Friday, May 07, 2010

Picture This

Last year I wrote about the phenomenon of audience members taking digital photographs of slides during a talk at a conference or department seminar. I also discussed an example in which a speaker's mother ran around a conference room taking dozens of distracting flash photos of a speaker, her daughter.

Recently I observed something new related to photography during a talk: an audience member who took photos of a speaker he did not know personally.

Photography Man (whose name I don't know in real life) doesn't work at my university, but I've seen him at talks in my department before, and I have seen him take pictures of slides projected on the screen in front of the room. Until recently, however, I had never seen him take pictures of a speaker before.

I happen to know that he does not know the speaker personally and did not even meet her in person during her visit to my department. Yet he took a lot of photographs of her during her talk.

I was sitting a few rows behind him and became increasingly disturbed as he took photo after photo of the speaker, especially when she stepped out from behind a podium. The photo-man took some images that didn't even include her face -- just her torso. Then I watched him examine some of these photos, zooming in so that an image of her chest filled the screen.

This made me angry. I hardly listened to the question-and-answer session after the talk because I was thinking about what I would say to this man when we got out of our seats.

But then he left the talk as soon as it was over, before I could get over to him. I asked some of the people (all men) who had been sitting near me if they had noticed his photography activity. They had noticed, and also thought it strange that he was taking so many pictures of someone he didn't know.

These are public lectures and there are no official rules about audience behavior, although the expectation is that the audience won't be too disruptive. But does the fact that these are public lectures give any audience member the right to photograph a speaker without permission? I don't know, but I found this particular photographic episode disturbing.

If I see Photography Man again, perhaps I will ask him if he had requested the speaker's permission to take [anatomical] photographs of her. Maybe he will be sufficiently embarrassed and not do it anymore. Maybe he will dismiss my comments and continue with his speaker-voyeurism. Maybe I will ask his permission for me to take a photo of him taking a [headless] photo of a female speaker and then post my photo of him on the internet.


James Annan said...

Obviously his behaviour is a bit creepy and inappropriate in a lecture room, but I do wonder about the generalised hysteria about photography which seems so prevalent these days. If someone is in a public place in front of a large crowd, what is so wrong with being photographed anyway? In the UK there have been numerous cases of people being harassed by jobsworths and even arrested for taking photographs in public places, which is entirely within the law.

Julian said...

I don't want to defend Photography Man; I don't know his intent. However, as a amateur photographer, I do want to defend my own behaviour which might be seen to be similar.

I am often the official or semi-official photographer at small hobby conferences and conventions (far less formal than a science conferences or seminar). I will often take photos of people I don't know (or don't know yet!) especially if they help give a flavour to others of what happened at the event, or a memento to the people who are attending.

I am unlikely to take more than a couple of photos of one person at a time, although it might happen if I am learning about (or struggling with) new equipment or techniques.

I am aware of the distraction of the flash during times of audience and performer concentration, and do my best to minimise it - I routinely check with the people before they go onstage how they feel about it.

I have been approached very occasionally by concerned people who are unfamiliar with my work, but when I explain myself they have always been satisfied. If I learn that someone prefers not to be photographed, I immediately stop and ensure their pictures are not used.

I can't imagine deliberately taking a torso-only shot in such circumstances, but I CAN imagine zooming in quickly on an arbitrary body part to check the focus. I would rather zoom in on an eye or teeth where there are sharper lines - and the face is what I most want to be in focus - but the controls can be fiddly; I would be mortified if an onlooker saw it as a crude act.

Again, I don't know what this guy's intent was, and by all means speak to him if you see him again. However, be cautious that this guy may have just been unintentionally rude, rather than intentionally lewd - he may have an explanation for his actions.

Dr. Wannabe said...

Anyone in a public place is "fair game" for photographers, as long as there is no expectation of privacy (i.e. you're putting your PIN number into an ATM, using a restroom, etc). So as creepy and inappropriate as this guy is, he has the right to take photos during a public lecture. That being said, I think it is certainly worth bringing to the attention of the speaker and/or the organizers of the lecture series.

Anonymous said... allows photos to be uploaded and faculty of either gender to be tagged as 'hot'. Why? But in general I feel that objectification of people based on their physical characteristics is a societal problem, and not exclusive to the academy.

amy said...

"Anyone in a public place is "fair game" for photographers, as long as there is no expectation of privacy"

I don't think that's right. There are stalking laws and harassment laws in many places. If, for example, I was walking on public sidewalks to work, but being followed by someone snapping pictures of me or just staring at me and following me closely for an extended period of time, I could ask the police to intervene. Furthermore, a university-sponsored lecture is not a fully public place. The sponsoring organization has the right to restrict disruptive behavior within the talks. We wouldn't allow someone to heckle a speaker. But intrusive and inappropriate photographing is very much like heckling. It's a way of intimidating women in particular, and whoever is sponsoring the talk has an obligation to protect the speakers and provide them with a safe and comfortable environment for speaking.

fubarator said...

An ace photographer who cares about sharp focus SO much that he zooms in on a detail, yet he can't even manage to get the person's face in the photo? No, this is just a creep.

Mylar said...

James Annan, how would you like it if someone repetedly took pictures of your crotch?

Mylar said...

Taking pictures of someone's torso either suggests an unskilled photographer, or a voyeur.

I mean, what else could he be doing? Breast cancer awareness photo shoot? Sheesh.

The idea of someone taking pictures of him is appealing!

poninsio said...

That is gross, this man should definitely be (politely) confronted. I understand that he may have other legitimate motives, but superficially this warrants a conversation.

As a graduate student, I worked alone in a lab located in a long hallway full of other labs. The door to my lab had a window in it. It was not uncommon for people (men) (faculty and grad students in equal numbers) to stand outside the door and stare at me. When I approached the door to talk to them, they would scurry away. One grad student eventually came into the lab and wanted to take pictures ... needless to say I immediately put a stop to that. I then covered the window on that door.

Maybe I watch too much Law & Order, but it's creepy.

Unrelated: has anyone else seen this practice of taking video at conferences? I witnessed someone film almost an entire session at a recent conference. I can see filming one talk, possibly to benefit and improve a particular person's speaking skills, but a whole session? Really?

amy said...

I just thought of another consideration. Presenting talks is part of our job. Thus, this man's actions could be seen as creating a hostile work environment. I'm imagining if this happened at a conference; if I I were listening to this speaker and anticipating my own presentation, I'd already be nervous about speaking, but knowing that there's some random dude taking close-up shots of female speakers would enormously escalate my anxiety. If I spoke to the organizers and they refused to do anything, that could be seen as contributing to a hostile work environment. It seems even more clear in the case of a departmental talk where the speaker is a direct guest of the department. The department is responsible for the work environment.

Anonymous said...

What the hell is wrong with your first commenters, FSP? A bit creepy and inappropriate? Excuse me? Very creepy and inappropriate. As soon as he zoomed in on her chest, he crossed the line. Oh, I'm sure he was just checking the focus and it was just random that he used her chest. That's believable. If she was wearing a short skirt, can the photographer take picture looking up it? I mean, come on. It's a public place.

If your public lectures are truly open to the public (and not just "public" in the sense of the university community), a little public shaming is in order.

Ms.PhD said...

I disagree with the comments I see here (3 so far).

I think that from your description, this sounds creepy and inappropriate. I don't care if it's technically legal, or worse, common (!).

And bizarre - since when are women speakers dressed at all provocatively/artistically for science talks? Who knows, maybe the guy is a sculptor and he thought she'd make a good model? I do think you could ask if he has permission.

The first way I can think to deter this kind of behavior is to say that the organizers request that no pictures be taken of the speakers, and/or make it clear that the talks are being videotaped (and you could do this in such a way that it blocks all the good angles for photographing the speaker's anatomy!).

But wow, a whole other creepy thing I never considered. Makes me want to stay behind the podium!

I'm especially disturbed by how the commenters are defending this practice. I guess it's obvious - paparazzi and all that - but this sounds more along the lines of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, from your description.

John V said...

When Photo Man shows up in the audience again, I'd ask some security person to warn him that his obsessive actions have been distracting and inappropriate, and why. May as well just skip the step in which he wonders whether he'll be brought to attention of authorities if you talk with him directly, and I'd find him scary.

It's generally a touchy subject of how to treat science groupies. Several places I've been had one or two people knowing little technical detail who like to listen and ask a random question or two. Some are donors, some Greenpeace fanatics, some have a long-standing grudge.

Camera can be ever more invasive with the new lenses. More zoom and speed are possible, although the fastest, zoomiest lens are expensive and enormous.

Anonymous said...

There is no excuse for this! This guy is just a creep and should be barred from attending future lectures at the university.

Anonymous said...

on these things... i think instincts are usually right. But come on... its just a pic... what harm can this guy do, unless you think he is a criminal or something?

Anonymous said...

I don't like when people object to something but won't confront the other person directly (clearly not you, since you tried, although unsuccessfully, so I mean to say that you should still try to confront him on it so that he knows that you know what he's doing and is clear that if he persists you're gonna take it up with Authorities.)

Assuming that he persists, I'd say it's documentation time. IMHO, "give him some of his own medicine" isn't right either and he may not care. Rather, take a high-res camera (so you can see what he's seeing on his camera) and record him with his picture-taking and talk to supervisor or ombudsperson or whatever with evidence (or invite supervisor/ombudsperson) to observe the picture-taking.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 12:33..

'it's just a pic?'.. SERIOUSLY?
I can say that if I ever found out I was being photographed invasively and inappropriately as in this case, I would be emotionally scarred by it. I hope that if he ever shows up again, you get security involved.

Anonymous said...

this is creepy and inappropriate if that female speaker was the ONLY speaker whom this photographer took pictures of. If he had done the same to many other speakers then that's alright. But if he did it to only this female speaker, that shows a hidden agenda beyond just doing his job as a photographer

James Annan said...

Mylar, I would find it creepy and inappropriate if someone stared at, or photographed, my crotch repeatedly. I find it hard to imagine, however, the circumstances in which I would end up emotionally scarred by the experience.

(And before I get jumped on and told how it would all be different if it happened to me, as a physically abnormal foreigner in an generally ethnically-homogeneous and rather xenophobic society, I certainly get a *lot* of stares and uninvited comments on my appearance, and yes, people do sometimes take my photo in public.)

Gingerale said...

Presenting talks is part of our job. Thus, this man's actions could be seen as creating a hostile work environment. -- Amy


Anonymous said...

The best thing to do is to start taking pictures of the voyeur the next time he comes to a talk. Better yet, have several people take pictures of him and maybe even get the speaker involved. Now that would be fun.

Julian said...

A few people seem to be taking my comment as declaring Photography Man innocent. That is not my position, although I am asking people to appreciate that not all photography = pornography, and not all photographers are creeps.

Maybe I wasn't clear before. When I mentioned checking focus, I am talking about examining photos already taken. On my camera, the easiest part to zoom in on is the centre of the photograph, so I stand by the claim that I might innocently zoom in on someone's chest while checking focus, without any creepy intentions.

I can see a clear distinction between that and deliberately taking upskirt photos, so that seems a strawman argument to me.

The torso-only shot remains the creepiest part of this story. If I stretch, I suppose I *could* come up with some innocent explanation (photos taken blind overhead; he had already started zooming on an existing image when FSP looked at him). But that is not my intention. I am not defending him because he might well be a total creep, and if he was intimidating a speaker, he needs to be stopped.

My intention is to highlight that some similar behaviour might be innocent; it is worth checking (as FSP wanted to do) before you decide he is guilty and take retribution.

I don't know how many creeps you get at science conferences - especially as weird as this one is portrayed - but I know many non-creep photographers - and I am confident that most photographers at science conferences are not there for prurient reasons.

If we assume everybody carrying a long lens is a creep, I think we all suffer and the intimidation cycle continues.

Anonymous said...

Complete hearsay! The observer knows little, merely some off angle assessments of someone else's perspective. They don't know what was in the view finder, what the purpose was, who the photographer was or whether they were authorized or not. This is blatant hysteria and most of the commentors here, inappropriately whipped up and somewhat paranoid TV watchers, who are overly disturbed and using childish terms such as 'creepy'... a favorite amongst junior high students, need to get ahold of themselves and be rational. If this behavior bothers you, take it to the organizers and put it in their hands. It is THEIR responsibility to take action... or not. Quit building in the minds of others that hearsay testimony is PROOF, instead elicit a discovery process, go about correct procedure, keep a log of events and phenomena... try acting like scientists! ...not excited amateurs!~

Anonymous said...

Julian, the problem is that breasts (or a woman’s chest, as FSP demurely puts it) are not neutral territory. You should go read the many entries out there in the blogosphere that debate the pros and cons of wearing "revealing" clothing for female scientists. There are always many male commenters who insist that they can’t help but look at a woman’s breasts. They are hard-wired to ogle! Blame evolution! And then there are some that say they always notice a woman’s breast but they’ve learned to be subtle. I’m sure some straight men don’t notice, but they sure seem to be in the minority. So, it’s very difficult for me to believe that any man would focus his camera on a woman’s chest and not be completely aware of what he is doing.

You all should also read the posts in the blogosphere on the wretched experiences some women have had at conferences before you dismiss this guy’s behavior. Isis had one up recently that was very disturbing.

Doctor Pion said...

If I were you, I would probably speed dial campus security and let them tell me if there is a campus rule (unknown to you) that applies in this case and whether they want to get his identification info just in case he has less than legal (under criminal or civil codes) motives that might put the university at risk. After the fact, I'd recommend asking campus security about the situation and what action they would recommend.

There could very well be rules that would result in a trespass warning being issued. Our college has all sorts of rules passed by the Board under some broad legal authority granted by the legislature, and our security people have photos of persona non grata in their office.

On the broader issue, I can see a market for a complete video showing data and methods from a conference. Someone could steal and publish that talk (or set of talks) as a paper in a journal no one knows about.

Anonymous said...

Creepy. I like the picture taking idea. Here's a blog that does a similar thing for street harassment:

There's a whole series of them "hollaback" for different cities.

Mary, MD

Spiny Norman said...

Generally speaking photography is permitted on public property:

However, a lecture hall, even on a public university campus, is *not* the same as public property (e.g., a downtown sidewalk). For example, the door to your office presumably has a lock, and you have some level of access control.

I would talk to your security or campus police office, but I would also call the campus's public information/PR office. They are likely to be the most highly informed about what can and cannot be photographed on campus, how permissions work, etc. Finally, photgraphy aside, the photographer's *behavior* is clearly disruptive to the lecture, and so I'm as certain as a non-lawyer can be that the campus should have the capacity to act.

Anonymous said...

I hope you've made a complaint to campus security with the guy's physical description. I'm sure it's not the first time he's pulled a creepy stunt, and according to statistics his behavior is likely to escalate with time. Having these incidents on record will help police/security issue him with a citation if he keeps this up or does worse.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

No matter the reasons behind it, it's still freakin' creepy.

And anyone here trying to justify or explain the behavior has a bit o' creep in them, too.

Anonymous said...

Some of these commenters might want to read about mansplaining...

Julian said...

@Anonymous #1, re: Breasts not neutral territory.

I see your point. I claim (without any evidence that I could show you) that I am in the minority of men who could examine the detail in a photo of a fully-dressed women without it being an deliberate act of creepiness, but I continue to fear that my innocent actions might be misconstrued out of context.

And I don't think I dismissed the guy's behaviour (that was certainly not my intention.) I acknowledge he sounds like a creep, and if he is, I don't want to be caught up in the same net as him.

@Unbalanced Reaction,

Your reaction is precisely the one I am politely asking people to avoid.

First: that the guy is guilty (of "freaking creepiness") no matter what the evidence/reasons he could provide.

Then: Because I suggested that not every photographer is a creep, I am labelled a creep?

Can we please call off any witch-hunt before it starts?

@Anonymous #2, re: mansplaining

According to the referenced page, the very act of denying that I am doing that would be used as proof that I was doing it. This comes across as an attempt to stifle the civil discussion we are having here, which disappoints me.

John V said...

I agree with Julian that vaguely referring to mansplaining, without citing which posts and why, tends to reduce the discussion to polarized jingoism.

It's comparable to its opposite stereotyping, guys saying don't worry your pretty head about it, neither of which promotes the kind of discussion in which I'd want to participate.

And while I expect FSP has correctly interpreted the photog's actions, and support his being confronted, there remains a chance that he has an innocent explanation, given just the brief description of his actions here.

Anonymous said...


Julian said...

Ah, there it is. The insult I had to get no matter what I said in response to the previous unfounded slur.

The discussion has officially degenerated to the "I know you are but what am I?" level. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Or? Maybe, just maybe, this is one of those situations in which it's inappropriate and tone-deaf to lecture a female acquaintance on what she's experienced and the significance thereof.

Do go ahead and be defensive if that suits. But being condescending to females will cause you to be mocked. That's just how it is.

Julian said...

A conversation I just had with myself:

"Oh dear, is Anonymous right? Was I just dismissive of a FSP's experiences?

"I really tried hard to show I wasn't being dismissive. I thought I had made that very clear, repeatedly. Better apologise to FSP if my words didn't convey that.

"Did I do the annoying stereotypically-male action of listening to a story that is really just a call for sympathy, and blustering in to try to solve the problem?

"Hmmm... FSP has called for other's opinions on appropriateness of photography before (and since) - and she referenced that in the post. I assumed that this invitation for opinions was still open. Maybe I was, as Anonymous put it, tone-deaf here, but I don't think so. I should ask, so I can learn.

"Did I lecture?

"Well, I did explain something about photography. But I don't think that is the complaint. I am being told off for my tone not content. I took a (rather mild) lecturing tone with someone who suggested I was a creep; but I don't apologise for that. Maybe I should ask.

"Was I condescending to females?

"Presumably, this refers to my original response to FSP. Condescension requires looking down on someone's intellect, and I certainly don't look down on FSP. She's an SP, and an interesting writer. If anything, I look up to her. So there was no condescension in my mind when I wrote it. Could it have been read that way, anyway. Oh dear, I hope not. If that happened, apologise for that!

"Could this response itself be seen as dismissive, condescending, lecturing, inappropriate, defensive, etc?

"Lord! I hope not."


So, let me apologise (Sincerely! No condescension! Honest!) to FSP if I have come across as dismissive or condescending. It is certainly not how I feel about the situation, and if that is how it is being read, then I have failed in my writing. I invite people to point me to any particularly offensive wording where I could do better; getting tone right in text is hard, and I do want to learn.

If I have misread the situation as not being one where FSP wanted to hear opinions, but just wanted to vent, then oops, please let me know.

However, I don't want this apology for tone/appropriateness to be read as backing down from my original position: urging people not to lump photographers and pornographers together. It is bad enough that we photographers are being lumped together with terrorists; we are not all creeps, too.

Tony said...

Kudos on 'Picture This', a very clever title