Recording 002: On the Unspoken Social Contract of (Public) Photos

Whether we like it or not, our bodies exist as both public and private, individual and communal entities, and, these days, that includes within the space of the Internet. The other weekend, my wife and I went to brunch with N____ and B___, a fellow married couple and two of our best friends in Chicago. After the meal and a walk around the neighborhood, we headed back to their car to see them off. Before saying goodbye, B___ snapped a group selfie of the four of us smiling against the backdrop of a red brick wall; we were full and happy and both my wife and B___ are in demanding grad school programs and work, so we weren’t sure when we’d see each other next. Capturing the moment was a way to remind us all of the happy times we’ve shared during the weeks or months when we might not see or even speak to one another—a common communal and historical reason for personal photography.

By the time my wife and I got home (a five minute walk away), B___ had already posted the photo on Facebook and Instagram, and the same thing happened again when we were lucky enough to have time to go apple picking with N____ and B___ two weekends later. Now, to be clear, my wife I are by no means upset that the photos were posted; they are common and benign, and similar photos of the two (and four) of us are already floating around the Internet. So, what I’m writing is less about B___ or these particular photos, and more about the ways in which we approach, take, consume, and propagate personal photography in very public ways.

Let’s be clear: people have been taking and publishing unsolicited and nonconsensual photos since the advent of photography. Although a relatively recent example, consider photographer Vivian Maier, who spent decades taking furtive photos of fellow Chicagoans during excursions into the city with the children she nannied. Maier never published these photos, although she did explore publishing them, and they only became public after her death in 2009 when John Maloof, a former real estate agent and a fellow photographer, bought thousands of Maier’s negatives for roughly $400, which led him to film a documentary and become the chief editor and curator of her work.

In many ways, Maier’s story is a smaller, simplified version of the current blurring between personal and public photography. My parents have thousands of photos of my brother and me from our childhoods, meticulously arranged and labeled in a series of leather-bound albums in a series of cabinets in the Upper West Side apartment they’ve inhabited for the past thirty-five years, but if I were growing up in 2017, chances are those photos would be in Facebook albums or published on Instagram. Even my wife, who considers herself a private person, shared photos from our wedding on Facebook days after our wedding; in contrast, it’s been nearly four months since we got married and we still haven’t ordered prints. The problem is, photos of this nature aren’t always intended to be public, or are only meant to be public to an extent, but are by nature public because they’ve been published on social media. My wife posted wedding photos because she wanted to share them with her friends and family who didn’t make it to the ceremony, but they aren’t and will never be limited to that audience. Whether someone downloads and saves a photo and then shares it on their own wall or reposts it on Instagram or, in an extreme case, hacks my wife’s Facebook account, the wedding photos are now beyond her control.

Consider the steady stream of celebrity nudes that populate the Internet due to hacked iCloud accounts or the thousands of memes created from photos of ordinary people who never wanted or expected to be Internet (in)famous. Every photo we post is a caption away from being a piece of pop cultural lore or the latest weapon in a troll fight instead of the personal or familial keepsake we meant it to be; of course, a photo can exist as both simultaneously, but it’s rare for a change in context to not influence the interpretation of, and emotions attached to, it. My parents have an adorable photo of me as a two-year-old, naked from the bottom down except for my mom’s cowboy boots, but I wouldn’t think that photo was so cute if it popped up unexpectedly in my newsfeed with a pseudo-clever caption that I’ll let you think of for yourselves.

So what of the photos in this project—the ones from my late teens and early twenties—and the people who inhabit them? How will I, and they, see the photos and ourselves now? Is excluding their names and taping over (part of) their faces enough? What makes these photos mine to post even if I took them with the inhabitants’ knowledge and permission? And what of power structures, of my whiteness and my maleness? Is saying that these essays, and the photos themselves, are an attempt at reconciling these questions enough for now?