The idea that a camera can “steal one’s soul” is generally considered a primitive belief, held only by backward people in a few isolated corners of the Globe. But I, for one, am beginning to think this soul-stealing notion may be more insightful than uncivilized.
Recently a friend told me about a dinner party he hosted. One of his guests happened to be a very handsome guy. Without warning, while Mr. Handsome was in the kitchen, another guest whipped his phone out and took a picture of him. Just like that. As if it were the most normal thing in the world to photograph someone you only just met while he is helping himself to pasta salad. A neighbor of mine, who is married, went to a 50th birthday party last month where there was a lot of dancing going on, and the next day on Facebook she was shocked to discover multiple photos of her with her arms around her former boyfriend--unflattering action shots which made her look drunk (which she wasn’t) and flirty (which she also wasn’t). The other day some friends stepped outside their West Village apartment to check out the commotion caused by an exploding manhole, and a young woman—after taking pictures of the scene, the fire trucks and police—pointed her phone right at my friends and started inexplicably snapping away at them. When they stared incredulously at her she just smiled obliviously. I’ve heard people complain about being photographed “against their will” on busses and trains, in theaters, on street corners, in their offices, in museums, in restaurants, in the park, in hotel lobbies. Every idiot with a phone is now paparazzi and every person is fair game.
This is a completely new social phenomenon. Never before this decade has it been the case that almost everyone has a camera on them at all times. What’s more, there is no cost for film, and no developing necessary—just instantaneous world-wide digital publication. (At least in the old days, when you saw that man on the beach aiming his camera at you, you could be fairly sure it was for his eyes only. Not the whole world.) The result? Everyone feels it is their iPhone-given right to take pictures of everything and anyone that comes into their view. As if the technology itself is the permission. You never know when someone might take a picture of you. You can never completely let your guard down. Smile. You’re on Candid Camera. Forever.
This photographing frenzy is even more disturbing when you consider the latest face recognition technology. Facebook’s facial recognition technology function has been called “creepy.” But when a stranger can shoot you from a distance in a crowd, and then look you up on line with that photo and find out everything about you, I think that’s more than creepy. I think that’s terrifying.
So what’s a poor photo-shy person to do these days? The only hope is for the potential target of a photo to stop it at its source: the photographer. My rule (and I only wish I could make it other people’s rule, which alas I do not have the power to do) is that unless you are in a parade, on stage, or engaged in exhibitionistic behavior—like walking down the street with a poodle on your head—a person should ask your permission before taking your photo. If he doesn’t, you might try aiming your own camera at him, although this may only serve encourage him. I feel it is best to try to “gently” educate these overzealous photogs by waving your hand in between your body and their cameras and yelling, “Hey! Excuse me!? Please don’t do that! Who the heck do you think you are?!”
Okay, so maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe our actual souls are not in jeopardy. But when those photos of us with our unsuspecting mouths open and our hair every which way and the wind hitting us from the entirely wrong angle are posted on line for countless strangers to ogle, I do feel that something essential is being stolen. What is being stolen, of course, is not only our dignity, but more important, our privacy, which, like our souls, can not be replaced.
*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, June 29, 2011