Thursday, April 16, 2009

Photo Shoot

At the same conference at which dangerous ideas were presented, I couldn't help but notice that 92.5% of the talks were given by men. During one of the rare talks by a female speaker, someone sitting behind me kept taking flash photographs. This was annoying because the flash temporarily blinded me, and whoever was taking the photos took a lot of them.

All of us sitting in the row in front of the photographer turned around in annoyance, but when we saw that the photographer was an older woman who was obviously the speaker's mother, we all kept our annoyance to ourselves. No one was going to criticize a proud mother, even if her pictures were certainly going to be awful (darkened room, speaker far away, lighted screen..).

Then the mom got up and started wandering around the room, taking photos from different angles. It was really distracting. I would have been mortified had I been the speaker, but the woman giving the talk stayed cool, completely ignored the photographing activity, and just kept talking about her research. The rest of us had trouble focusing on the talk because of the constant flashes going off.

Part of me was thinking that this mother was right to show her pride in her daughter, even if she didn't choose the best way to do so. It may well be this pride that helped support her daughter in her efforts to be a scientist in an overwhelmingly male dominated field.

But, aside from the annoying distraction issue, part of me didn't like the fact that the mom was making such a big public deal of the talk. I wondered whether people in the audience thought it made the woman speaker seem less professional. There was zero chance that any of the male speakers would have their mom running around the room taking flash pictures.

Parents who support their daughters in challenging careers are a wonderful thing, but in this situation, a happy medium would have been an unobtrusive video.

15 comments:

Mrs. CH said...

I agree - I think it would make the speaker look unprofessional: that it was such a momentous point in her life that she got a talk that her mother had to be there to take photos.

However, I've noticed recently at conferences that more and more people are taking pictures of every slide of a talk they're interested in. I suppose this is for their records, but it is very distracting. At least most of them have the good sense to not use a flash!

Anonymous said...

If I had ever given a talk anywhere close to where my mother lived she would have done the same thing to this male scientist. I was the first person in my extended family to even attend college and when I graduated with a Ph.D. in one of the sciences mom was quite proud. Perhaps the speaker's mother was documenting a significant accomplishment for an entire extended family? We should not forget that for some families a college education is not assumed and something for which to strive.

kestrel said...

Photo taking during conferences is quite rampant in Asia. I had someone snapping photos of every one of my slides during a scientific presentation. Believe me, it wasn't my mother. Pls check my blog and c if you can help identify an unusual palm tree that may be self destructing, tks

thm said...

I've also noticed an uptick in photography of talks. There's a pretty famous recent example in astrophysics where an experimental group put up a slide of new, unpublished (and otherwise unshared) data, some people took pictures, and then the theorists did some theoretical analysis based on the data grabbed from the photos.

At a physics conference, one sort of expects the photographers to be oblivious to the annoying and distracting properties of a flash, but it's sadly ironic that they seem unaware that the flash will actually serve to wash out the projected light that they're trying to get a picture of.

I was at a conference once, in Spain, where a professional photographer was hired to take pictures of all the speakers, in order to sell them to us later.

I also remember a regular department colloquium, in which we had a rather well-known speaker, where a photographer from the campus paper came in and proceeded to take several flash photographs from different locations around the room--finally, one of the senior faculty said something, quietly, to the photographer, who promptly left.

Ms.PhD said...

Are you sure it was the mom, and not some need by the organizers/funders to take credit for the amazing progress in diversity?

thm- at our meetings, photography or videotaping of any kind is typically forbidden for this reason.

But I have certainly seen people taking photos of posters, anyway. I don't think they would dare try it in during a talk.

Or maybe this was her last talk ever, because she lost her job, and just wanted some evidence that she was a scientist once upon a time?

Alex said...

If I didn't talk her out of it, my mother would put a notice in the newspaper for every article I publish and every grant I get and every conference presentation I give. And I'm a male.

When I was a postdoc at a large research institute, during the week that she visited me they had a symposium with a few sessions sort of related to her work (she is not an academic, but she is a skilled professional who went to college) and she decided to attend. I was giving a poster presentation, and I had to remind her that standing next to my poster and saying "Aw, that's my boy's work!" with tears in her eyes would be a bad idea.

Susan B. Anthony said...

My dad came to one of my early talks at a professional conference that happened to be held in the city where my parents live. I was slightly embarrassed but also happy that he was so interested. Happily, he behaved himself and did not take any photos.

yolio said...

This is slightly crazy mother behavior, and I don't think is more likely to happen to a woman as a man. Interesting that the speaker took it in good stride, I would be Mortified. As an audience member, I wouldn't be quick to blame the speaker for her mother's behavior, I would assume that the mother was simply uncontrollable and feel sorry for the speaker.

Anonymous said...

OK, I promise that the first time my son gives a talk at a conference, I'll follow him there and take pictures of him as a proud mama.

Yeah, like yolio. I think a proud mama of a girl might be more likely to do the photo thing, but I suspect that's 'cause a proud mama of a girl is less likely to be tied into the network.

Anonymous said...

At graduation recently, when one newly minted degree recipient walked across the stage, a joyous shout of "That's my boy!" rang out from a man in the audience. It was lovely. All of us fuddy-duddies in our academic gowns smiled at each other and felt like we'd done something good for the world.

Alicia M Prater said...

My mom drove 900 miles to watch me give the public precursor talk to my defense (where I could iron out the details, figure out what was missing based on public questions and feedback). I begged her to not bring a camera and to behave - she did lol She was just overwhelmed with the fact that her little girl was wearing business attire and talking about something over her head.

I can sympathize with that speaker, if my mom had brought my aunt with her one of them would've had the camera - despite my protests lol

nivi said...

In the big conferences in my field there is strict no camera rule. Enforced by the session chair as well as random people throwing dirty looks at you. I guess this is to prevent distraction and nefarious uses of the photographed materials. But sometimes I have wanted to and wouldn't have minded having pictures taken. The first time I went to one my friend and I were 2nd year grad students and had to resort to copying stuff down furiously as everything and anything seemed important. My friends problem was that her English skills were not too good so she couldn't follow most of what the speaker was saying so attending a lot of the oral sessions were wasted for her. We also had no photos of us giving a talk for our proud papa's and mama's - I think it was a big deal for us too at the time.

helena.heliotrope said...

Oh, this possibility had never even occurred to me - how horrifying.
My mum is convinced that, when I go on a field expedition, she'll be invited along (and funded!) to be an expedition artist.

Anonymous said...

yeah I agree too that the mom should have been more discrete. I would have been highly embarrassed if I was the speaker, even if I was a man! it just makes it appear like the speaker is a little kid again and the parent is taking pictures at the baseball game or school play.

Carrie said...

One thing that we scientists sometimes forget is that while standing up and giving a talk in front of hundreds of people is just part of our job, for most people it is something they will never do in their entire lives. And it is something that is equated with Leaders and Public Persona, that is worth of picture taking and a great deal of pride.

Though I would have been distracted and more than slightly annoyed if either of my parents had ever done this to me...