When I take someone’s picture in public, I always ask permission. Legally I have no obligation to do so, but I ask, because I know that when I take that picture I have taken something from them that is probably more precious than they realize, especially considering all of the terrible things I could do with it. It’s an odd wrinkle in our laws that allows this. When someone takes your picture, it becomes their art, not yours, even though it is a picture of you. You, as an individual, have no control over who can take your picture when you are in public, or what they can do with it.

Of course, if we respected every individual’s right to control how their image was used, it would severely restrict the field of photojournalism, because nobody wants to have their mugshot published in the paper, and no one wants to be seen in a perp-walk or other embarrassing circumstances. Journalists would be confined to shooting landscapes, animals and flattering, licensed pictures of proud people to illustrate their stories. Instead, we give journalists broad latitude to take our pictures, and use them for their own purposes, presumably because we value journalism and feel it has an important role to serve in our society.

We expect journalists to show us pictures of the accused. We expect them to cover the parade and to show the spectators as well as the marchers, but we also expect journalists to uncover wrongdoing, and to expose the perpetrators. We expect them ask difficult questions of politicians, and to let us watch those politicians squirm — or at least we used to expect that, and we pretend to expect that today. We give journalists broad latitude to photograph us in public not because we recognize their God given right to do so, but because we expect something from them in terms of service to the community.

Unfortunately, the economics of the media lead to something else entirely. It is expensive to investigate corporate malfeasance. It takes time and money to penetrate private firms with private offices, and it just might alienate possible advertisers or underwriters. The media has very little motivation and lots of reasons to move cautiously, or not at all, into the field of investigative reporting. On the other hand, the law allows journalists to take unlimited numbers of pictures of poor people who cannot afford any private space from which to escape their prying eyes.

Misery, hardship, poverty, drug abuse, all leave their traces on the faces of the people who have endured them. Many photographers have made their livings from their ability to capture someone else’s misery and convey it in a photographic frame, but others take pictures of the poor and destitute not to sensitively convey their pain, but to ridicule and humiliate them and turn them into objects of public scorn. We see this all the time here in our local media.

We see pictures of poor and homeless people next to articles designed not to draw attention to the suffering of our neighbors, but to ridicule them for their poverty, or to complain about the trash they create, or whine about how much they impact local businesses. The press uses the broad legal permission we give them to take pictures of us in public, to humiliate and dehumanize our poor neighbors for profit, while they suck up to the corrupt businesses and politicians we want them to expose. In other words, this legal loophole allows the media to treat people, especially poor people, like vermin, while economic forces encourage them to treat every single money making venture in town as immaculately conceived and without sin.

Instead of holding politicians’ feet to the fire, our media looks for helpless poor people to humiliate. You can see it everywhere, from reality TV to our local TV news, newspapers and websites, and it doesn’t stop there. We allow mass surveillance. We let merchants videotape us, governments spy on us and online companies track our every keystroke. We allow them to monitor our behavior and use the information they collect to uncover our psychological weaknesses and exploit them. You have the right to remain at home, if you have one, and off-line, but everything you say and do in public or online will be used against you.

In the same way that we should not conflate what is illegal with what is wrong, we should be equally careful not to conflate what is legal with what is right. I used to make a lot of video documentaries. I understand the power of images, and how context can change how they are perceived. I also know that being on TV can be empowering and helpful, but it can also be cruel and humiliating, sometimes all at the same time. Turning pictures of people into a piece of media, any media, is a kind of magic, and it is never undertaken in complete innocence. The producer always has a perspective, if not an agenda, and for everything an image shows, it hides a thousand other things.

Some friends of mine who also make documentaries told me that they wanted to name their film company “Potlatch Pictures,” after the famous gifting feast. I told them that I found it hard to see any of what we do, as media producers, as generous or benevolent, especially if we somehow manage to get paid for it, because we’re always taking, and we’re always intruding. I think that’s true of all media. None of it is generous or benevolent. The media is always taking, and always intruding, and it always hides more than it shows. No one in this field is innocent. This is a war, and the battlefield is your mind.


John Hardin writes at Like You’ve Got Something Better to Do.