An expectation of privacy

Published 5:38 pm Tuesday, April 23, 2019

short rows header

We ran into an interesting question concerning an expectation of privacy this week.

A local resident shot some photographs at the very rainy Wine and Brew Fest last week, and shared them with the paper.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The photographer also posted a bunch of the photos on Facebook.

We selected one particularly delightful photo of several young ladies in plastic rain ponchos enjoying the festival in spite of the rain. In fact, it was a “singing in the rain” classic.

Managing Editor Diana McFarland decided that the photo beautifully described the event, the weather and the participants’ determination to enjoy the fest despite the inclement conditions. Therefore, she asked if the ladies could be identified — not a mandatory condition for publishing a photo at a festival, but certainly a nice touch for the subjects and their friends, particularly if there are only a few folks in the photo.

That’s when things got squirrelly. The photo apparently had posted on Facebook and thus shared with the world, but the photographer decided the ladies would have to give their permission to publish in a local newspaper with a circulation of about 5,000.

There followed considerable hemming and hawing, and the photographer decided that the ladies, at that late point, wanted to protect their “privacy.” Worldwide publication would have to suffice.

This was a pure publicity photo for Smithfield VA Events. It told the story of the event many times better than the one we published, though there was nothing wrong with that one. That said, it is decidedly not a big deal.

Here’s the point that we have periodically made and feel should be emphasized again, particularly with the advent of phone cameras. When you go to a public event with 3,000 people, you have zero expectation of privacy. Hundreds upon hundreds of people may be taking photographs of you and they have every right to transmit them to the world via the internet, mail them to friends, send them to a newspaper or television outlet and otherwise share them.

We certainly have never published, and never will publish, a photograph without the photographer’s permission. The photos belong to him or her, and/or whoever is paying him or her to shoot the event. But whatever photographs they shoot in a public setting are potentially public images, and the photographer can do anything that is legal with them, as can anyone who goes to the trouble to pull out their telephone.

Of course, the photographs couldn’t be used to blackmail someone in, let’s say, an awkward pairing of folks at an event. But that same awkwardly paired couple could end up on the internet, hometown television news or the local paper.

There was a time when politicians went to great lengths to be photographed only in “acceptable” ways at public gathering. Andrew Miller, who was the state’s attorney general for a term and later ran unsuccessfully for governor and for the U.S. Senate, appeared in Smithfield one year at Chamber Day, a barbecue held annually back then at the FFA Camp at Morgart’s Beach.

I was trying to get a photo of him, and he quickly turned away, set down a drink he was holding and turned back for a smiling photo. That was in the 1980s, and many politicians wouldn’t be caught dead in a news photograph with a drink in their hands.

I could have shot quickly and captured the drink-in-hand, but I probably wouldn’t have used it in the head and shoulders photo that we ran anyway. And besides, what was the point of trying? It wouldn’t have added anything important to the story.

Clearly, mores have changed. Today, people frequently line up with drinks held high at public parties, and that’s perfectly perfectly alright. But always remember that exposure you might later not want is something to keep in mind. If you attend a public event, a photograph taken of you can be shared with the world. In fact, if you walk down the street and someone photographs you, they are doing so legally. And if they publish your picture, that too is perfectly legal.

Of course, I believe anyone who shares an endless stream of personal information on Facebook anytime (and I know lots of folks who do) is courting trouble, and there is a growing body of evidence that supports my concern. But that’s another story entirely.