Written by Naziya O’Reilly


Whose Face Is It Anyway?

Though not exactly camera-shy, Naziya O’Reilly’s been wondering if she’s having an existential crisis about all the click-flash-posting that’s seemingly the norm now.

Illustration by Louise Boulter

December. A time of year when snap happy thumbs ensure that social media feeds reach what I like to refer to as peak-Christmas tree. You’ve decorated your living room? I have never seen that before. More prevalent are the shots of badly lit office parties where sweaty colleagues semi-crouch together in heels before returning to bitch about each other at separate tables.

However, there is something I’m asking you all to consider before charging your 45-minute iPhone batteries: maybe ask for your subject’s permission to capture their face before you select a filter (Amaro 4 life…just saying).

Scrolling through Facebook, I came across a photograph of myself and a friend talking in the street, both of us unaware we were being snapped. Now, this isn’t as creepy as it first sounds: the occasion was a social one and, in theory, merited recording for posterity by our friends and neighbours.

What’s more, I’m really not what you might call the shy and retiring type. Ask me to pose and I can affect not only friendly, arms-wrapped-around-each-other joy, but also wide-eyed pouty-mouthed vogue-ing to put Insta-queen Rhianna to shame.

Nevertheless, I felt a great deal of irritation at the sight of that unsuspecting photograph. Discreetly taken and loaded onto social media without a word of consent at any stage of its journey, its presence unnerved the hell out of me. I’ve had people take my picture without my say so before but in every case before this, I would be approached with a hard copy or at the very least a quick look at the screen. Though I felt this was rude, it certainly wasn’t illegal. In the UK, access to my face is protected by privacy laws safeguarded by Article 8 of the convention on Human Rights 1998. However, in the context of photography, my face is fair game: my privacy stands at odds to Article 10’s right for the freedom of expression. In fact, according to the Home Office, your face can be captured by anybody taking a picture in a public place, such as streets and parks, as there is no presumption here of privacy for individuals. The only caveat being decisions enforced locally to restrict photography – to protect children for example.

What’s more, it turns out it’s not my face, it’s theirs: in March of this year, the Intellectual Property Office updated their copyright notice for digital images on the internet. This stated that as photographs are classified as artistic works, under copyright law the owner of the photograph will always be the photographer (unless blatantly libelous or used for advertising or trade).

Given the rise in popularity of street photography for artistic and editorial content, I asked professional photographer Christian Gallagher about the notion of getting permission to take his pictures. Would he consider disrupting a shot that might depend on split-second timing to check it was okay with the subject?

“It’s certainly an interesting area, given the proliferation of selfies, snaps of everything and everyone, everywhere,” he says. “No thought is given at all to permission – mea culpa here, I suppose – and as the majority of images of a person may never even come to their attention, there’s no culture of take-down requests or any kind of conflict.

“I quite often photograph strangers without them knowing and put them online if I like them,” he continues. “Not with a ‘try and stop me’ attitude; I’d always remove anything on request, and have. But in these images, the people may as well be objects. They’re just elements of the composition. I’ll think, ‘I need a person to walk past that signpost before I snap it’.”
Though it seems churlish for me to need to issue a take-down notice, Gallagher’s words ring uncomfortably true and underline the huge disparity between how our lives really are and what we show and tell. For the most part we imagine ourselves in the starring role of our lifetimes, an illusion made grand with the careful edits online. Yet in truth, we could be no more than still life objects made ordinary by our surroundings. Is there anything worse than being described or treated as ordinary or every day?

Perhaps a better way of coming to terms with my frustration is to stop thinking about privacy and consider this more philosophically. German philosopher Martin Heidegger used the term ‘everydayness’ to describe the unknowing way we live without really thinking for ourselves. Although he more readily applies ‘everydayness’ to how we think and behave as others think and behave, ie we’re a bit sheeplike, for me it also reflects how in the ways we carefully stage our lives for others, we end up losing sight of our real selves.

That unknowing yet strangely ‘real’ street photo brought me face-to-face with what I habitually (if sometimes unconsciously) try to conceal. I don’t just mean it not being my best angle, rather my innate prepreparedness to accept what it is that I really look like, both on the outside and the inside. Knowing who I really am and being comfortable with that may well be the first step to accepting my ordinariness. After all, it is my face but it is just a face too.

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Written by Naziya O’Reilly

Naziya O'Reilly is a teacher, performer and gold medal-winning rhythmic gymnast (aged 8). She is currently studying for a philosophy of education PhD at Leeds Trinity University.