Saturday, July 29, 2017

No photos

     Once I was walking past the elevators at the newspaper and one elevator was being repaired. The door was propped open, and two workmen were standing on top of the car, working on the cable. The only light was from a single bulb worklight. 
     It was a very 1930s tableau: the greasy cables, deep shadows, the two workmen, straining at a bolt or something. I had my phone halfway out. But they were four feet away. They'd see me taking a picture. It would have a certain zoo cage quality, the white collar guy snapping pix of the blue collar guys. I couldn't explain that I had a blog and wanted them to, oh, illustrate the eerie beauty of physical labor, the odd lighting and mechanics of the elevator shaft.
     So I kept going. Or I asked them and they said "no," I honestly can't remember which.
     There is responsibility toward a potential subject, and even though I am not a professional photographer—maybe especially because I am not a professional photographer—I try to be conscious of it.
     Particularly when the parameters are set up ahead of time. When I visited the Vent Haven Museum in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, the curator said I could take photos, provided that I promised to get her permission before posting any specific shot. There are not only copyright considerations—some dummies are trademarked—but a few of their figurines are extreme racial caricatures: coal black dummies with huge red lips and white, popping eyes. She didn't want those images representing the museum.
      Is that prudence? Cowardice? Would you respect that stipulation? I did.
     Though I took pictures of the racist dolls. But never posted them. Why? Maybe because they were so alarming. Maybe because I thought someday the museum might close, circumstances might change, freeing me of my obligation. 
    They are a temptation though. I worry, when the subject of racism comes up, these dolls might be a perfect illustration. And as the years go by, the sense of obligation around the taking of the pictures slackens, while the photographs remain. How long do I keep my promise? Forever?
    This sort of issue comes up more frequently than you would imagine. There is a bookstore on Milwaukee Avenue called Myopic books, and in the basement is a sign saying "No photographs." Near the sign, a wonderfully warped shelf, bowing under the weight of books. It would make a great photo. But I respected the sign and, besides, figured I could get the owner's permission.
    I couldn't. She had this complicated story involving moviemakers who wanted to use her shop. I asked every time I went in, three or four times in several ways and the answer was no. She didn't want the free publicity.  Eventually I stopped.
     Why not just take the photo? Why give a sign authority over you? A sign isn't the law. It's just a request, a presumptuous demand. If the sign said, "Jump off cliff" would you do it? Why respect a sign at all?
      A person is different. If a person is aware of me, I ask permission to take a picture. Usually they say yes. If they are not aware—say a man sleeping on a train—I might take it without seeking permission, though I'm not sure how the subject being unaware changes anything. I guess because I'm worried more about the social act of taking someone's photo without consulting them, as if they were an inanimate object, than about the result of publishing a photo that they might not have wanted taken in the first place. The expectation of privacy of a person out in public is very slim, or should be.
     It's an interesting dilemma, and judgment is called for. For instance, the sign above is in the Dermestid Beetle Colony room at the Field Museum. ("Dermestid Beetle" is redundant, isn't it? Dermestids are beetles, of a particular flesh-eating variety. You expect more from a museum, though maybe that usage is an intensifier, a nod to the general public who wouldn't scan "dermestid" as meaning beetles or anything else). 
     I don't feel I'm violating the hospitality of the Field by posting the sign, because I'm not showing what they don't want seen—the bloody springbok skulls and desiccated bird bodies, being picked clean by the beetles. That's what the beetles are there for, to skeletonize animal specimens for later display. I feel it's squeamish of the Field to want to keep the process secret, but it's their party, and no doubt don't want the general public to worry there are danse macabre horrors awaiting behind every door. 
     I wonder if our being photographed all the time by anonymous security cameras will make us less reluctant about being photographed. Maybe it'll make us more reluctant, trying to push back in the few areas we can. It's an intriguing subject, and something about a "No photographs" sign raises suspicion—what are you afraid of? There is a pastry shop on Devon Avenue, Tahoora Sweets, that also displays a "No photographs" sign. I want to take the owner aside and say, "The food doesn't really look that good." Though I'm sure he has his reasons. My guess is he's trying to keep competitors from stealing his store design. The competitive world of East Indian bakeries on Devon Avenue—that seems like the subject for a novel. 


  1. The only time I can remember this being an issue for me is when I was an editor for a suburban newspaper, covering a school board race. We wanted to get mugshots of each of the candidates--it would be a neat thing to have, to run next to thumbnail profiles spelling out what each candidate believed about the issues, or whatever we conceived to be the issues.

    Anyway, there was a candidates' forum that I covered, and I brought a photographer with me. (This was in the pre-digital age of film and darkrooms with chemicals, when being a photographer was a real career choice.) I had the photographer snap pictures of the candidates as, one by one, they came to the podium.

    Until we got to this one lady. She stepped up to the podium and the first thing she said was, "Please don't take my picture."

    This annoyed me, for several reasons. She was the most obscure candidate there--no one had ever heard of her, she had no connections that I was aware of--and this was probably the only chance we would ever have to get her picture. Plus, how do you run for public office and decree that your picture cannot be taken?

    I thought seriously of nodding to my photographer to take her picture anyway. But I didn't. I guess my thinking was that running for a suburban school board isn't like running for president of the United States, and we should cut the lady some slack.

    (She came in dead last in the election. I have to confess, that drew a smile from me on election night.)

    1. Good story, Scribe. I'm no fan of being photographed (see below), but to run for office and appear at a forum, yet expect to be able to rule out having a picture taken seems totally unrealistic to me. But I think it was nice that you honored her request, anyway, especially since it made no difference to the election at all.

  2. I loved the part about the beetles, and if you expect more from museums you should probably avoid the Corvette 'museum' in Bowling Green KY. Perhaps soon the will be one there dedicated to the Massacre that you could visit instead...

  3. I can understand why the Vent Haven Museum might fear misrepresentation, and maybe the Field Museum worries that, taken out of context, flesh eating beetles make for poor publicity, but with the baker it's probably a matter of pride; how will his product look through your lens? He's being protective.

  4. Something was missed here. I once had to work for an hour in a room with Dermestid Beetles doing their thing. Even showering twice a day and changing cloths, it took three days for the smell to dissipate.
    These days photos and videos inside and outside are ubiquitous in the trades, useful for generating more accurate quotes, and for insurance companies documenting pre-existing conditions. You generally need a release to use the photos in marketing materials.
    One of my hobbies is documenting burials for a website called Find A Grave. Members can create memorials for people who passed away, and may include cemetery and grave photos. As the hobby grew cemeteries found the flood of requests for grave locations from photo volunteers very annoying. They created rules restricting information to family members, and banning the taking of photos on their property. There are some cemeteries that ban photography and charge family members $5 per photo that they provide. As time has passed, and millions of graves have been documented, many with GPS, cemeteries have had their work load drop off significantly, and are more cooperative. Rosehill Cemetery for one has recently removed its restrictions. You may wish to try searching for an ancestor and see what you find.

    1. I'm not surprised that Rosehill didn't want any photos taken. There are numerous gravestones that have fallen over & haven't been restored due to the fact that the money the family paid to maintain it has run out.
      You'd think the cemetery had some pride & would at least stand them up, but no!

    2. Perhaps, until an employee confronts you and escorts you off the property, and threatens to charge you with trespassing if you are caught again.

  5. "I wonder if our being photographed all the time by anonymous security cameras will make us less reluctant about being photographed."

    Not in my experience.

    "what are you afraid of?" Looking like a fool.

    I was born in the '50s, so this opinion goes in the "Get off my lawn" file, but one thing the world is not lacking is more photos of people, places and things. There aren't many photos of myself that I particularly enjoy, so I don't particularly enjoy being photographed. It's been amazing to witness the phenomenon of photography becoming ubiquitous, given that there are about 10 photos of me from when I was a kid. The idea that, everywhere you go, somebody there, if not everybody there, has a camera ready and waiting is one of the most remarkable advances in technology from the Buck Rogers days. Hey, I can appreciate many of the benefits, but not the idea that innocent, random people become the unwitting stars of viral videos by doing some accidental, stupid thing that, in the past, would have been quickly forgotten one-second gaffes.

    Anyway, I appreciate the photos on this blog a lot. And I know that I'm in a diminishing minority of folks who aren't looking to see their photo plastered anyplace it could be. But, I don't see any harm in erring on the side of being considerate of your subjects' feelings when deciding what to photograph, and particularly what to post here, N.S.

    Vaguely related -- I've marveled at how much mileage you've gotten out of attending that Damien Hirst exhibition in Italy. If I'd been in Italy, I'd never have attended it. If it were to show up here -- for free -- I imagine I'd blow through it in about 15 minutes, taking no photos. But you've certainly found interesting and clever tie-ins for some of those, uh, intriguing? images, Neil!

  6. By "East Indian" do you mean from the eastern part of India, or do you just mean "Indians and not Native Americans"? Have always been curious about regional cuisine/fashion/etc. within the Devon corridor.


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