public you’re fair game for photographers? Apparently not. The word “non-consenting” shows up regularly in articles and comments attacking creepshots … yet it’s a simple fact that many of the photographs that are generally considered among the greatest ever taken were snapped without the knowledge and/or consent of the people in them.
Some visitors, for example, were offended by this posting of mine, which included a snap I took of an oblivious couple, and asked how I’d feel if someone posted an unflattering picture of me online. One commenter asked the question with a huge flounce of self-congratulations, as if she knew she was scoring some big, game-ending point. How to persuade such a my-feelings-above-all-things person that, if I were photographed, say, picking my nose, and someone posted the photograph online, I wouldn’t be much bugged by it? I’d probably blush and grimace a bit, but then I’d shrug and get on with life. What chance is there she’d believe me?
Nonetheless, my reasons:
- For one thing: Fair’s fair. If I’m going to sneak pics of people in public, other people can sneak pics of me in public.
- For another: Practically speaking, in today’s digital world, with millions of photographs being uploaded to the web every day, what are the chances of me ever encountering such a picture of myself? It’s seriously unlikely that I’ll ever learn about it. And with ignorance sometimes comes equanimity.
- For a third thing: The freedom to sneak pics in public generally is ‘WAAYYYYYY more important to me than any briefly miffed feelings I might personally experience as a consequence of a sneaked pic. You’ll perhaps forgive me for being reminded of the ever-ongoing debate about free speech, and for being perturbed by the way so many young people in these self-esteem days are apparently more determined to protect their tender feelings than they are to experience and enjoy freedom.
Part of what intrigued me about the discussion was realizing that, by the standards that were being laid out by the young and intolerant, my personal photo collection includes hundreds of “creepshots” — pix, possibly erotically intended, of random young women. Here I was, thinking that I enjoy taking shots of life as it’s currently being lived (and OK, also indulging my eternally bemused, wandering eye). But by certain obsessed-by-microaggresions contempo standards, despite the fact that I’m behaving in the ways I always have, I may now qualify as a creepy, wicked old man. (I don’t take this seriously, btw. It’s just interesting to observe how standards change over time.)
I’m also struck by how often the word “creepy” has been coming up recently. Creepshots. Creepy old men. What’s going on in the culture that’s making young women think “creepy!” so much these days? I was first struck by this in the early 2000s. Young women started showing up at the office who were really, really shocked that older male colleagues would dare to flirt with them, let alone hit on them. As an oldie, I was ultra-baffled. For decades the arrival of new young employees had meant a fresh crop of eye candy and potential lovers. Even in the neofeminist ’90s, few of these youngsters complained. Some abstained; some enjoyed the attention; some used it to get ahead … But even the feminists among them didn’t complain. But in the early 2000s, young women who were otherwise startlingly hearty and headstrong — team-playin’, hyper-confident Alpha Girls — were expressing dismay that “creepy older guys” were teasing them, eyeing them, and trying to make some time with them. WTF? Was it growing up during crazy ’90s feminism that had infantilized them so? Does today’s education-for-nice-kids both fill girls up with ego AND turn them into naive 12 year olds?
In any case, as for me, where photography in public goes, I’m a simple soul: Out in public, it’s it’s all fair game. My personal morality says that you shouldn’t point your camera into people’s private spaces, such as houses. But when a person is out in public, it really is open season, and I’m OK with that. Happy to agree that there are more elegant and less elegant, and more and less considerate, ways of dealing with these questions. But I’m seriously wary of drawing moral lines (let alone passing laws) based on someone’s idea of taste or talent. Why would I trust someone other than myself to make those judgments?
Nonetheless, despite the fact that the basics of this argument were settled for me long ago, I’m still intrigued by how other people feel today.
So in this posting I’m offering up a case study (the first of many, I’m hoping). Recently I spent a half day strolling around Isla Vista, the small town on the California coast where the University of California at Santa Barbara is located. I snapped away happily, as I’m wont to do: architecture, funny signs … Really, truly, this is something I do: I photograph places that interest, amuse or delight me. Proof of this, from my day in IV:
I make zero claims for myself as an arty photographer, but I like noticing things and I enjoy the way themes emerge from the visual notes I take. In this case: I’m following the vogue for localism; as a fan of idiomatic pop architecture, I’m collecting shots of bicycle stores around the country; I have a folder of pix I’m building up on the general theme of “what the hell happened to American church architecture in the post WWII years?” … I also like funny signs, which I consider to be a legitimate form of folk art, and I’m gently beginning to take snaps of crazy street people. Crazy street people are a big part of American life, you know? And that bench buried in the sand by the stop sign is a hoot, right? Original mind and eye that I possess, I was probably the 10,000th person to take a snapshot of it.
But back to creepshots. During my afternoon in IV I also fired off some snapz of the local female wildlife. UCSB recently came in #2 on some ranking of “biggest party schools,” and the town has a very frat-kid vibe — not many hippies or geeks or goths to be run into on campus or in town. (Fun to see that “party school” has its own Wikipedia entry.) Surfer style and surfer-chick style are the main things on display. And those are the kids I snapped some shots of.
So I’m proposing a game. What do visitors make of these shots? Legit street photography or creepshots?
Anything objectionable (in a moral sense) with this shot? If the girls in the photo were to become aware of the shot, as unlikely as that is, would they have any legitimate reason to complain about it?
Do the photographer’s intentions matter where determining whether a snap is a creepshot or not goes? (And how can we determine those intentions?) In this case my own feeling is: Hey, maybe it’s a creepshot, maybe it’s not. Maybe I was motivated to snap the shot because I was hot for the leggy young girl. But maybe I was hot for the woman next to her, who I take to be her MILFish mom. On the third hand, maybe what prompted me to take the snap was that I was feeling annoyed by the way so many people march around in public these days eating. (The girl was reaching into her bag and stuffing her face with chips.) Jesus Christ, America, stop it already with the compulsive eating in public. Is there any way for someone looking at this snap to know what the photographer’s intentions were?
Maybe I’m displaying this snap because I have an ongoing project of documenting people using smartphones. If so: Not a creepshot. But maybe I took the shot and posted it because I have a raging hard-on for skinny dark-haired girls in off-white pants. If that were the case, would this qualify as a creepshot?
Example #4 is the same photo twice, so let’s call it 4A and 4B:
This photo seems pretty obviously centered on the girl’s wonderfully vulnerable pink flesh, and maybe especially on the youthful weight of her curvy butt. Creepshot, I guess — though, since you can’t see her face, who cares? She’ll never know about it. In fact, though, the shot is just a crop from this photo:
… which might almost be taken to be a comic (and, OK, comically untalented) effort to make some Antonioni-esque comment about concrete, modern life, alienation, etc.
Example #5 is two photos taken mere seconds apart. 5A:
Isla Vista street scene. Palm trees, co-eds … The girls may be showing a lot of leg, but it was a warm day, and really they’re just part of a much larger scene. But moments later this is what my camera grabbed:
Yow. This snap is entirely about the one girl’s creamy thighs and punkette-Victorian boots. It’s near porno, not that I’m bugged by that. For taking this snap and including it in this blogposting, am I a creepshooter? Could be. Yet: Did I even intend to take this shot? As a matter of simple picture-taking fact, all I did was press and hold the shutter button — it’s a near-accident that this particular frame was one result. Yet, of course, here I am choosing to display the picture, and that’s nothing if not a deliberate action. Complications, complications.
I see two completely different ways of interpreting this snap. First: Let’s imagine that a chick photographer took this shot and posted it on her riott-grrrlll website. In that case, the snap would be likely to be understood as a celebration of gung-ho, nothing-stops-me-from-doing-what-I-feel-like-doing feminism. But now let’s say that a hetero guy took the shot (and this hetero guy did). In that case, you might take it to be a creepshot. Hey, she’s skateboarding in short-shorts and a jog-bra top — hawt. So it could be a feminist statement or it could be a horndog creepshot … Yet isn’t it the same bucket of pixels that’s being discussed?
Perhaps I took this picture because the girl’s leopard-print miniskirt and pretty legs were getting me hard. But maybe I snapped the pic intending to include it in my folder of pictures of people eating in public. How to know (and thus judge) for sure?
Example #8 is three snaps taken in less than a second. 8A:
Maybe it’s a sweet, and not an offensive, picture. Maybe I was touched by (and wanted to capture and share) these girls’ fizz and rapport. And, you know, where any sexiness goes: It isn’t me who dresses these California college girls. They go around dressed like this of their own accord.
Is it the photographer’s fault that these girls are all wearing t-shirts with revealing necklines? Or that every one of them is wearing short-shorts, and showing off dangling pocket-fabric?
Zoom in on the original of this photo and you’ll be able to make out tiny, fair thigh hairs. You don’t generally get to see those on a girl unless you’re getting pretty friendly with her. And in this snap you can also more or less pick up that the girls are showing off a little underbutt. Is it fair of me to have taken a shot of these girls that highlights their thigh hairs and underbutts? In actual picture-taking fact: Once again, all I did was press and hold the shutter button: clickclickclickclick … Still, it’s true that I’ve chosen the photo, and that I’ve made the effort to put it up on this blog. But maybe my intention was simply to share something along the lines of “Hey, a lot of college girls are going around showing off underbutt these days.” Maybe I’m just pointing out one particular sociological trend in the driest possible way. Any real way to know that isn’t the case?
Final question-blizzard: How would you respond if one of the girls in the above snapz (unlikely though this seems) ran across one of these photos and was made unhappy by it? Would you sympathize with her and condemn me? Or would we all have a laugh and tell her that maybe the time has come for her to grow the fuck up? On the third hand, if she really were bugged by a picture posted here, and she contacted me and politely asked me to take it down, I’d do so promptly.
Incidentally: Happy to agree that some cases are easy. Upskirt shots of chick students taken and then posted online by male teachers are clearly out of bounds. (Even so, I guess I’m more prone than most to indulge a chuckle or two at the follies of life instead of having a heart attack. The girls are entitled to get indignant; the guy deserves to be disciplined and/or fired. Still, we’re hardly talking about the biggest evil in the world.) But school isn’t exactly “in public,” is it?
It’s not that a few clearcut examples of crossing-a-line exist. They do. It’s that many if not most photos-in-public exist in gray zones. And besides, isn’t it fun and interesting to take note of life as it’s currently being lived, and to share what we notice with others? Do we really want to sacrifice our ability to do that? And if some of our life-as-it’s-lived-today snapz are of girls, and if some of those girls are showing off curves and skin … Well, why is noticing all that, snapping it, posting it and discussing it “creepy”?
Your opinions requested: Which of the above snapz is the creepshottiest of them all? And why?
- The Kardashian sisters enter the fray.
- An interesting case from Europe.
- I think it’s pretty silly to think that, so long as digicams and the web exist, people will ever stop snapping and posting creepshots. More. Yet more.
- As far as I’m aware, this is a good guide (PDF alert) to what a photographer in the U.S. can and can’t snap, legally speaking. Eager to hear what the lawyers among our visitors have to add.