Online Photography: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

In eager anticipation of Team Mack’s discussion on privacy Tuesday, I was wondering what you ethics gurus have to say regarding these very public photos of Vancouver Olympic protesters.

In view of multiple arrests and possible legal consequences for the wayward idealists, these photos might be used for judicial good. For instance, perhaps Vancouver detectives identify and track down more individuals who took part in the vandalization? Perchance, even better, these overdue punishments lead to further preventive breakthroughs vis-a-vis future anarchic demonstrations.

But maybe (gulp), these photos unfairly implicate innocent bystanders as well. And associate some disassociated folks to these events who desire no such, uh, association.

These photos have been picked up by at least one prominent blog, thereby broadening viewership of the original spectacle. So where does the responsibility of the photographer lay:

  • To do his/her best to catch violators, hence acting as both citizen-journalist AND citizen-cop?
  • To respect the privacy of all stakeholders in the incident, including protester and witness?
  • None of the above: There should be no expectation of responsibility!

A mon avis, I think the photographer ought to exercise due caution when publishing (uploading?) these images. A photo is beneficial when it only portrays a blacked-out whacko smashing a department store window … but what if an image also captures an unmasked spectator … or peaceful co-demonstrator … or whatever they are? We don’t know.

And methinks that’s not so fair to them.


2 thoughts on “Online Photography: Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

  1. i am the photographer in question. The blog post you linked to received 10,000 unique visitors the first day and about 10,000 more since. 11 of the images were run by the Huffington Post so the viewership was well beyond what I would’ve estimated when taking the images. I tried to remain neutral in my commentary and only describe what happened without putting too much bias in to my writing.

    I did not consider the spectator’s or unmasked protestor’s privacy when uploading the images. And after reading your post and thinking it over, I would still not consider that issue in the future. When someone is on the street in public, where they would not have an expectation of privacy, at least in Canada, they are fair game as a photographic subject. Apart from that legal condition necessary for street photography, the unmasked people in the protest, and the spectators in question, were well aware of what was going on. The gentleman near the Bay window being broken was right in the middle of a protest. He had plenty of time to clear off of the sidewalk as there was no stealth to the approach of the march. And everyone participating in the march was committed to respecting the ‘diversity of tactics’ approach. They knew exactly what was going on around them; whether that makes them just as culpable or guilty by complacence is up to the viewer.

    I do have frames with bystanders that were not aware of what was happening around them — like when the ladder was stolen and when the newspaper box was put through the TD Bank window. I would not have any issue publishing those as being a bystander does not make you a part of the protest. But that brings up what I believe is a bigger decision process that the photographer makes: the editing process. Between two cameras, I shot almost 700 frames that day (and I’m not a heavy shooter). What about the 660 images of mine that you didn’t see? How did I edit the story to fit what I saw (or what I thought I saw)? Simply by editing my set of images, I’ve unwittingly imposed my own bias on what I’ve shown.

    I’ve seen other sets from other photographers that tell different stories. I wouldn’t say they have images out of chronological order but even with just selective editing, you can make the police presence look much more oppressive and the protesters much more peaceful. I just happened to be on the spot a few times to capture the crimes in progress… other photographers did not. So if you are missing images of the vandalism but have plenty of images of the riot police, your images will tell a different story.

    Luckily in the digital age, between blogs, Flickr, and mainstream news sites, we have a wide choice of sources. I published 40 images but most news sites published 2 or 3. How does that tell the story? On Flickr, however, you can find hundreds, if not thousands of images of this protest. Between them all you can probably come up with a fairly accurate view of the day.

    1. Alex:

      Thanks for your comment, and I appreciate your cognizance of the power of your lens and the permanent, broad reach of your images’ affects. I second your belief that multiple photographers, multiplied by their hundreds (thousands?) of photos, can do wonders for the marketplace of ideas.

      My fear remains, nonetheless. While Flickr and others can combine to tell a deeper, more nuanced story than just a few images on or the Huffington Post, I also think the very fragmentary nature of the online medium works against it. While I wish all internet users would access multiple sites for a full perspective of the news, to expect that of everyone qualifies as a bit naive.

      And of course, as you argue, your selection of images supports a biased view as well. I’m afraid the expediency and hyper-timeliness of internet publication makes this impossible to avoid. In complex cases, one cannot hope to encapsulate an event mere hours (sometimes minutes!) after its occurrence; thus, completely unwittingly, a photographer might set a frame for the news that colors subsequent impressions/understanding just by running what he/she’s got or thought she got. And even worse, those first choices might influence other sites’/photographers’ editorial processes. Without a central internet-police, it’s easy (inevitable?) for breaking news to turn into an anarchic free-for-all in the search for the truth.

      Admittedly, though, there is no final, resolute answer. In fact, your post made me question my assumptions about photographers’ responsibilities. Very likely, you are correct too; I just wish other photographers demonstrated such responsibility for their images and wanted to inform, rather than “gotcha.” Unfortunately, I think you fall in the minority of citizen-journalists.

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