Child cooling down in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. © Matt Lemon Photography. All Rights Reserved.
Capturing human beings
Over the years, I’ve captured my fair share of photographs of human beings in public places, especially of children and blue or pink collar workers. Around the same time I took the above photo, I also took a photo of a man sleeping in the street, which my American host in Kolkata at the time strongly disapproved of. As far as I remember he didn’t go into any details beyond telling me that he would have quite liked to hit the camera out of my hands if he had noticed it at the very moment I took the photo, and while I would have quite disapproved of that, I admit I’ve since thought about that photo several times and even considered removing it from my blog. Eventually, I concluded it represented a borderline case, and at the very least, it doesn’t violate Indian law which stipulates that neither taking a picture of a person in a public space nor publishing it requires consent as long as it isn’t for commercial purposes. However, as Anurag Pareek and Arka Majumdar, two legal scholars from West Bengal, explain, photos that might embarrass or mentally traumatise those depicted in them are illegal under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, and in their view, laws should strike a balance between people’s freedom of artistic expression and the need to preserve human dignity. And I would agree.
Where the sleeping man is concerned, I would argue that there are limitations to one’s expectation of privacy in a public space and I do not believe that my photo depicts him in an undignified manner or one that might embarrass or traumatise him. One could argue, however, that I couldn’t have known if he might have been homeless and thus unable to choose sleeping at a place where his privacy was more protected and I would have to admit that to be a possibility, although I believed him simply to have been a worker on a break, taking a short nap. Street photography featuring identifiable people is a tricky business, even more so if you factor in white privilege, which this short article won’t touch upon – but I recommend two other articles to think about the subject: The Lives Of Others by photographer Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and The (Im)possibilities to Shoot as a White Photographer on the African Continent, a response by photographer Jan Hoek.
Children’s right to privacy
When it comes to photos of children, matters get even trickier but for the purpose of this article, I don’t want to delve into a debate about countries’ diverging child protection laws apart from citing Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which grants children the right to privacy.
1. No child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his or her honour and reputation.
2. The child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
I’ve taken this set of photos in Thailand and Laos and this one in the border region between Thailand and Myanmar close to Mae Sot. The difference between these photos is that the second one was taken with the express consent of the child’s legal guardians whereas the first set was taken “only” with the children’s consent. It is fair to argue, however, that their consent was far from being informed, i.e. in full knowledge of possible consequences, and later on, I couldn’t and did not obtain their permission for their photos to be featured in a calendar of Thai not-for-profit organisation Baan Doi.
Taking photos of identifiable children is an even trickier business than taking photos of identifiable adults, but in my opinion, the above photo of a child cooling down on a street in Kolkata is both legally and morally above-board because it was taken in a public space and does not violate the child’s right to privacy since it is not identifiable. Just as with the sleeping man, however, one could well argue that the child might have been homeless and thus unable to choose a more private place to cool down and again, I would have to admit that to be a possibility. (I haven’t found an article I fully agree with about the ethics of taking photographs of homeless people and would appreciate any recommendations.)
Your children’s right to privacy
I had actually forgotten about this photo but when Facebook’s “On this day” feature reminded me of my trip to Kolkata today, I thought the photo was useful to jot down a few thoughts about people’s right to privacy in general and children’s right to privacy in particular. Because as much as I enjoy witnessing my friends’ children grow up through the photos they share on social media, I find the sheer volume of them strange and photos of rather private moments frankly disconcerting. In my (childless) opinion, there’s a difference in taking a peek at a sleeping child when visiting a friend’s home or parents sharing a photo of their sleeping children on social media, at times even without any restrictions as to who is able to see them. My feelings about this do not originate from some deeply held puritan beliefs; I just think it’s a good idea to strike what I would consider a healthy balance between sharing photos of children with one’s friends while keeping their number manageable, meaning the photos, not the children – keep calm and procreate away, and considering whether or not one absolutely has to share the more private moments of one’s family life.
I take lots of photos, almost every day, and if I had children, I am sure I would take photos of them, probably every day. But I do miss the time when people sent letters or emails with just a couple of photographs or invited you to look at their photo albums – actual albums, not online galleries – when you visited them. I was positively surprised when I noticed that one of my friends only shared a handful of photos of her child since it was born. Were I ever to have children of my own, I would want to do it the same way.
Please note that with the above, I do not intend to offend or criticise anyone sharing photos of their children on social media, an issue I am certain every parent thinks about anyway and does not necessarily require a childless person’s insights for. This article is only meant to encourage revisiting the matter of people’s and particularly children’s right to privacy when taking and sharing photographs of them.
[Edit: After publishing this post, I came across a recent blog article in the New York Times which proved my above assumption wrong that every parent thinks about their children’s privacy. The author actually admitted she had written “extensively, intimately, damningly” about her children for seven years “without once thinking about it from the point of view of their feelings and their privacy” and it took an intervention by her father for her to realise that “Maybe, in fact, not everything is copy. Maybe it’s people’s lives, and we should be considerate and loving and respectful of their privacy.” Not maybe – definitely!]