Unwitting Paparazzi

Question of the day

How many times do you think you’ve appeared in the background of someone else’s photo?*

To the man, second from left: I'm sorry, sir. Usually I refrain from posting unflattering photos of people, even those I don't know, but today you're a cautionary tale.

The stuff of private-eye stories

When I was taking a black and white photography class back in college, I often walked around my college town, snapping photos of this and that. Storefronts, nature, people.

As I pointed my camera upward to take a picture of a billboard, a smartly dressed businessman entered my frame. He would have been a pretty boring addition to the photo composition—wearing a wool overcoat, carrying a briefcase in one hand and a large bouquet in the other. But what made him interesting was that, as I clicked the shutter, he wielded the bouquet in front of his face like a shield. Like a beleaguered celebrity avoiding the paparazzi.

An unassuming man suddenly became interesting. Why was he so camera-shy? Who were those flowers for? Hmm? *Eyebrow raise*

When I developed the film, there he was, in one frame looking slightly off-camera. In the next, his face covered with flowers of shame.

It got me thinking.

Your face on Facebook

That was seven years ago, when Facebook existed but was far from omnipresent in the way it is today. Your social network still, mostly, comprised people you actually knew, and the possibility that photos of yourself / friends / family might crop up in the public domain was far from being an issue. Thanks to this man, though, I developed an early awareness and concern about Facebook privacy settings. Not only were my friends posting photos of me and tagging me in them, but it was also possible that complete strangers were posting photos of me that I didn’t know existed. Even if I were untagged and just part of the background, it was unnerving to think that my image might very well be plastered all over the Internet.

The following year, I worked at an office in the middle of Times Square, where I found myself in the way of some tourist’s photo at least once a day, on average. So I became really good at averting my face whilst pretending to be busy looking in the direction of oncoming traffic, or something like that.

Not so camera shy anymore

During my travels though, I’ve noticed a new phenomenon that is intriguing to me. People actually pose for my photos, as though I knew them, or as though they had in fact asked me to take it for them. And not in a, I-brought-a-camera-to-a-remote-village-and-everyone-is-fascinated kind of way. I don’t have a fancy camera, just an understated point-and-shoot. They can surely tell I’m just another tourist like them.

Except that I’m a tourist with a blog. Ha!

They spotted me from afar and were determined to be in the photo! Tenacious tourists, those.
The guy to the right of Jack Sparrow clearly wants to be in my photo. The guy to the left, not so much.
A lovely-looking couple in Versailles. Honestly, if I knew who they were, I would send them this photo.

A few footnotes on privacy

*I don’t have an answer to my own question, but I certainly think it would be a fascinating number to try to come up with. But given the way Facebook is going with their creepy facial recognition technology, they might be able to answer that question for us…

**There’s a lot you should know about online privacy. Try searching your own name on Pipl.com, for example, and you’ll see how rigorously some companies are working to scrape information on you from everywhere including anything that is public on Facebook, your address records, any social media sites you’ve used, to create an extensive dossier on you. If that gives you the shivers, check out these articles on how to manage your Facebook privacy settings, here and here (specific to Timeline). This is worth doing, believe me. Unfortunately, there’s no way to make your Facebook profile photo private, which irks me to no end, because it means that any people-search website can access and put it in a database. Terrible!!

***Please be kind to yourself and manage your privacy settings. The friends I met in Versailles told me several instances in which people they knew had posted a video on Youtube, or a photo on Facebook, that then somehow got funneled into stock photography and was used in advertisements. What the…? How is that even allowed? I don’t remember the exact particulars, but one story was about how a woman traveled somewhere, the Netherlands maybe? and got off the metro to see a giant blown-up photo of her family used in an advertisement. Having seen the photo, she was able to sue for rights to the photo, but if she hadn’t happened upon it she never would even have known!


6 thoughts on “Unwitting Paparazzi

      1. Facebook oddly enough. The person whose photos I accidentally “photobombed” and I became friends later on down the road and I found myself in the background of a few of her photographs. At that point in time, neither of us knew that the other existed.

  1. very keen observation, and very hillariously useful post…i love the guy yawning…now if we could only have an app that can match faces and give us their facebook accounts ;), we could start tagging all these anonymous people ;)

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