Last week, I had an interesting conversation about when it's inappropriate to take a photo. It brought up interesting concepts like taboos around photo-taking, the authenticity of experience, and the way culture adapts with technology.
Below is a photo my friend took on her tour of a building. What you see here is a little diorama, a perfectly accurate model of the space she was in...with the exception of the man laying face-down across the central walkway.
She wanted a photo of the hilarious sight, but it actually took her three times walking past the model to eventually gather enough courage to do so. She didn't want to be rude, but what made it feel rude?
We take photos to capture something, the motivations behind this vary greatly and have evolved alongside photo-technology. So which of these motivations are good and which are bad? Justified and unjustified? What's that even mean?
Why Do We Do It?
So why do we take photos?
to remember - we take photos for ourselves to capture a memory, an event, or a thing we need to buy at the grocery store.
for composition - we take photos because the photo will look good.
to share - we take photos as a way to share something with someone, whether or not the recipient is known.
When's It Bad?
So when does taking a photo feel uncomfortable? When don't we like when photo-taking takes place? When shouldn't we take photos?
when you're in the way - when the action of taking a photo prevents people from having an experience, it's unpleasant and inconsiderate
Crucial to any modern concert-experience is the struggle to peer through the phones capturing the concert in front.
Second-Hand Photo - the obligation to poise yourself for a photo taken in your vicinity
when you seem vain - due to current use-cases for photography, people often judge photo-taking as a vain endeavor
With the emergence of social media, image-making is no longer just for the sake of memories, it's now for the sake of sharing, and building a persona, which some perceive as vain, or even inauthentic
when you seem removed - stopping to take a photo sometimes disrupts or halts an interaction between people and an experience
This is actually the reason my friend felt uneasy about taking the aforementioned photo, she worried that it would insinuate her current companion alone wasn't enough to share this funny moment with.
How has culture evolved around photos? How can it adapt?
Due to our constant access to a camera, the ease of capturing a moment, and image-sharing platforms, we've formed a new relationship with images and image-making. Photos can now be pieces of your identity in a different dimension, they can be a high-fidelity way of exchanging information, they can immortalize literally every waking moment of your life.
Today, photos serve a different function, and consequently have taken on a new role in our culture. Now we need a new set of morals/ethics/etiquette for image-making. We discussed interesting perspectives about the new meaning of (taking) a photo.
Photography and Authenticity
The conversation brought up interesting dichotomies like natural/unnatural interaction, soiled/clean experience, genuine/fake depiction
The Authenticity of Experience - We often refer to photos/camera experiences as being other-than the experience captured. (i.e. when you're videoing a concert, you're not experiencing the concert. When you take a picture of a meadow, you're not experiencing nature). But could photos/cameras be just another technological advance that enhances our experiences, just like our glasses, and our shoes? Could taking photos together be part of the modern concert-going experience? When is technology a part of something and separate from something? At what point does technology go from a being useful to being destructive? In the situations listed above?
The Authenticity of Persona - There's a perception that photos on social media are an inaccurate, disingenuous representation of one's identity. I think this is because we're used to seeing photos as snapshots of reality, so using them to depict something is either truthful or untruthful. But perhaps with the increasing opportunity to depict reality (inaccurately), we should adjust our trust in photos accordingly. Now is the time to take photos with a grain of salt in our perception of somebody's identity, instead resenting betrayals of our misplaced trust in photos.
Lyrics from one of my favorite rappers come to mind:
"I am who I pretend to be
Here and now there's no rememberin'
But you n****s gonna remember me
Even if it's burnin' in effigy"
- Robespierre by Billy Woods
Photography and Ethics
With increasing access to photo-capturing, the discussion of what is right to capture and what is wrong to becomes increasingly relevant. Debate has moved from discussing capturing death on camera to much subtler nuances like "is it ok to take a photo of somebody while they're working out?"
Photos are just one example of how culture and etiquette must adapt to the evolving landscape of technology. The effects of technological evolution are broad stroke - yielding uncertainty from the trivial (is it rude to use ellipses over text? My friend and I refer to this as 'elipsass') to the critical (what happens to our digital assets after we die? Here's a good book that explores this thoroughly). Technology has a direct relationship with culture, how can we prepare accordingly? Can we design platforms/interactions that allow for moral clarity in the wake of emerging technology?