Town and School Warrants Voting – Pelham, NH (03/08/2011)

A few months ago I brought my camera with me to grab a few photos when I headed over to the local high school to cast my ballot during the Pelham, NH 2011 Town and School Warrants Voting. I didn’t get anything spectacular; just a few run of the mill snapshots of people in a high school gymnasium. But as I was going through my Lightroom workflow preparing to upload to my album I came to a realization. The filled-in ballots were clearly visible in one of the photos and you could clearly see who or what some of the people voted for.

This left me with somewhat of a conundrum. Do I publish the photo as-is and possibly reveal who or what these people voted for or do I violate universal journalistic ethics and manipulate the photo to camouflage their votes? Since I wasn’t sending these photos off for news publication and they wouldn’t be under scrutiny I opted to do the edit and protect the subjects’ privacy. If you inspect a high-resolution version of the photo you can clearly see the votes visible on the voided ballot the election official is holding; the votes would have been as clearly visible on the other voters’ ballots as well.

Searching Google Images and Google News turns up thousands of photos taken at polling stations. The money shot of the ballot getting dropped into the box or reader is a popular one. And many of those photos clearly show the voter’s face and votes on their ballot.

But this brings up an interesting question about when journalistic integrity clashes with expected privacy. Individual voting booths and voting stations hold an expectation of privacy because they’re enclosed with curtains or barriers. But what about when you step away and are walking through an open space to turn in your ballot? Does that same expectation of privacy hold true? No one thought twice about me snapping a few photos. But modern DSLRs have the capability to capture fine details from afar even with wide angle lenses.

When taking the time to carefully frame and compose photographs I always have a set of rules and guidelines running subconsciously through my mind. Lighting and exposure. Framing and composition. Am I in danger? Am I in someone’s way? Am I blocking another photographer’s shot? Am I invading the subject’s privacy? Is the subject’s dignity preserved? Do I have to recompose the shot to hide embarrassing features or transform a possibly embarrassing feature into a flattering or striking highlight? That all goes through my mind in a split second almost every time I hit the shutter release.

But this was different. I was just randomly pointing the camera in interesting directions and grabbing snapshots without thinking. It wasn’t until I got home and looked over the photos that I thought about it. In the decades I’ve been behind the viewfinder this innocuous looking snapshot is the first photo I’ve ever taken that truly made me really think twice about where to draw the line between journalistic ethics and privacy.

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  1. This is interesting. I’ve always been of the opinion that people in public have no privacy – the reason photos can be captured, is because light reflecting off the subject has bombarded you and your lens. If you wish to capture and save that which has entered your personal space, what’s the problem? As I understand it, in the USA, you own the photo you took.. provided it was obtained legally (not peeping in windows, etc).

    The aspect of expectations (crazy high resolution DSLRs) might change my opinion a bit. I wouldn’t think to hide my ballot from a camera across the room, but if one were in my face (and I cared to maintain privacy), I might. hmmm.

  2. Oh, indeed, photographers in the United States do indeed have the legal right to not only photograph anyone in a public place but also sell those photos for non-commercial, editorial, or art use without obtaining a model release. But the example of a high school is a gray area. Is a high school gymnasium a public place? It’s indoors on private property. But that private property is funded by public funds and holding a public event. So does that legally make it a public place? It depends on who can afford more expensive lawyers.

    I just happen to have that above-mentioned mental checklist of ethics when I’m composing photographs and reviewing shots going through my workflow. Even if I have the legal right to photograph something that doesn’t mean I always feel right doing so.

    If something embarrasses someone I won’t accentuate it. If someone is doing something embarrassing but asks me to photograph it anyway I happily will (say, the OEM Lobby Bar photos from UDS Maverick). If someone politely asks me to delete a photo I’ve taken of them I will. If someone (incorrectly) tells me I’m breaking the law by photographing them and threatens me then I’ll inform them of my rights but also offer to delete the photos if they change their tone politely ask me.

    However that mental checklist of ethics is also highly skewed and biased by my definition of aesthetic. What someone personally finds embarrassing, ugly, or their worst feature I may find fascinating and striking. And this is what I meant by dignity. If I think the photo looks good then I hope my subject will too.

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