If you caught someone taking your photo without permission, how would you feel? Violated? Uncomfortable?
For our neighbors who live outside, it’s a common occurrence.
Just by living — and, most often, just by struggling and suffering — in plain view, homelessness has become one long photo op. News agencies record B-roll of tents and the people who live in them, zooming in on the worst parts of a person’s day (or life). And, for the most part, they’re well within their rights to do so.
Bert P. Krages has long advocated for the right of photographers to take pictures of people without being harassed.
His “The Photographer’s Right” makes it clear that someone out on the street has little expectation of privacy.
“Basically, anyone can be photographed without their consent except when they have secluded themselves in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as dressing rooms, restrooms, medical facilities and inside their homes,” it reads.
There’s the tricky part. For most of us, if we don’t want to be photographed without permission, we can just go into our houses, where we have a legal expectation of privacy.
But when you don’t have a home, your whole life is, in a way, public.
In neighborhood Facebook groups, a favorite pastime is taking photos of people, without their permission. These photos are shared for a singular purpose: To prove that homelessness is exactly as awful, disturbing and ugly as they think it is. The members of these groups seem to compete with one another to see who can capture the most jarring, heartbreaking moments.
They don’t offer any help. They don’t speak to the people they photograph or ask them why they were lying prone on a bus bench half clothed. They just take the photo so they can upload it to a Facebook group and, from the comfort of their home, pass judgment.
Among the many things that homelessness steals from people, expectation of privacy is one of the easiest to ignore.
In a way, our homeless neighbors have achieved a kind of celebrity — without any of the financial benefits or added protections that actual celebrities receive.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer living in Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Fast Company, Salon, the New York Daily News, HuffPo and more. She is currently writing her first book, due out in 2021.
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