Worth A Thousand Words

When writing about her coverage of the Portland riots, Nancy Rommelmann made a point that journalists who weren’t on the “trusted” list were told they weren’t allowed to film.

“YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO FILM” and its occasional variation, “PHOTOGRAPHY EQUALS DEATH!”

Obviously, this was not the law, which was ironically established largely around filming cops doing their job. But what the law permitted, or didn’t permit, wasn’t really a major concern for rioters. They were more concerned that images or videos of their faces would enable the police to identify them and arrest them for the crimes they committed.

It’s understandable that people engaging in crimes would be against being filmed, at least by unsympathetic people. So would a bank robber or drug dealer. It’s not the sort of thing that inures to your benefit. But it’s not merely the filming of criminal conduct anymore.

At a demonstration last month, Larry Malcolm Smith Jr., noticed a female protester quarreling with a photographer. She had told the man that she didn’t want to be photographed, Mr. Smith recalled. Although he had a right to photograph in public, the photographer seemed to be unusually aggressive.

As a marshal, Mr. Smith, 21, was there to make sure that the demonstration ran smoothly. He intervened in the argument and told the photographer to move away from the woman.

“Marshal” is a title some protesters give themselves, creating some sort of quasi-official status within the organization of a protest.

Marshals tend to be scattered throughout a march — often equipped with bullhorns — and are there to answer questions and keep the energy alive in the middle and back end of a protest.

When the woman in Smith’s story didn’t want a photographer taking pictures of her even though there is no suggestion she was engaged in any criminal conduct, Marshal Smith intervened on her behalf, suggesting that he helped to intimidate the photographer with the threat of force. What’s meant by “unusually aggressive” is unclear, although it would be fair to assume that referred to the photog’s refusal to be told by the woman that he couldn’t do something he had every right to do. Until the price appeared by a beating by Smith.

But the issue coalesced around an experience by writer Timothy B. Lee.

There is no question of his having taken a picture of someone engaged in criminal conduct, or even entirely constitutional protest which might still be of concern. Indeed, he wasn’t filming at all, but if there’s a phone pointed in someone’s general direction, and they decide to assume pics are being taken, has there been a violation of the “new normal” that you need permission to take a picture of a person out in public? And what of the “white knight,” the guy who came to the mistaken woman’s “defense” with his flavor of what you can and can’t do?

There is no question of legality involved, and no issue of any collateral questions such as commercial use of images. It’s just the ordinary taking of a picture or filming in public. Or even the mistaken belief, given that it’s impossible to know whether someone is looking at their Tik Tok or filming you.

Will there be accusations, leading to screaming? Demands of proof that someone didn’t take a pic or if they did, to delete it? If a photog refuses the demand, which to the unduly passionate may be characterized as “unusually aggressive,” then what? Call in your muscle and beat the photog, smash the phone? What if there are weapons around?

A belief has somehow arisen that it’s wrong to photograph or film a person in public without their consent. Not illegal or unlawful, but just wrong. Consent has, over the past decade, taken on magical powers, a reversal of the notion of social norms in the hands of narcissists. Instead of society dictating norms by which individuals conduct themselves, every individual gets to decide their own norms and then enforce it upon society. If it means using force to do so, that’s part of the complicit culture that drives White Knights, or black marshals, to back it up with supportive dictates and implicit threats of violence.

Is it now the norm that one can’t take a picture or film a video out in public absent the consent of anyone in the frame? When it came to filming the police, the answer was clear, both because they were public servants engaged in their duties in public, but grounded in the historic norm that if someone is out in public, they are there for all to see. If you don’t want a pic taken of you, stay in your room. Go out and you’re fair game.

In the past, the law would provide some limit to how people reacted to conduct that involved them. But the law is merely the bottom line of what’s illegal, not the norm of what’s socially inappropriate.

I don’t necessarily think the law is the end of the story. There are lots of public behaviors that are rude but not illegal.

There are differences today than in the past, where an image of some random person might be taken but never seen by anyone outside a small circle of friends. Today, a picture or video might well appear on social media, and may include a characterization that’s negative, and falsely so, which brings opprobrium to the person in the image. Or worse. Imagine being the person in the next “distracted boyfriend” image and being the butt of memes for millions.

It’s become a minefield out there, both from the perspective of reading someone on one’s phone and being falsely accused of taking “creepy” pics of someone without their consent, to being engaged in an entirely normal activity in public, like mowing a lawn, and finding out you’ve become the target of a meme that will follow you for years. And add to that the possibility that something you say to a companion in public might be heard on a video outtake to make you the poster boy for something socially horrible.

And then, of course, there’s still the possibility that some marshal has a weapon and doesn’t take kindly to your refusal to comply with his command through a bullhorn.

7 thoughts on “Worth A Thousand Words

  1. Quinn Martindale

    I’ve got a young child, and this norm is intense around kids. It seems every organized activity has a detailed code of conduct around photography and social media.

  2. Sacho

    Of course, merely being rude does not allow someone to go to the step of illegal for redress, so violence can’t be the answer here. The other weapon in an activist’s arsenal is social intimidation, but that presents its own challenges. Is it acceptable to take a picture of someone who is being rude, without their consent? What about doxxing them, is that allowed or taboo?

    It seems that in their haste to eliminate any opposition, the activists have once again put themselves in a dillema – claim the moral high ground, disarmed, or be branded an unprincipled hypocrite. Past experience shows they are happy with the latter(they do it for the greater good!), so I expect them to not hold themselves to the same standards demanded of others.

  3. Guitardave

    You know damn well some of these same ‘activists’ were screaming about their right to film cops 10 years ago….cock-a-doodle-do, dumb asses.

  4. Rengit

    The whole “consent” framing is strange, because it’s normally understood that by simply being in public, you have in fact consented to potentially being viewed, photographed, recorded, because there is no expectation of privacy when you are walking down the street or sitting in the park. This smacks of the “affirmative consent” concept we have seen with Title IX on college campuses. My wild guess, as a younger person: a lot of my peers are extremely concerned with control of their images, so someone involuntarily taking a picture or video means that the other person can do stuff with our image that we may not like, which feels like a major violation of our sense of self. I am not sure how civil society is supposed to function if everyone is entitled to a high level of control over how they are perceived by others.

    Also, cynical me thinks that this concern about “don’t film me” or “don’t take a picture of me” is highly opportunistic, as none of the proponents mentioned in the Tweets above would object to the “exposing Karens” genre of involuntary video recordings.

  5. Richard Parker

    We will soon be sinking barges filled with political prisoners in the former Mississippi river, now known the Black Lives Matter National Waterway.

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