Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Taking photographs of people while asleep is non-consensual and shitty, let's not do it

This weekend, I had a wonderful time at BarCamp Berkshire 2. Mostly.

But there’s one thing that marred the experience, and it mars the experience of most events I seem to go to.

That is the behaviour of a small number of photographers who seem to think it’s okay to take photographs of people while asleep. After a long day at the event, I settled down for some rest last night. I got changed and into a sleeping bag and conked out almost immediately. Upon awaking, a friend of mine informed me that three people came into the room I was sleeping in during the night and took photos of me while I was asleep.

Seriously. What the fuck.

What the fuck do I have to do to get some fucking privacy while I’m asleep in the middle of the fucking night?

Apparently, my sedated frame is an object of considerable fascination among the snapping crowd. And the presence of a sleeping bag, a closed door and the lights being out is not enough to stop them from taking photos without the very minimal standards of consent we ought to have for such situations.

When we are conscious, we have the right to opt-opt of photographs and can do so by actively non-participating with the photographer: putting our hands towards the lens, asking them to not take a photograph and so on. But when we are asleep, there is no such option. For most of us, sleeping is something we do not do communally very often: we either sleep alone or with our romantic partner. Shared sleeping arrangements require a little bit of sensitivity, a little bit of give and take.

And I don’t think it’s too much to ask that if you are in a darkened room at 3am, one of those things is that other people attending the event forfeit the right to take your photo completely unaware. There was an age of innocence, when we were all about the Flickr tagging and blogging and sharing and all that. And then Reddit Creepshots happened. We’re in a time of lost innocence online. It sucks, but it’s the reality we find ourselves in.

Now, I’m fairly laissez-faire about things like this. I live my life pretty openly, and I don’t really give too much of a fuck what people think about me. But I’m pretty far at the end of a bell curve. Most people care more rather than less about privacy than I do.

When Yahoo! Hack Europe was on, we had a similar incident. I observed staff members from Yahoo! go into the darkened sleeping area on numerous occasions and take photos of sleeping attendees on their phones. On Twitter, I pointed out to Yahoo! that this is fucking shitty behaviour and they… sorted it out. They understood immediately why it was shitty. They asked the staff members involved to remove the photos from their cameras and they apologised.

And here I am, at a technology conference, and the same shit is happening. Not from the crew, but from attendees. I don’t know what we do. I don’t think I’m being oversensitive here. I don’t think that most people who come to a technology event that has an overnight component would want to be photographed by people they’ve only just met in a darkened room, while they are asleep, without their consent.

There are plenty of people who have perfectly good and rational reasons why they don’t want to leave a photographic trail across Facebook and Flickr and Twitter of what they look like and what they were up to. Stalking and harassment victims, closeted LGBT people, people with kids, people working for employers with overly strict social media policies, and many more.

It’s just inherently disrespectful. I was on a train a while back and I saw a young man who I considered rather attractive. He observed that there was a woman sitting behind him, asleep, probably intoxicated. This young man and his friend decided that this woman being drunk and asleep on a train was hilarious, so they started snapping photos with their phones and posting them on Facebook. Throughout the whole incident, they were snarling. You could hear the cruelty in his voice. This person was just fodder for this lad and his halfwit friends. I’m sure she’d make good “banter”. Did she consent? No. Did she have the opportunity to exempt herself from this? No. She’s drunk, she’s in public, she’s asleep. She’s asking for it. You can probably guess the moral: the attractiveness of this man disappeared instantly. Viciousness is the ultimate anti-aphrodisiac.

The fact that geeks at conferences can’t seem to see that the people they photograph non-consensually might be a member of a group that might have pretty compelling reasons to not have their image shared around shows that they are both entitled and lack empathy. It shows they value snapping a photo for their Flickr or Instagram stream far more than they value the consent and comfort of their fellow attendees. That’s fucking awful behaviour.

By allowing photography without the possibility of opt-out consent, the corporate sponsors of hack events treat their hackers as less than human: they aren’t humans who might have interests in their own privacy, they are novelties who you can feature on your social media to show that you are changing your internal culture to be more dynamic, more agile and all that.

The result of this is awful. There are people who I know who, if they asked me whether they should attend BarCamps or hack days, I’d be compelled to say “no” to, for their own safety. Before this weekend and before Yahoo! Hack Europe, I wouldn’t have said “no”, I would have said “yes”.

Let’s stop this now. It’s souring me on technology events and the entitled attitudes that it demonstrates makes me tire of the crowd of people I hang out with. I don’t really care about it for me—it is pretty annoying—but I do care about it because it’s the sort of attitude that keeps a lot of otherwise awesome people away from events they might enjoy and benefit from.

Also see Being Asleep is Being Private by Paul Clarke.