To See And Be Seen by Keith Gosse

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(Warning: The following blog may contain imagery that you may find yucky. The following blog is void in Quebec where privacy laws are different than anywhere else in the country.)


I believe that everyone is entitled to a certain level of privacy.

What you do on your own time and in the privacy of your own home, unless it's illegal, is fine with me. If you want to dance around naked in your living room to the soundtrack of the movie "Mamma Mia!", where no one can see you, go for it.

But here's the thing.

You can't do it in the room with the curtains open or on your front lawn where members of the general public can see you. Society doesn't want you to do that (neither, probably, do your spouse and kids, but that's another issue). And quite likely, even if you did it in the supposed privacy of your backyard and your jiggly dance is still visible to your neighbours, they would probably object as well. You give up your right to privacy as soon as you make your performance visible to the public.

And here's something many people are not aware of.

If you're out shopping on Water Street one day and I take a photo of you crossing the street to be used for a story The Telegram is running on pedestrian traffic in the area, I don't actually need your permission to take your photo. As a general policy at our newspaper, though, if a person is easily identifiable and is the main focus of the photo, we try to obtain their name (and therefore their implied permission), but we don't have to. This surprises many people who have approached me, or other Telegram photographers, and told me that I can't use their photo because I didn't ask their permission to be photographed.

Not so.

If you put yourself in a public situation where anyone — neighbours, boss, coworkers — can see you, well so can I. If you take a snowy stroll on a Quidi Vidi walking trail (as pictured in the photo above), you put yourself in a position to be photographed by anyone.

Now, I'm not going to sneak around to your backyard to get a picture of you doing your birthday-suit "Mamma Mia!" dance, but if you're doing it on your front lawn, I am allowed to and quite likely will photograph you (and the police when they come to arrest you for indecent exposure). As well, being on private property doesn't get you off the hook if you're doing it in view of the public.

If you object, I can't actually go onto your property to photograph your happy dance, but I can do so from the street or the sidewalk, from a public walking trail or even from your neighbour's property if they're OK with my presence.

In the meantime though, I’m not allowed to misrepresent or use a fake description of what you’re doing. For instance, I can take a picture of you out walking your pet iguana, but I can’t say you stole the iguana from your neighbour just so we could illustrate a story on an international iguana theft ring.

As well, the photo has to be used for a journalistic purpose. Once the use of your image crosses the line into use for commercial profit, such as advertising, that’s when permission is required.

I once took a photo of a couple sitting under a tree in very public Bannerman Park. The photo showed the couple sitting on the grass with their backs to the camera; the man's arm was around the woman's waist and beautiful shadows were falling around them. You couldn't identify them so I wasn't going to ask for their names. It was a beautiful picture.

The man in the photo noticed me, however, and quickly approached. He asked me who I was taking pictures for. I explained who I was and then he sheepishly explained to me that he had called in sick to work that day and, in a lower voice, that the woman he was with was not his wife. Now, I wasn't going to get myself or The Telegram involved in this tangly situation, so I assured the man that I would not use the photo. I did explain to him, however, that it might not have been a good idea for him to be out in public like this, since if I could see him, so could his wife. They quickly left.

If someone politely asks me to not use his or her picture, I, and The Telegram, will try to use discretion to honour that request if there's an alternate option.

The same idea applies if you're inside a store but you can be seen from the sidewalk. If you can be seen from a public area, you are technically in a public setting. Shopping malls are a little different for media. We need permission from the mall owners to be on their property, but if we do have permission, we can take pictures of people there, too. (Strangely enough, random members of the general public can wander all over the mall with their camera phones and post pictures of people publicly, but mall security personnel are notoriously squirrelly when it comes to media.)

So be advised, if you are doing something that you want to be completely private, keep it behind closed doors — and curtains.



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Recent comments

  • Debbie
    April 17, 2014 - 07:14

    As usual, an excellent point and well said.