Creative bill collection (humiliation) on Facebook

Here’s a new twist on an old business problem:

Restaurant Shamed a Family on Facebook Who ‘Forgot’ to Pay the Bill

“A UK restaurant chain ‘Burger & Lobster’ posted a photo of four customers it claimed left without paying the bill at its Cardiff, Wales, location to its Facebook page.”

According to the article in the Daily Mall, ‘The public shaming of the unidentified family attracted 600 comments before [the post] was pulled, representing a spectrum of trollish opinions. Some of the comments, however, pointed out that the timing of the post left the family very little time to correct what could have easily been an error by returning to the restaurant to pay.”

This is similar to our earlier post about the artist Svenson publishing photos of families at home without their permission, claiming it was art. The burger place did the same thing, but on their property, to solve a cash flow problem.

Several questions arise:

1)  Do you think it is OK for a restaurant to publish a photo without a family’s permission, potentially shaming or slandering an honest family’s reputation.?

2) Assuming there was no other way to contact the family, were there any other ways the company could have handled this to avoid negative repercussions?

3) If there was a camera in the restaurant that took this photo, why weren’t there other cameras or video surveillance equipment monitoring in the parking lot to read the family’s license plate?

4) Should this be more of a police report than a Facebook page?

Permission — a legal or moral question?

Jimmy Stewart watching his neighbors in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”

Getting permission from subjects in a public setting is a sticky dilemma for most photographers. Often, we don’t want to confront subjects and cause them to change their expressions or actions to look their best in front of the camera. Or we simply don’t want them to say no and leave. Either way, it’s a confrontation most would rather avoid, even if most of the time it turns out positive.

There are legal and moral issues behind these difficult decisions.  One legal issue that made headlines a few years ago involved a New York  photographer who chose to not to ask. After watching Alfred Hitchcock’s “Read Window”,  Arne Svenson took hundreds of photographs from the street and other buildings of people (and their kids) in their apartments, through their windows. They were unaware he was photographing them. He printed them up and had a gallery exhibition entitled “Neighbors” in 2013.


The exhibition was received with outrage. Some of the subjects got together and  sued him for invasion of privacy.  The case reached the Supreme Court.  Plaintiffs said they were “frightened and angered by [Svenson’s] utter disregard for their privacy and the privacy of their children.”

Svenson defended his actions under the umbrella of “art”, protected by the first amendment.  After 2 years, including an appeal by Plaintiffs, Svenson won his case, based in large part on 1) the residents had their windows or shades open (thus, they had given implicit permission),  2) their faces were not shown so they were not recognizable., and 3) he did not use the pictures “for trade or advertising purposes”.

One of the judges wrote that the decision was made based on “the limitations of New York’s statutory privacy law in redressing this kind of technological home invasion and exposure of private life.”

Some may equate Svenson’s actions with celebrity paparazzi photographers, who justify their livlihoods under the freedom of the press. They typically cite the  celebrity’s implicit and conflicting love affair with public adoration: Celebs want as big an audience as possible for their movies, shows, music, etc. (more buzz = more income) but also a little privacy in public (contradiction in terms?). As celebrities in public, the conflict is that they can’t always choose only the good publicity or best pictures of themselves when they’re out in public.

So the legal issue was decided with Svenson. How about the moral issue? In the court of public opinion, most people were not happy. They felt the invasion of privacy was obviously violated, as the residents had the impression that they were alone in their private apartments, regardless of the window.

Was the judge’s decision fair, in your opinion?

Does the law need to be changed or modified to reflect the majority of public values today?



“She posted my photo on Facebook without my permission”

A little while ago, I had a client who told me that while they were eating dinner at a restaurant, a friend took her picture, along with several others at the table. She was smiling with the others, a typical shot, with nice light and part of the other tables behind. She didn’t mind her picture being taken, until she saw it posted on Facebook the next day. There was nothing embarrassing about the photo, nothing revealing or sensitive or private in any way. But she said “it was just the idea that she didn’t even think to ask me if it was OK to post it”.

Some people do not like their faces or photos in the public view.

I don’t know if my client ever told her friend how she honestly felt. It wasn’t a legal issue, since there was no issue of propriety or privacy in the situation (a public setting), and no issue of libel or slander. She felt it was an issue of courtesy, considering the possibility that what you don’t know about a subject may hurt them by posting a photograph without their consent.

As she told me this, the questions came flooding into my mind: If someone is out in public, do they give implied consent that its OK  have themselves photographed? Is there any difference to being seen versus photographed —  any line that is crossed?

And, presumably, is that line further crossed if that photograph is posted or published?

From a more practical view, do you really have time to ask everyone you photograph if it’s OK to photograph them?

Assuming there is no obvious slander or public embarrassment involved (nudity, etc.), from a moral standpoint (forgetting legal considerations mentioned above) should you ask every subject — especially in a public setting — if it’s OK to post the photos online, offline, or somewhere you may not even know yet?



Time Magazine’s misleading President Clinton cover

April 4, 1994, Time magazine chose to run this cover during the investigation of President Clinton’s Whitewater investment scandal and bankruptcy of Madison Guaranty Savings.

Time cover, April 4, 1994

The photograph was real and not doctored. The caption was current and accurate. However, the two don’t go together.  The context was fake. The photograph simply showed the President with his Senior Advisor, George Stephanopoulos during a routine White House meeting a year earlier.

Time justified their decision by saying they wanted to show “the close working relationship between these two men. We chose it…to convey a mood”.

Is this fake news? A routine photo of the President deep in thought, apparently stressed about something, and the somber look on Mr. Stephanopolous’ face (not to mention the glare apparently at the photographer),  paired with a damming caption.

This wasn’t the birth of deception in photography, or news, for that matter. Deception has paralleled photography since it was invented in the mid-1800s. Yet we continued to ascribe truth and reality to photographs unequivocably,  despite sporadic setbacks like these, up until the digital revolution reversed the credo. Today we view practically all photos with the underlying assumption that something has always been modified from the original, even if it’s just to improve saturation.

So do you think TIME was justified? Is the “mood” just as real, or even more important, to convey than the facts of the particular case?

Should our expectation of reality from news sources like TIME, CNN, BBC, etc. hold them to different standards than other magazines or media? Or, put a different way, would this cover be more acceptable on magazines devoted to more subjective, impressionistic themes such as Vanity Fair, New Yorker or the tabloids?

Subway death

In 2012, a photographer happened to be in a New York subway when he saw a man pushed onto the subway tracks seconds before the subway arrived. Knowing that there was no way he could save the man, the photographer took photographs of the incident and sold them to the NY Post, who promptly posted it front page. Crowds of people were there, and the man who pushed him was later caught and convicted of manslaughter.

The public was outraged that the photographer took the photo (without  helping the man) and that the Post chose to print it front page, in the way that they did. Weeks ensued where the Post and many other news outlets (including NPR, who interviewed photographers, editors, Getty Images, etc. about this incident — click here for the transcript, and here for the radio spot)  discussed the incident.

There are 2 things that bothered me most about this incident:

1) The picture is a moment in time, a grisly moment, mostly based on anticipation. But the outrage that ensued was based on assumptions about the photographer being unwilling to help, assumptions that he only cared about making money off of someone else’s tragedy, and assumptions that the NY Post was doing the same.

2) Denials were rampant, most notably that the public had nothing to do with this — i.e. the public in the subway who didn’t help the man, and the public who buys the NY Post and supports its style of journalism. Like National Enquirer — “nobody believes it and nobody buys it”…

The photographer said that he was too far away to help, using a zoom lens, and there were crowds of people in front him. There were only a few seconds before impact.  The Post has said that this is a news photo that the public deserves to see, and perhaps, like many historically newsworthy images, it may spur a change for the good in subway security, or some other good that will save lives in the future.

What do you think?

Does a photographer have a duty to do all that he/she can to save a life before clicking the shutter? If there was no way the photographer could help, does getting paid for a photo debase the morality of his actions?

Does a news magazine have the right (moral or legal) to publish whatever they want, including someone’s final moments? Does it matter if the man’s face can’t be seen (out of respect for family)?

Referring to the famous trolley car example used in countless ethical discussions of common good — would you push one man in front of a runaway trolley car if it was the only way to save the lives of the doomed 20 people inside the trolley? Is it up to the photographer and/or the publisher to determine whether a photo’s value to the public overrides considerations of the graphic nature of the photo,? Or of considerations of the subject or his family’s feelings (though I’m not sure if this man’s family objected)?


UPDATE: June 2017  )

For all of you who commented on the above scenario that you would run down and try to help the man who was pushed onto the tacks, even if it seemed helpless, here is a amazingly similar situation that happened this month.

A man and his wife were waiting for the 8th Ave subway in NY, when they witnessed ” a late-middle-aged man who had been sitting on the bench got up and moved toward the edge of the platform — a normal action. But he then sat down on the platform with his legs dangling over the edge as the train rushed toward us.

Thinking that the train would not be able to stop in time, almost everyone froze, including me. I even turned away momentarily, afraid of witnessing the carnage. But as the motorman slowed the train a young woman ran over to the man and started to drag him back onto the platform. Her call for help got me moving and I helped her with my left arm, since I have barely started physical therapy with my right arm following shoulder surgery last month. Another man, more able-bodied, joined in as others called for assistance. The train then pulled all the way in and we got in as a transit policeman looked after the man on the platform.

I am sobered by the fact that it took the quick action and call of the young woman to get me and others to act. If I see anything like this again, I hope I can remember and emulate her. In these times, everyone must be prepared to act, whether the incident is one of self-endangerment or harassment.”

So the new question is: was this man’s life saved possibly because 1) New York subways put in safety factors after the previous incident discussed above that allowed them to slow trains down faster?  or 2) enough people remembered the discussion and news story from before to overcome their paralysis of fear?

Is there any possibility that this man’s life was saved precisely, or in part,  because of the graphic photo printed on page 1 of the NY Post 5 years earlier?