Harassing photography and recording; collecting your experiences

This is an anecdote gathering exercise, hopefully creating an opportunity for discussion around photography at geek events.

At present, the confererence anti-harassment policy (which, as a reminder, is designed to be edited to be made more appropriate for individual conferences) includes this text:

Harassment includes… harassing photography or recording

Discussion after the application of this policy at linux.conf.au 2011 (see my entry Powerful people: Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote) focussed on this to an extent, with considerable pushback from people who like taking candid portrait photography after some proposals of making portrait photography opt-in at conferences. (I don’t want to focus on specific people’s opinions in this post or its comments, but see the linux-aus threads beginning with Some Anti-Harassment Policies considered harmful and Designated Photography Space at LCA? for some examples. Warning that a considerable number of commentators are unsympathetic to the idea that either Pesce’s talk or any candid photography can be harassing, and sometimes to feminist conceptions of harassment in general.)

It was fairly clear to me that, as is usual in these kinds of situations, people are picturing the most vindictive and trivial possible uses of the policy by overly powerful presumed-women photography subjects against poor defenseless presumed-men photographers. The real situation is of course considerably less sympathetic to some photographers and videographers, and viewers of their output. Recall my entry Conference recordings and harassment which shares a couple of stories about harassment by viewers of event imagery:

S gave a talk at a professional conference and related the following experience in chat:

S: linkedin pm I just got: “wow- you’re alot more younger and attractive than I imagined!.Thanks for showing your picture!”
S: I don’t like photographs and don’t let my likeness out much online. But a professional talk I gave a couple weeks ago was videoed (with my knowledge and consent). This was the result.

C gave a talk at a technical conference and a recorded version was also published with her consent. She subsequently received an anonymous email with a list of time offsets for the video and sexual commentary on her appearance at those time offsets.

The main point of that entry was to talk about official recordings, and how reluctance to appear in them might not just be due to “I hate sharing! I want to control my image for monetary gain!” as some event organisers seem to assume.

It seems we now need to talk about unofficial images and recordings, and how reluctance to appear in them might not (is usually not) “I hate people having pleasant memories and mementos of an event! I wish to end all event fun right now, and wipe people’s memories when they leave! I also hate art!”

There’s also the issue of harassment by photographers/recorders themselves. I’d like to gather stories of experiences if possible. If you’ve been photographed or recorded in a harassing way at a geek event, or have been harassed by viewers of the photograph/recording, you are invited to share your story here, including impact on you and follow-up if any.

Stories here will hopefully be useful to activists, policy designers and event organisers, to give them a sense of what real harassment scenarios are, and the impact they have on attendees.

Notes for commenting:

  1. participation in this thread is totally voluntary. Do not feel obliged to share experiences.
  2. this post is focussing on peoples experiences of being photographed and recorded. That means one’s experiences of being a photographer, videographer or recorder, even if you think your practices are far more ethical than those of photographers described by commenters, are off-topic for this entry, as are comments like “I take photographs in [some particular way] do people think that’s OK?”. I will probably put up a companion piece in a day or two for more general discussion of photography, harassment, artistic freedom and ethics, and intersections of same.
  3. responses are not limited to women (nor do you have to identify your gender in your reply): if you’re not a woman and you’ve been subjected to harassing photography/recordings or responses to them, you are welcome to share
  4. you are welcome to use a new and one-time pseudonym for this post if you like. Check carefully before you do so that the pseudonym you choose has not already been used in the thread so that there’s no chance that you and someone else are assumed to be the same person. Comments must otherwise adhere to our comments policy.

Notes for using/interpreting comments here: these are not necessarily representative experiences and of course we have not verified them. They have the status of anecdotes.

30 thoughts on “Harassing photography and recording; collecting your experiences

  1. Mary Post author

    LCA 2011 seemed to me to be an unusually bad conference for harassing photography. A couple of examples:

    1. there were a couple of times that photographers were heard to say something like “oh! women!” or “unicorns!” before snapping a photo of women together without actually speaking to the subjects in any way. (It’s rather horrible to have the “unicorn” terminology adopted as a serious thing by harassers.)

    2. I was seated in the couch area of the conference when I noticed a man who was seated nearby with his back to me turn and take a picture of me with an SLR camera and turn back very rapidly. He reviewed the picture quickly on the LCD and stood up and left hurriedly. It was very clear that he was actively trying to prevent me noticing the photograph being taken.

    1. Danielle

      There was a specific incident at the most recent LCA where 4 of us were sat outside a lecture theatre (it was full) and we had rearranged the seating benches to we could face each other. A man comes up, takes a photograph, and then says something like “4 lovely ladies, all using their laptops”.


      Gran Canaria Desktop Summit had a specific problem photographer (whose photos are no longer online AFAIK), who was more or less only photographing women. After some amount of the conference, I realised this particular guy was very frequently in my peripheral vision, so I went searching for his photo set, which featured only women and rockstar programmers.

  2. fakename31

    Unfortunately an example comes to mind. I attended a talk many years ago, and there ended up being a Slashdot post about the talk. My name was mentioned in the article linked from the post, in the context of quoting a question I had asked the speaker. Several commenters said some inappropriate things about seeing female names in the article, one found an old newspaper photo of me online, and others offered some pretty harsh commentary (“is that even a girl?” etc). It was very discouraging – my excitement over being involved in something interesting enough to get slashdotted quickly turned sour.

    For this reason I prefer to avoid appearing in candid photos that might end up online – sadly, there’s no shortage of jerks willing to make inappropriate comments about women, and I don’t want that marring things I’m proud of in my professional life.

  3. azurelunatic

    In a YouTube video where only my hands appeared, taken with my consent, I got a harassing comment about my appearance extrapolated from the appearance of my hands. Gee, thanks awfully.

  4. julesy

    It makes me really sad to see even more evidence that women can’t appear in public in any manner without being treated like dirt. It doesn’t matter if you’re appearing in an academic, professional context — you are still considered wank fodder for whatever asshole is walking around.

  5. Sabrina

    At Comic-Con a few years back, I was having my lunch, when I realized that some guy was filming me eating a hot dog. I’m generally okay with people taking my picture, I spend a lot of effort on my costumes, but that just seemed… off.

  6. Caitlin

    One winter afternoon, I was walking between buildings on the university campus where I work. There was a man walking toward me holding a video camera, perhaps 30 feet away. We were the only people in sight on this block. I assumed he was a film student just getting some pan shots of the area (the arty folk do this often), but as we got closer, he pointed the camera toward me. As we passed each other, he twisted around to continue filming me as I walked by, shoving the camera in my face as I mustered up the nastiest glare I could. And then he twisted back around to get more ‘city footage’ or whatever the hell he was going for. I wish someone else had been around, because if there were witnesses, I would have given him such a fucking talking to. To shove a camera in my face as I walk by, WITHOUT A WORD TO ME, like I am a goddamn tree.

  7. takingitoutside

    It’s a little different than what you’re talking about, I think, but I’ve had a number of experiences at various conventions where guys have come up to me and been very aggressive about getting me to pose for their pictures. They’ll start off with something like “Hey baby, give me a smile!” without even saying hello, and if I don’t comply with their demands they’ll aggressively whine at me and insult me. Sometimes they try to pull other convention-goers in to gang up on me. The silver lining is that on occasion when they tried to pull in other people at the convention to gang up on me some of those other people have told them to lay off and leave me alone.

    Another time, an acquaintance took a shot of a small group in a zany pose which she had said she would send to us later. Instead of sending it to the people in the photo, she posted it publicly online and sent us all links. When I e-mailed her and asked her to take it down, she gave me a hard time and acted like I was destroying her fun. She eventually said she’d take it down if I insisted, but I had to insist quite a bit to finally get it down, and she never apologized.

    1. Mary Post author

      It’s a little different than what you’re talking about, I think, but I’ve had a number of experiences at various conventions where guys have come up to me and been very aggressive about getting me to pose for their pictures.

      It’s different from what I was thinking about but it’s well within the scope of “harassment by photographers” and thus on-topic! Thanks for sharing it.

  8. vaurora

    For me, the first time I noticed this weird harassing photography was also my first Linux conference in 2002. These people kept walking up and taking photos of me like I was a zoo animal, or scenery – and lots of them. I’d be working on my computer, see a movement, look up, and FLASH! Oh, another photo. Representative sample:

    This pissed me off. I am not at a conference to provide scenery. So I started making “Calvin faces” automatically whenever I noticed a stranger about to take my photo. (A “Calvin face” is from a Calvin and Hobbes comic in which Calvin is posing for a picture, looking perfectly sweet, and then makes a hideous face just before the camera takes the shot, every time.)

    I think this helped – at least I never saw any of the “Calvin face” photos online, and oftentimes the photographer would give up in disgust after 4 or 5 shots of my screwed-up face.

    “Calvin faces” aren’t a solution, they are a demonstration of how bad the problem is. I mean, really, this was my first Linux conference and by the end of it I’d developed a habit of scanning my surroundings for potential photographers, and a split-second reflex to make a hideous unprofessional face just before the shutter opened. And that reflex is still in place today.

    1. spz

      I wonder if wearing a t-shirt that said “I am not scenery. Taking my picture without asking is impolite. Posting it online without my express consent is illegal.” would get the point across.

      As far as I can tell some photographers think you should be proud that they spend their precious time on pointing their camera at you, instead of realizing that they develop into a nuisance.

      1. Mary Post author

        Posting it online without my express consent is illegal.

        It’s not illegal in many jurisdictions, certainly not in mine, and I think not in vaurora’s either. (The subject doesn’t get a say in publication here, except in cases where their image is being used to endorse a product.) I’m returning to this in a post on Thursday, FWIW.

  9. Cara

    I’m active in a couple of campaign groups and I sometimes go to protests. I try hard to keep my professional identity and my “activist” identity separate, so whether I’m at a pro-choice protest or a conference related to my professional life I try to avoid being photographed (although it’s often impossible to avoid this) since I really don’t want future employers and potential employers to know that I’m feminist and pro-choice. I would really like to believe these things would be considered irrelevant but I think the reality is that employers have a mental picture of the perfect candidate in mind. The way I see it, every publicly available photo of me is another chance for my activist identity to be connected with my professional identity, and once that connection was made it would be very hard to un-make it, due to the nature of the Internet. A couple of times recently someone has said to me “I saw your photo in [PUBLICATION], I didn’t know you were involved in [ACTIVITY]!” and I have to calculate who else that person is connected to in order to work out who else now potentially knows that I’m involved in [ACTIVITY].

    Another thing that bothers me, which has come up on several occasions, is when someone takes a lot of photos at an event which are posted to Flickr of Facebook, and it turns out that the vast majority of the photos just happen to be of the young, attractive women who were at the event. I worry about what the photographer was thinking when he took the photos, and I worry about what people will think of me when they see me in those photos.

  10. TechDaydreamer

    It isn’t Con related, so this may be off topic.

    However, I’m a British student currently finishing off my second year of uni and going through a sexual harassment complaint against several men in my class for them having taken my photo without my knowledge in class and then using it to make disparaging comments.

    I know you have to have tough skin to be a woman in a male dominated sector, but being singled out in this way has made me more wary of the situation I’m putting myself into. If this happens when I’m still only studying… is it going to get worse or better? It really has knocked my confidence.

    1. Lesley

      Hi TechDaydreamer

      I wish you all the best with your harassment complaint.

      I’d love to say it does get better, but my experience in STEM has also knocked my confidence an awful lot. Sorry to be so glum. There are a lot of good people out there but there are also ‘creeps’ like these people who have been discriminating against you and harassing you. I would love to think it is getting better and that these ‘people’ are less tolerated than they were but some areas of engineering tend to be very conservative in their outlook and perhaps slow to change.

      On the bright side, I have complained to my then HoD at one Uni about the puerile content of some coursework with which a group of boys harassed the two women on the course. I think it was fair to say his jaw dropped somewhat when I told him what was happening to these girls because of the coursework. There are people out there who still manage to have no idea this sort of thing goes on, as in, I suspect, they disbelieve the problem because they have never seen it, perpetrated it or experienced it themselves.

      I hope you are getting some support in this through your university student services, including some counselling about the harassment events, the people involved, the complaint process and the effect on you. Look for someone BACP accredited. Student services may have some counselling services you could use.

      I also hope the university is supporting you in your complaint,

      Good luck

      1. Helen Huntingdon

        A few months ago a professor emeritus responded with, “you mean decades ago,” when I mentioned how hard it is to make it through engineering school with the overwhelming additional burden put on women. He followed it up with saying that sort of thing doesn’t happen any more, surely. I gave him the I-can’t-believe-you-said-something-that-stupid stare, and then asked, “How many stalkers is one woman supposed to take?”

        That really rattled his cage. He asked if I really meant multiple stalkers. I said, “yeah,” in a what-color-is-the-sky-in-your-world tone. He asked if I was including anyone who harassed me, and I said oh, if you’re going to include harassers, we’re up to dozens per woman at least. Poor guy was flabbergasted and horrified. He’s not stupid, so I’m still not sure how he’d managed to evade that reality. My own prof is perpetually pissed off these days at what his women grad students have had to deal with in the last couple of years.

    2. Helen Huntingdon

      TechDaydreamer, I hope it gets better. As Lesley said, it will depend to some extent on the culture of your field and subfield, and then more specifically of your employer.

      My personal experience is that you have more recourse outside of academia.

    3. Cthandhs

      TechDaydreamer, I have had much less trouble in industry than in academia. My company has a mandatory annual harassment training and we have a reporting chain through Human Resources that is very sensitive to gender issues. I didn’t have access to anything like that in University.

      On topic, I am always surprised and embarrassed to see photos of me show up when someone’s posting party pictures to their Facebook or flicker page. I don’t really know how to address the issue, because it’s accepted behavior in my social group. A couple of guys have nominated themselves as official party photographers, which means they skulk about and take pictures of everyone at their best or their worst. I don’t mind the me-and-my-buddy posed party pics, but unauthorized photos of me quaffing from the ubiquitous oversize-red-plastic-cup are not exactly going to do great things for my career.

  11. julesy

    Posting it online without my express consent is illegal.”

    It’s not illegal, though.

    1. Mary Post author

      It may be where spz is: some jurisdictions have a strong right to privacy that leads to this being illegal or legally dubious.

      General note: can we leave further discussion of legal aspects to comments in the follow up post? I don’t want discussion of potential responses to outnumber experiences here.

  12. Annalee

    I had to deal with a total creeper photographer at ConFusion in Detroit a few years back. ConFusion itself was wonderful–one of the best cons I’ve ever been to–but this one guy pretty much ruined it for one of the women I came with. She spent a big part of the con hiding in our room to stay away from him.

    He was basically following her around everywhere, snapping pictures constantly. The first time I encountered him doing this, I was like “dude, what are you doing?”

    “I’m taking pictures of your cute friend!” He said. Then he looked me up and down with a leer that would put Howard Walowitz to shame and said, “You’re not so bad yourself!” and took my picture too. I asked him to stop, and he said “Okay,” then took three more pictures.

    He then went back to following my friend around. I asked her if she wanted me to talk to him, talk to con ops, etc, but she said she didn’t want to “make a big deal.” So basically, she ended up driving from Dayton to Detroit to hang out in a hotel room, because she didn’t want to attend the conference she’d paid full freight for with this guy following her around. Yuck.

    I make costumes to wear to SF cons, so I’m used to people asking for my picture. I’ve got NO PROBLEM with that. But there’s a big difference between “I love your costume! Can I get a picture of it?” and the kind of “smile, baby!” crap that creepers do.

  13. zora

    I have a lot of bad photo conference experiences. I will not share all of them.

    At the first conference I ever went to, there was some guy I’d never met (whom I’d spoken to on IRC and knew vaguely through our shared community) who ended up taking about 40 creeper photos of me — of my back while I was standing around, of my boobs when I was giving a talk, and then posting them all online. He never actually talked to me in person, and all of the pictures were taken with a serious Stalker Zoom.

    Since that time I’ve had many Stalker Conference Pics taken, and posted online, often with my name attached. At some point in the past couple of years I found an entire thread plus a whole photo gallery dedicated to me, after some guy had decided I was the hottest chick who ever looked at a computer. So now I am even more paranoid about people posting pictures of me online, since there are at least a few people out there collecting them and reposting them with vile commentary.

    And further, I give a lot of technical talks. Before one talk, there was discussion wherein I was compared to a porn star. The organizers wanted to videotape the talk but I told them they could only have my slides and record audio, which worked out pretty well — and would have been even better if it weren’t for the creeps in the front row surreptitiously filming me. Who knows where that ended up.

    The part that I really hate about it is that when you ask people not to do that, they think you’re some kind of weird antisocial narcissist, because the implied point is that someone out there CARES what you look like. How dare you think you’re so important? But oh, they do, they do care. Shudder.

  14. SherryH

    Not con or tech related, so maybe not relevant, but I was at an event one time and noticed this guy about to take my picture. I spun around so that my back was to him, and nothing more was said at the time. Later in the day, he sneaked up on me and got the picture he wanted. I protested, and pointed out that I’d turned away earlier that day. His response?

    “I thought you were just playing with me. I took it as a challenge.”*

    He didn’t apologize, either, after finding out that I minded. That was some ten or more years ago, and yet I’m still steamed that his entitlement to take pictures overrode my emphatic desire not to be photographed. Yet he’s probably completely forgotten the encounter and would find it ridiculous that I even still remember. Wish I’d told him off better at the time, but I was so flustered by the fact that it had even happened…

    * Possibly not an exact quote, as it’s been quite a while, but that was the gist of it.

  15. Skud

    A few of mine…

    At one conference, I asked in advance whether the talk I was giving (a keynote at a smaller conference) would be filmed or recorded. The organisers said it wouldn’t. When I went up to speak I found a large, professional video camera set up at the back of the room, on a tripod, pointed at me. We’re not talking a handheld camera or phonecam or anything, we’re talking some serious video equipment. So I thought, huh, there must have been a communication failure or something, because that sure looks like official conference recording or whatever. I was a bit disconcerted but didn’t say anything.

    Anyway, I gave my talk then maybe an hour afterwards I was in the vendor area just looking around when someone came up to me and said, “I’ve got blackmail material now.” I kind of went “Whuh???” and then he handed me a card and told me he was the guy who’d been filming my talk. He was standing close enough that I had to step back to get away from his bad breath. I found this intensely creepy. I later found out that he’d gone up to various other female attendees/vendors/etc and been creepy to them too. He was not in any way officially connected to the conference — his card described him as an “independent videographer”. Luckily, I never saw the video from that event online. Though on the other hand I’m a little creeped out to think that he’s kept it for “private use” and not published it.

    In a more general sense, I’ve experienced considerable harassment based on photos of me as a presenter — most notably in relation to the talks I gave about women in open source in 2009. I saw dozens of comments on my general attractiveness/fuckability or lack thereof, presumed sexual preferences, etc etc. Mostly I don’t read comments on any post linking to those talks, anymore. It’s also led me to be cautious of conference photos in general. I’m resigned to people taking photos of me as a speaker, but at least when I’m on stage and “performing” I have some sense of control over how I present myself. Candid photography, especially at social events associated with conferences (where I would like to be able to let my guard down), makes me very uncomfortable.

    Another incident… this isn’t so much “harassing” as “annoying and kind of inappropriate” but anyway… I once gave an Ignite talk, at short notice, as a favour to a friend who was organising a conference and had had some speakers drop out. The conference was held near here so I just went there for the evening of the Ignite session. The talk before mine and the talk after mine were about porn which, well, *eyeroll*. But anyway, on the basis of this 5 minute Ignite talk, which wasn’t even on a topic closely related to the conference, my photo ended up being used in the official promotional materials for the next year as one of the “faces of $conference” or something. I applaud their attempt to show a mix of demographics on their website, but it might have been nice if they’d used the face of someone who’d *actually attended their conference*. Except that that conference had had an appallingly low rate of female speakers and attendees, even by my industry’s standards, so maybe they didn’t have any.

    I’m actually withdrawing from a lot of speaking at larger events these days, because I don’t really want the sort of exposure/harassment that the photo and video from them would bring. I’m not speaking at any major open source/open data/etc conferences this year, and I specifically withdrew from one event (well in advance, and I found a replacement speaker on the same topic) when I learned that all talks would be filmed and place on Youtube and that talks from that event typically get a great many views/comments.

    I presume you (Mary) are aware of the 2008 WisCon harassment documented at http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Wiscon_troll_incident but for anyone else… it was a particularly vile case of harassment-via-photography, and has resulted in the convention adopting a global “opt-in” policy for photography, which seems to work well. Many other (non-tech/geek) events I’ve been to have either “no photography” policies or opt-in policies, sometimes via stickers/ribbons on the attendees’ badges, and AFAICT it works fine there too. It’s not rocket science.

    I’m actually happy to say yes to many photographers in these situations — just ask and let me pull myself together and pose, or, if you prefer candids (and I have a few friends who take great candid photos) then talk to me first and I’ll ask to see them before you post them and weed out anything I particularly hate.

  16. Melissa

    I’ve had one individual take a still from a video of a talk I did earlier and altered it in image editing software for the express use of harassing me. Including using the still to create the impression of endorsement of a group whose existence is pretty much rooted in the hatred of a group of moderators to which I belong.

  17. spz

    just to revisit the comment I made about publishing a persons picture being illegal:
    in Germany, you have § 22 KunstUrhG which basically says you may not publish pictures of a person unless they consent; exceptions are in § 23 KunstUrhG which says if you make pictures of eg a crowd at a fair, you don’t have to ask every one of the 100+ people on it, or if you photograph an “event of contemporary history” ie some politicians shaking hands, or contestants in a sports event that gets reported upon, f.e. This law needs a complaint to see action.

    You also have § 201a StGB, which makes making pictures of you in your personal space without your knowledge, as well as handing on pictures that were made with your knowledge but supposed to be kept private to a third person a criminal act punishable up to a year of prison.
    It’s not necessary for victims of someone installing a camera on a public toilet to make a complaint, f.e., for the deed to be prosecuted.

    The European Court of Human Rights at least made rulings that said you cannot publish pictures from the private space even of “persons of public interest”.

    No matter the legality, taking pictures of someone who does not wish them taken is rude, and it doesn’t hurt to point that out in any legislation.

  18. Terri

    I’ve had shockingly few bad experiences with photographers. I suspect there’s a few reasons for this: I’m a photographer myself, which means when I have a concern I can strike up a conversation at a different level. Plus, I’m really quite laissez-faire about people taking pictures of me, in part due to media training for a previous role I held, in part due to a father who bought a video camera when I was 13 or so (nothing anyone takes now will be nearly so humiliating) and in part due to enjoying public events with good lighting for photography such as summer festivals in my very tourist-filled city.

    But my anecdote is that I’ve been noticing in the past few years that I’m getting asked for permission regarding photos a lot more frequently than I used to, which I find interesting. I don’t know if that’s due to awareness in general or due to nasty incidents or (hopefully) a shift in how people perceive etiquette surrounding event photography. I hope that with the number of cameras out and about, enough people have been annoyed on a personal level that they’re willing to be more understanding to others.

  19. Dorothea Salo

    As some folks will already know, I dislike having photographs taken of myself for reasons neither specifically feminist nor specifically geeky. That said, my career is such that I can’t always indulge my dislike. So I’ve had the following experiences:

    – “Wow, thanks for posting your photo finally! You look better than I imagined!” (Re the photo on my LinkedIn profile. I really thought the comment out of place, in that context, and it was certainly unwanted.)

    – “You’d be so pretty if…” (Legion, when I was younger. Haven’t heard it lately. Somehow I don’t think this means I’ve suddenly become a supermodel!)

    – “Wouldn’t you like to use a more RECENT photo?” (The photo I’d submitted was two years old, max. Also, what?)

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