An Invasion of Privacy of a Barely-Animated Head

Delicately-vibrating head
Delicately-vibrating head

I like taking pictures of the backs of people’s heads on trains.  I don’t go on trains specifically for this purpose, but hey, while I’m there, sure, I’ll take some pics.

When I started doing this last year, I had to navigate some uneasy feelings I had about violating my subjects’ right to privacy (none of the owners of the heads knew I was taking pictures).  I managed to talk myself into thinking it was okay.  I don’t know that it *is* okay, but I convinced myself.

Here’s the argument I made:

  1. I’m posting each head picture on Instagram, which (in my mind) is a relatively disposable, ephemeral format.  I’m not popular on Instagram.  Not many people see the pictures I take.  I’m not hanging these pictures in a gallery or putting them in a book.
  2. You only see the backs of people’s heads.  I convert most of these pics to B&W before posting, which in some ways makes it even harder to identify a person by their hair/clothing.
  3. When I post a mosaic of 25 heads on my blog, the overall affect overwhelms concentration upon any individual heads.  It’s more textural than a photojournalistic kind of series.  And, did I mention I’m not popular?


Yesterday, I was playing around with a couple pics I took of someone’s head yesterday.  I went back and forth in a photo-viewing application, so the picture became pseudo-animated.  My uneasy feelings about privacy welled up again.  Why?  I think it had something to do with the fact that not only was I stealing a photo from a person I didn’t know without their consent, I was stealing a moment in time from them.  As you can see above, I posted an animation of the two pics, but mostly as a launching point for discussing candid photography and issues of privacy.

The pictures I take are actually on a private train company’s cars.  I found the Photo Policy for my suburban train line at their Public Awareness page:

  • Photography & Videography: For safety and security reasons, photography or videography on Metra property is only permitted in areas that are clearly open to public use.  Areas that are accessible only to Metra employees, including but not limited to, the right-of way and rail yards, are highly restricted areas and are not able to be accessed for photography or videography by the general public.  Metra will prosecute trespassers to the fullest extent of the law.

I’m taking pictures on train cars, which are clearly open for public use, so I don’t think I am violating the law or the rules of the train company.  But I am not a lawyer, etc.

I found an interesting discussion at Photojournalism, an Ethical Approach – Chapter 5, Right To Privacy.  It provided some nice history about candid photography and photojournalism in general, and also spoke of the controversy surrounding candid photography when handheld cameras became cheap, widely-available and popular.

I’m unclear how skeezy what I’m doing is.  As I see it, there are different kinds of candid photography.

  • Candid photography with a subject’s knowledge and consent
  • Candid photography with a subject’s knowledge but without their consent (like a prisoner being walked down the steps in front of a courthouse, for example)
  • Candid photography without a subject’s knowledge or consent

So, I’ve been doing the 3rd one.  Kind of skeezy, I guess.

I want to believe that there have been a lot of wonderful, important photos that were taken with a subject’s knowledge and consent.  I will say that some pictures I have seen that I admire are clearly of the no-knowledge/no-consent variety.  They are moving and/or wonderful, yet at the same time somewhat troubling.

Comedian Nikki Glaser takes a lot of really nice candids on her Instagram account.  The one below isn’t my absolute favorite of hers, but it definitely captures a moment, and highlights the problem I have with this type of photography.

Nikki Glaser Train Candid
Nikki Glaser Train Candid

There is a woman with a black eye.  Is she embarrassed by this?  Or, is she fine going out of the house, but has a reasonable expectation to not have her facial blemishes spread across the Internet? Does she want this picture published on the Instagram feed of a relatively popular personality?  We don’t know.  And she doesn’t know, either.

And what about the child?  Is it okay to take pictures of a child without his (and his parents’) consent?  It raises issues for me.

There have been a few times when I have taken candids that weren’t the back of someone’s heads.

I took a picture of this guy outside Union Station:

Cigar Smoker Candid
Cigar Smoker Candid

I rationalized posting this because:

  1. He’s sort of turned away. You can’t see his face very well.
  2. He’s posed in a stylized way.
  3. It’s a cool picture, man!

I did an even more invasive recording of a stranger here:

Underwater Grandma


Um, okay, here’s how I was able to post this:

  1. The person was recorded through a fishtank.
  2. They are not the reason for the video.  It’s the context that the fishtank is there and I jokingly said they were in it that was the reason for the video.
  3. Ummmm.  I was kidding around.


Am I way too sensitive about all this?  Should I be bothered?  Should I stop taking these kinds of pictures and videos?

What are your thoughts?