Of Ethics & Ethics – Photographic & Journalistic

The old saying is true. Opinions are like [insert specific anatomical reference], everybody has one. Witness the number of opinion columnists employed by newspapers and the number of pundits who appear regularly on other media outlets to expound at length about this, that, and any other thing. Like most any other endeavour, there are good and bad providers of opinion. What separates the two?

Some may say that a good opinion is one you personally agree with and a bad opinion is one you don’t. That’s a bit simplistic and closed-minded. Rather, I’d submit that a good opinionist is one who makes the reader, or listener, or viewer, think and evaluate his/her own positions. A good opinionist is informed. The good opinion provider takes the time to research and educate themselves on the matters they are supposed to opine about, makes an informed decision on a position then uses their knowledge to support their position. Further, a good opinionist is open-minded and willing to listen to other, conflicting, opinions, is open to receiving new facts and information and may revise their position in light of this new information. While opinion providers do have greater latitude than reporters, they do still have to abide by the guidelines of ethics that all journalists do. They cannot make stuff up – that’s called fabulism and more than one journalist has been hoist with their own fabulist petard. They should not radically distort facts. They should not be uninformed, nor trade in ignorance. Opinionists are also provocative, but can do that and still abide by the guidelines of their profession.

When opinion goes bad, it can go really bad. It can cleave very close to, and sometimes cross, the line of professionally acceptable conduct.

A recent brace of articles by an opinion columnist in the Toronto Star falls into the bad opinion category.

On June 18, the paper published a piece by columnist Ken Gallinger entitled Consent is needed before taking anyone’s picture in public: Ethically speaking. Gallinger writes on ethics and answers readers’ questions on such matters. In this instance, a reader wrote in relating that she and her husband were on the subway in Toronto when a man sitting across the car from them took their picture. As she put it, “there was a nerdish-looking man across from us.”  She indicated that she was upset by this and that she could “actually see the screen with us in it.”

There are problems with the reader’s relating of events that Gallinger did not question. If the person with the cell phone was sitting across the car from the couple (i.e., facing them) how could she see the screen of his phone? If the screen were turned outward he could not have been taking their picture. Could she see the reflection of his phone screen in a window of the subway car? Possible, but unlikely. Having ridden on the subways of Toronto, I can say with relative confidence that to be able to get a clear view of a photo on a 4″ to 6″ screen from the other side of the car, especially when in motion, would be difficult. The woman was upset by the incident and that is fine. She wrote asking Gallinger for his opinion on what she should have done.

Gallinger referenced the “halcyon” days of film when “before you took a picture of someone, especially a stranger, you sought permission.” “You always asked ‘May I take your picture'”, Gallinger wrote.

Gallinger then went on to describe the person with the cell phone and, by implication, others who take pictures without permission, as “creeps like your nerd in the tube,” and suggested that the picture-taker may have some sort of sexual perversion with his statement “maybe he gets off on men who marry older women,” (the reader indicated in her letter that she was 60 and her husband was 58).

He concluded his column by telling the woman that she should have “told him to stop, loud [sic] enough for others to hear. And if he refused, get off at the next station and report him.”

I, and apparently many others, wrote an email to Gallinger expressing strong concerns with his categorization of the man with the cell phone and that such childish name-calling and ascribing of sexual perversions was neither professional, nor ethical and that his uninformed commentary did a disservice to those of his colleagues who were of the ‘good opinion’ types described above. I also wrote to the Public Editor of the paper, the section editor and the Letters to the Editor to express concerns. I also provided some brief background on the history of street photography, some names he could look into, and how it had never been considered a requirement to ask for permission before taking someone’s picture. The paper published three of the letters it received. None was in agreement with Gallinger.

The volume of emails Gallinger received was apparently so great that he could not respond to each person individually. Instead, he sent out a bulk message to most all of those who wrote to him. He indicated that he would be publishing a follow up in response on July 2. He also indicated that the majority of responses he received disagreed with his position. He concluded his email with the following: “The fun of writing a column like this is the diversity of responses it evokes, and this week’s, in that respect, was a goldmine.”

The follow up column did appear on July 2. Did Gallinger do a mea culpa? Did he indicate he may have been misinformed about the validity of such photography? No. He doubled down. In fact he did more than that. He jumped the shark in true Happy Daysesque fashion. He equated the legality of taking a photo with the internment of Japanese in World War II and the abuse of Canada’s indigenous peoples in residential schools. His position being that, at one time, those were legal too. It is difficult to express the ridiculousness of the comparisons. In making such comparisons, he serves only to demean and degrade the horrific suffering those people endured. It is commentary that is dismissive and patently disrespectful. He noted that many different responses were received and laments that “the ‘deeply sensitive and hilarious’ viewpoint went, sadly, unexpressed.” If humour was his intent, he missed the mark. Major League Baseball pitcher David Price has a saying taped to his locker: If you don’t like it, pitch better. Mr. Gallinger: If you don’t like it, write better.

He went on to discuss photography on the Toronto Transit Commission system and referenced the policy on photography and filming, which is available on the TTC website. Unfortunately, as with all else in this matter, he got it wrong. Gallinger makes the mistake of equating “commercial” with professional and non-commercial with amateur. He indicates that the man with the cell phone was not “a professional photographer with a permit to work within the transit system.” How does he know this? Did he track down and speak to the man with the cell phone? He has no way of knowing whether the statement he made is factual. Or at the very least he provides no basis to support that he knows the statement is factual.

That aside, we come to the issue of his incorrectness on the TTC photography policy. The TTC does not equate “commercial” with professional and non-commercial with amateur. Commercial photography (or filming) in the manner the TTC considers it is photography that will be used for a pre-determined commercial purpose. It is, for example, fashion photography, product photography, feature film shoots, television commercial shoots. These types of situations will generally require the payment of a nominal fee. The purpose of getting clearance is, primarily, a matter of safety of the people engaged in the shoot as well as passengers and employees of the transit system. There are; however, professional photographers who engage in street photography. There are professional photographers who use cell phone cameras to take photos. Who may sell the images as stock, or who may sell prints of the images to art buyers. How do I know what the TTC policy means? I’m a photographer and I understand how these policies work. But I also did something that is, apparently, foreign to Gallinger: research. I contacted the TTC to clarify their policy. Sandy Tsirlis, Filming and Tours Specialist, at the Commission was quite happy to speak with me and to discuss the policy and how it works. No doubt she would have been happy to speak with Gallinger too had he been inclined to try to inform and educate himself. She indicated that in a strictly technical sense, even those selling images/footage after the fact should get post-shoot clearance, but that it’s not practical for the TTC to chase those down and that if someone is taking pictures in the subway, not overtly harassing anyone, not interfering with the operation of the system, not loitering in one position, then there’s not a problem.

Uninformed, apparently lazy, closed-minded. These are not the hallmarks of a good opinionist. They should not be the hallmarks of a news organisation like the Toronto Star. When such questionable commentary is permitted to be published in its pages, it gives one pause to wonder what else is wrong. It jaundices (yes, I made jaundice a verb) the good reporting of the paper. Gallinger crossed the line and is, apparently, unrepentant. As his closing remarks in the email he sent seem to indicate, he may be more interested in approbation and attention than in facts. Validation is for parking, Mr. Gallinger. Uninformed, apparently lazy, and closed-minded are the hallmarks of overtly biased media outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC and the (thankfully) defunct Sun News Television here in Canada. That is not company that the Toronto Star should be interested in keeping. The Toronto Star Statement of Principles says the following: “The Star’s basic aim as a news organization is to engage in the full and frank dissemination of news and opinion, and to do so working within the highest standards of journalistic integrity.” (emphasis added) It also states that, “Journalists who abuse the power of their professional roles for selfish motives or unworthy purposes are faithless to that public trust.” In permitting Gallinger’s commentary to run in its paper, the Star has failed on these two of its guiding principles.

Along with everything else, Gallinger was also wrong in his recommendation to his reader. Engaging in the histrionics that he suggested would likely serve only to inflame tensions rather than defuse them. Reporting the person at the next station would be of no benefit because (a) he was doing nothing wrong – what he was doing was legal, consistent with the policies of the TTC, and was not interfering with the operation of the system, and (b) he would be long gone down the line by the time anyone could have been told.

I have written extensively on the topic of ethics in photography and particularly street photography. What Gallinger doesn’t either understand, or is not willing to acknowledge, is that ethics are a personal matter. They cannot be forced, or imposed, on someone. Ethics are not laws. Ethics are not even the same as morals. Laws we must abide by. Morals are things that are generally agreed upon. Ethics are individual and voluntary.

That said, most photographers, including street photographers, have ethics. What should the letter writer have done? Madam, a simple wave of the hand in the nearly universally accepted ‘Stop’ motion would have been enough to get most street photographers to stop. Just quietly stating ‘Please don’t take our picture,’ would also have been enough for most street photographers to stop. There is no need for the dramatics that Mr. Gallinger suggests.

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