Thinking about pictures

I used to have a Facebook account, like most of the population of the Western world. I deleted it partly because I didn’t like the linking up of my different identities. Maybe I compartmentalise my life more than is healthy, but I hated getting friend requests from people who were at school with me. To me, they don’t belong in the same “box” as my current friends. I can’t be the same person to all these people, and I don’t want to try.

I also absolutely sodding hated being tagged in photos. This was often because I usually didn’t consent to the picture being taken, let alone made public, in the first place. But also, I hated the linking of these photographs to my public identity. The days of “who’s that lady in the background, Dad?” are nearly over. Now it seems normal to link an image of a person to that person’s online identity. Sometimes that’s still a fake/pseudonymous identity, but Google and Facebook are working hard to stamp out the fun we used to have playing with online personas. The behemoths of online networking feed off real people, real lives.

The rules have changed in my lifetime. As a kid, I knew that a photo would just go in an album, maybe be passed around friends, and that was it. (That’s if the photo-taker could be bothered to get it developed in the first place.) But now it seems that the rule is: you get your picture taken, you have to be prepared for it to be made public and linked to your online identity.

I don’t own a digital camera, so I take photos with my phone. It’s easy for me to attach photos to an email or upload them to Flickr directly from my phone. But getting photos from my phone directly to my computer? Really hard. I have a connection cable and some software, but the whole set-up is buggy and frequently doesn’t work. It’s ten times easier to email the photos to myself. So the tech is pushing me towards putting photos “out there”, one way or another. I’d love to know if the tech is creating the “public as default” culture or if it’s the other way round.

With Facebook, I felt a line had been crossed when people started scanning in non-digital photos, publishing them and tagging me. I don’t know why, but I felt as if photos taken in the pre-digital days should be protected from this kind of treatment. Perhaps because the people in them couldn’t possibly have consented to a practice that wasn’t even invented then?

Anyway, I got tired of un-tagging myself and I deleted my Facebook account. And I sort of thought that was it, until a few weeks ago.

I’ve got a Flickr account. I use my real name in my profile, because I figured I have control over the photos that appear in my stream. So it was a shock to find out, while fiddling with the settings trying to find something else, that Flickr has a “tag people” function just like Facebook’s. Turns out I’ve been tagged in over 80 photos over the years without my knowledge. I realised eventually that it’s quite hard to find them by searching for my name, but my first reaction was “AAARGGGGHHH!” and then “FFFFFFUUUUUU”.

Is this how the world is now? Consenting to a photo means that that photo ends up in the public domain, part of the pile of public evidence about you? If so, it’s a pity that not-consenting to a photo is considered socially even less acceptable than it used to be. How can this not have a chilling effect on the way we behave? How can you let your guard down at a party if the photos are going to come back and bite you in the (bare) arse? Suddenly the teenage obsession with looking as good as possible at all times makes total sense. How can you smile and relax in holiday photos if you know they’re going on the internet later?

Is this really how it has to be? Is there no way of opting out without becoming a recluse?

My terrifying vision of the future is neatly encapsulated in Google Glass: photos and recordings taken without your knowledge or consent, with the potential to link them to your online and offline identity.

It’s harder to fight this kind of scary privacy invasion if you live in a culture that’s obsessed with putting photos online. A few months ago I went on holiday with some people I didn’t really know very well. And what staggered me was the importance these people gave to their photographs. In the evenings I tried to make fun stuff happen, but I couldn’t prise the others away from their laptops until they’d published and collated the day’s photos online. My attitude is: “You took some photos today, and that’s nice, but holiday time is for fun stuff, so let’s have a drink and hang out.” Their attitude seemed to be: “My day doesn’t have meaning until I’ve put the photos somewhere public. I am happy to ignore the people around me until that task is complete.”

I don’t want to be a control freak about my public image, like Elizabeth I. I just want potential employers to judge me on how I look when I turn up for the interview, not on how I looked at last year’s Hallowe’en party.

Maybe it’s greedy to want a life where I’m the life and soul of the party, the one who lets it all hang out on the beach, the one who rants about politics… and the perfect professional who never crosses a line. But that privilege is something we all used to have. And visual culture, photograph-obsessed culture, took it away from us.

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