This post contains NSFW content.
How do you make photographers mad? Tell them they should ask permission before taking a stranger’s photo in public, apparently. Since 2016, San Francisco’s BDSM-celebrating Folsom Street Fair has been inspiring photographers to brandish virtual pitchforks by requesting that photographers “ask first” before photographing its participants, who frequently show up with bare bodies or in fetish gear. That year, a booth set up by the Ask First campaign began handing out yellow stickers that street fair participants could affix to themselves to encourage consensual interactions.
The stickers were intended to raise awareness of consent issues in society and were inspired by the unwanted touching and grabbing frequently experienced by those who choose to put their bodies and sexual interests on public display. But, with social stigmas and a viral internet culture where an errant image can destroy a career, the stickers also brought into focus the potential ramifications of photography and the notion that it’s respectful for photographers seek consent before shooting in some cases.
Why not just snap away and share to your heart’s content, permission-less? While someone would surely be seen by hundreds if they were walking around in bondage gear at a street fair, that number pales in comparison to what the internet makes possible. And those who spotted them would be limited to other people who would attend such an event. Spreading images beyond this audience opens up the door for unintended consequences for the subject.
Some photographers took the request (not demand) for consent as an attack on their legally-provided right to photograph anyone at any time in a public space, and reacted with outright hostility, rallying others behind them.
This year, a boldly designed social media flier has stirred up controversy anew by stating, “Gear is not consent. Nudity is not consent. Ask first before photographing or touching someone. No means no.” The close tie-in relating non-consensual touch to non-consensual photography has photographers of the internet up in arms this time around. Again, there seems to be a reaction that “the sky is falling,” and that photography and photographer’s rights are under attack.
What it all boils down to is this: people just want to let their freak flags fly without fearing that their conservative family will disown them or they’ll get fired from their job. Yes, you can legally photograph anyone in public without permission, and that includes attendees of Folsom Street Events and other occasions where people may be nude (and then some.) That doesn’t mean you should.
If someone doesn’t want to be photographed, why should it turn into some big ordeal? They may not have a legal right to privacy in public, but why would you want to intentionally disrespect them? Just because you can? An act of rebellion?
If you speak to someone who is wearing an “ask first” sticker, the odds are 50/50 that they will let you photograph them anyway. Approaching strangers on the street takes nerve, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and it’s a great skill to build. Asking before photographing opens the door to a positive human interaction; that’s a good thing! Don’t knock it until you try it.
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