Is It Ethical to Share Photos of Strangers on the Internet?

Author: Evan Ross Katz

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One of the great signifiers of this moment in time is the smart phone. But really, it’s the smart phone's chief offering: the camera. In two seconds or less, you are equipped with the ability to document your life and post it up on social media.

But what happens when that freedom escapes your grasp, when you’re no longer the exhibitor to your exhibition?

In 2003, Barbra Streisand inadvertently drew national attention when she attempted to slap a professional aerial photographer with a million lawsuit, citing privacy concerns. It seemed like a celebrity problem at the time, but in the era of social media, in which everyone has a camera and everyone is a potential photo subject, we are all targets—or, just as possible, amateur paparazzi.

So what if it happens to you? You visit your favorite website or blog one morning, and an embarrassing photo of you has somehow ended up splashed on their homepage. What are your options?

“The most you can do is politely ask or beg and plead the poster to take it down,” says Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Assuming whoever posted the picture actually took the picture and has copyright to it, there’s nothing else you can do beyond to ask.”

Jarvis Derrell, creator of the popular Instagram/Tumblr "She Has Had It!”–in which Derrell posts pictures of strangers who look less than their best—says that the people he's featured often reach out to him directly.

"Some have worn it like a badge of honor," Darrell says. "Some didn't really get it at all, but absolutely loved the momentary fame. And then there has been a few that have been completely mortified and offended, demanding I take the image down immediately, which I always do if asked."

When you’re on the other end of the camera, the questions can be just as difficult. If you get that hilarious shot that you just know is going to light up the Internet, do you share it, even if it might humiliate that person?

Peter Davis, the Publication Director at Daily Front Row, a fashion industry magazine, was minding his own business during his morning subway commute when he spotted something a bit bizarre–even by New York standards: A naked man.

“I didn't hesitate to take his picture," Davis says. "He was buck naked on a subway, so it's not like I was invading his privacy. He even looked at me and half-smiled after I took the picture."

And thus the great dichotomy: Capture the moment or leave it alone?

In Davis’ case, choosing the former resulted in the picture making the rounds on social media before being slapped across the New York Post with the headline: "Just another story in the naked city."

“I got a few hate tweets about invading this poor guy's life," Davis says. "Please. We live in the age of Instagram–everything is fair game."

Many of these posts go up with a “no harm, no foul” attitude of consequentialism, where one judges the ethicality of an act by its outcome rather than the intention of the action. So while the intent may be mean-spirited, if the internet finds it funny or charming, we can calibrate it as such.

Take one of Jarvis’ posts, in which he featured a heavyset man eating ice cream in a bikini on a crowded subway in the middle of rush hour. “Yes, a visual of that is freaking hilarious," Jarvis says. "But on my blog, I would think of a million other ways to describe his particular experience, even justifying it at times, just for the sake of being different. But there's always that one person who will leave a comment that's like ‘OMG gross, look at his fat rolls’ or ‘this man looks exactly like @soandso!’.

For better or worse, it’s still up to the individual to decide what crosses a line. From a legal standpoint, if the photograph belongs to you, it’s fair game. But is sharing that photo with the entire world, solely to make fun of somebody, crossing an ethical line?

“I’d say it’s widely accepted that all human beings are endowed with dignity," says Adam Kronk, Program Director at the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership. "When someone does something worthy of ridicule–as we all do at times, just hopefully not when a smartphone is handy–is it up to us to strip that dignity away for a laugh? It’s the definition of objectification, and instigating or participating in that is wrong."

Read this story on the Men's Health website.