On the ethics of photographing people’s ‘stuff’

Some lucky person is about to take delivery of this…

What you’re seeing here is a freshly imported Pontiac GTO. It’s a stunning, shiny black variant, and it’s presumably going to a very lucky and excited owner. It’s also a photo that I thought was a bit ethically dubious of me to take, let alone post. The fact you’re seeing it here, though, kind of suggests I reasoned round to posting it. Before I explain why, there’s a bit of a context that this Transatlantic exotic led me to explore. A piece of Yank muscle triggering an ethical debate, who’d of thought it?

Taking photos of stuff in public places used to be a lot simpler. You took a picture of something with your camera, went to Boots with the film, and got a single copy of the image that only you and those close to you could see. The owner of said object could relax happy in the knowledge that you were either (a) an artist or (b) genuinely interested in their possession.

Nowadays, however, as we all know images can travel a long, long way and rapidly race off out of control of their creator. When you see someone taking a picture of something in the 21st Century, you know there’s a good chance the image is going to end up on Facebook, Twitter or some blog – from where the whole wide world can the view it, make copies of it and appropriate it for their own gains. The emergence of smart phones has served only to increase the immediacy with which these images can be transmitted and the convenience with which they can be viewed.

There are of course positives to this. Google Maps, for instance. I can now get a good sense of what the urban landscape is like in Pyongyang, or what the township of Elim in South Africa looks like, from the comfort of my sofa. Likewise, crowd-sourced photos and videos from big football matches serve only to help us armchair fans get a better sense of what it was like to be at the match, elbow-to-elbow with the other fans and peering over the fat bald bloke in front in an attempt to see the action.

Here it is from further away…

The flip-side, however, comes across particularly well with a favoured pastime of mine – namely, opportunistically snapping rare and interesting vehicles that I happen to see on my travels. There are a few issues here. First of all, you’re informing the whole world of the whereabouts of an exotic car that is currently unattended. There have been several cases of people coming to view cars up for sale on internet auction sites at the owner’s home, declining to purchase the vehicle, and returning 12 hours later in the dead of night with some heavies to pinch the car – sticking up pictures of parked exotica arguably serves only to cut out the first few steps of this process. I’ve read similar stories of folk spotting sought-after models on Google Maps and making a bee-line to the owner’s house to make a bid for the car.

Furthermore, you are placing the vehicle, and thus its owner, at a specific location at a specific time. In doing so, one is producing potentially incriminating evidence – I don’t mean placing a murderer at the scene of a crime, just that you could inadvertently be busting someone having an affair or sneaking off to the pub to watch the football. Again, the risk of this only increases if it’s an especially outstanding example of an automobile. The counter to this argument is obviously that if one has nothing to hide, one has nothing to fear – or that if you’re going to do something stupid, don’t go to do it in a bright yellow Ford Escort RS2000. Nonetheless, it’s food for thought.

Thirdly and lastly, you are in essence producing an image of someone’s private property, and placing that image in a location where it could potentially escape your control. Whilst it could be argued that anything visible in the public domain is fair game, it’s important to remember that cars harbour particularly strong emotional attachments for many, and thus not everyone will be overjoyed at seeing images of their vehicle spread far and wide. You could, in short, be producing images of someone else’s private property and putting it in a place they didn’t want it to be (see point 1 above).

With this in mind, I’ve developed some ‘cop rules’ for taking and posting pictures of ‘stuff’ online. These cop rules are intended first and foremost for cars, however I would hope they are equally applicable to bicycles, roller skates, elephants or whatever else may be classed as someone else’s property.

First and foremost is separating the object from its context. Or, to put Barthes and all that aside, focus on the car and not the things around it. When taking pictures intended for wider dissemination, I do all I can to ensure there are no distinguishing landmarks around that can give the location of the vehicle away. Registration plates are blocked out with some quick Photoshoppery lest any bad person want to clone the vehicle. And of course, it goes without saying that taking photos of cars directly outside or near to someone’s home is a no-no.

Secondly is the issue of consent. That is, don’t just snap away if the owner-driver is around – no shit Sherlock. The only possible exceptions here are Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Zondas etc driving round the city centre, the reason being that you wouldn’t take a 200 mp/h machine into town, where you ain’t going to get above 20mp/h, if you didn’t want a heap of attention. If such people didn’t get a little pang of excitement every time a punter pointed an iPhone at their alloy-carbon-and-leather pile of conspicuous excess, they’d leave the supercar for the racetrack and come to buy shoes in an Audi A1 instead.

These guys were well chuffed that a gaijin actually knew what an R31 was.

For other stuff, though, permission is if nothing else common courtesy. It is a sad symptom of contemporary society that people are automatically suspicious of a stranger showing particular interest in their car, however experience both at home and abroad has taught me that as soon as the owner of a piece of exotica realises you’re a fellow car nut, they light up like a non-energy saving lightbulb. The Nissan Skyline R31 driver I met at the Suwa-ko service area in Nagano is a case and point – as is the SilEighty driver I saw a day later. Owners of the excessively banal yet obscure – Montegos, Peugeot 505s et al – tend to have little interest in what they are driving and as such may struggle to fathom why anyone else would. In such cases, photography may come at the price of a jackhammer to the nuts.

The last thing I try to do is make sure people have the chance to ask me to remove the image if they find it unsettling. In other words, there’s always an email address near to the pic. This can’t of course do much good if someone’s taken the image, copied it and used it further, but given the above points, all that will (hopefully) be in circulation following some judicious editing is a generic photo of a car of the kind you’d also find in the old brochures or car magazines.

What was the point of all of this again? Oh, that’s right, the GTO. This car was in a holding area in the port district of a major British city, and as such was on private ground behind a high fence that I had to stand on tiptoes to see over. It is rare, distinctive and very valuable. Someone has clearly paid a lot of money for it, and may have worked very long and hard to achieve that. And to boot there were some heavies wandering around in fluorescent waistcoats, the very essence of authority. Yet it was also parked in a place that it will never be again in its life (indeed it had disappeared by the time I came back the other way later in the day), was well-guarded and as such unlikely to be pinched whilst it awaited disposal, and was far enough away that one couldn’t make out any distinguishing features on it. It could even have been a cardboard cut-out, although I sincerely hope not as I was quite excited to see a Pontiac GTO* in the flesh. And that is why I tweeted it and posted it here.

If all of the above sounds a little over-zealous and preachy, it’s because I study applied ethics day in, day out in my normal job. But what could be more applied, for me, than thinking about one of the ethical dimensions of being enthusiastic about cars, the thing I love the most? Thinking through the ethics of appropriately conveying this enthusiasm to others is, if nothing else, a rare situation where what I like to do with my time, and what I’m paid to do with my time, go hand in hand.

*I tweeted that it was a Chevrolet Chevelle, however upon closer Googling it does appear to actually be a Pontiac GTO. Damn.

As always, if you have any issues with the car images here (other than that they’re rubbish photos), then email me at lj mabon A T a ol.com , obviously removing the spaces.

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