Regarding Photographs: On Consent

In the previous essay, I made an argument that photographs (and things that are like photographs) metaphorically transport us into the scene of the photo. We react, body and mind, a little bit as if we were actually present.

In these current notes, I want to think about what it means to consent to be photographed, as a model, as a person on the street, as a friend, as a child, as whatever. The aim here is, in part, to see if this theory has anything new to tell us about a real, well-known, problem.

We feel, somehow, as if a photograph of us has some indefinable power. Many people dislike being photographed. Many people are uncomfortable with photographs of themselves being in circulation. Many parents are uncomfortable with strangers taking or possessing photographs of their children.

Imagine a man sitting in a darkened room, imagining revenge upon me for some slight. He stares into the darkness, furious. Now imagine him holding and staring fixedly at a photograph of me as he seethes. Different vibe, isn’t it? The photo of me is a talisman of sorts, but what it means isn’t perfectly clear.

It is as if, a little, we feel that our souls are indeed captured by the picture, that something of us is in there. We feel just a little vulnerable being in a photograph somewhere out there, even if it’s not being held and contemplated by an angry lunatic.

What’s going on here?

Put aside the idea of a photograph for a moment, and think about a personal interaction. Suppose you see a friend on the sidewalk, you approach them. You make eye contact, exchange body language, a few words. Your friend might welcome you, subtly give you permission to approach and be present socially. Alternatively, your friend might just as subtly warn you off, and maybe you quietly veer off and go about your day. Normally there is a little social interaction of some sort as you approach, and then, perhaps, you are in your friend’s presence. Your friend consents to your presence, you have mutually agreed to this social interaction.

Being present with your friend is a coin with two sides: they are present for you in the sense that you’re reacting to them, you’re aware of them, and so on; at the same time you are present for them in exactly the same way. These two sides of the coin are inseparable in the real world, this is the very essence of social interaction.

Imagine now that you have a photograph of your friend.

Looking at the photograph, your mind and body react a little as if you were there with your friend. Your friend is in a sense present for you, just as if you and they were together; but the feeling is attenuated. The other side of the coin, however, is completely gone. You are in no way present for your friend. Your friend is somewhere else, possibly far away, and likely has no idea that you are looking at their photo. The social interaction has been sliced in two, and one part is completely missing.

Well, that’s a peculiar way to look at it, isn’t it? What has this to do with consent to be photographed?

If your friend approaches you on the sidewalk, you have the opportunity to welcome them or warn them off. If they approach again tomorrow, you again have the same opportunity. In real life, every social interaction begins anew. If your friend photographs you, if you agree to be photographed, then you are in sense agreeing to a sort of attenuated social interaction, once for always. It will only be half an interaction, but it’ll still be real as far as it goes.

As your friend’s model, you agree to be present for your friend, or for anyone who has a copy of the photo, now and for always. Anyone can look at the photograph of you and, in a small way, conjure up your presence.

At the same time, you are yourself not involved in any of these pseudo-social interactions. You are present for the viewer, but they are not for you. You are free to go about your business no matter what happens with the photos.

How you feel about these photos in circulation depends on how you look at it, then. Do you view it as being present for the viewer (without being able to warn the viewer off, to say this is a bad time)? Or do you focus on the other side of the coin, the missing one: you treat it as if the viewer is not being present for you, in which case you don’t care? Or ought not to care?

It is not, not really, that the photograph contains a piece of your soul.

It is that you recognize that the photograph allows another person to conjure your presence, to conjure up that half social interaction.

The presence that is conjured up by a photograph is only half a presence, you, as the subject, don’t take part. Still, we’re not really equipped to make that distinction. We’re just sort of clever apes, after all. We make sense of social interactions in terms of each being present for the other, simultaneously.

Intellectually, we can separate the sides of the coin: I (the subject of the photo) am present for you, but you (the viewer of the photo) are not present for me. You might say it’s a strange way to look at it, but strange does not mean incomprehensible.

Our bodies, our instincts, though, cannot so easily unravel it. We feel the one side of the coin, and find ourselves unable to separate the one side from the other. The social transaction of being-seen in a photo does not make much sense to our ape-selves.

Imagining an angry lunatic raging at a photograph of ourselves is unsettling, even though in the end the lunatic is just shouting at a piece of paper with blobs of tone and color on it. We feel, in our ape-brain, a little like he’s yelling at us.

To consent to be photographed is to open the door to this, rather extreme, possibility, but also to endless lesser variations on the theme. To take a photograph of someone without their consent is to kick that door open, without the subject’s consent, perhaps without their knowledge.

On the one hand, the photograph does not contain the soul. There is no part of us in it, there is in most cases no real potential for harm. We are not being forced into social interactions with strangers, with photographers, with our friend with the camera. It’s just a piece of paper or a rectangle of glowing dots on a screen. It’s not us. It’s got nothing to do with us.

On the other hand, it is us. From the viewer’s point of view, it feels like us. The viewer reacts, mind, and body, just a little bit as if we were present.

We are torn between rejecting future pseudo-social interactions (being looked at in a photo) and accepting that the photo is just a rectangle of tone and color. Both points of view are perfectly correct, but we’re not built to handle this peculiar dissection of what ought to be a normal social interaction.

This conflict is, I think, beyond our instincts. We can grasp it intellectually, but instinctively we are confused, and must ever remain so. This is not a conflict with a simple solution. We are therefore left to muddle through it as best we can, both as photographers and as subjects of photography.
As a photographer, we should be aware of what we’re asking from our subjects and we should respect that.

As a subject, we should be aware of what we’re giving away, and what we’re not.

This is the second in a series of essays on photographs, on the ways we as viewers construct meaning from them, and on what it all means.

About the author: Andrew Molitor writes software by day and takes pictures by night. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Molitor is based in Norfolk, Virginia, and does his best to obsess over gear, specs, or sharpness. You can find more of his writing on his blog.

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