When Photos Go Viral

A lovely, lighthearted moment gone rogue. Photo: Margaret Hawkins

When I was in Guatemala last month, I had the novel experience of a traditional Maya woman surreptitiously snapping a picture of me with her phone. It was unnerving, but it was only fair. I’d been taking snapshots of her people all week, usually but not always asking permission. I just had never thought of myself as photo-worthy, schlepping around in my tourist garb with a camera hanging around my neck.

The odds that her photo of my unkempt visage will show up on the internet as a prime example of Tourista americanii are slim, but how would I feel if it did? Maybe a little violated? This came to mind yesterday when my daughter shared one of those viral wonders, a charmingly funny shot of a bevy of nuns in full traditional regalia, sitting at a juice bar in Italy. She got it from a clerk in the law office she’s associated with, who got it from who knows where. It’s been flying around the internet for several years now.

By unusual coincidence, I know the anonymous photographer of this witty picture, my college buddy Margaret Hawkins. I know that she took the shot for her personal amusement, and that it escaped from her control while her computer was being serviced for a malfunction at a big-box store with a seriously unethical tech support staff. I know that she felt much concern that the nuns would be embarrassed. I don’t think she was concerned about the Wrath of God.

Photographic rights have always been a big issue in publishing, and now the internet has made everybody a publisher, and the rules are murky. On that same Guatemala trip I mentioned above, with photographer Joe Coca (see April 19 blog post), we were scrupulous about getting photo releases from all the subjects whom we interviewed. We paid them for the honor of taking their pictures, and they signed a contract (often with a thumb print). We are covered. We can use their pictures in an upcoming book, and also to promote said book, about which you will hear more anon.

Off to market in Nebaj, Guatemala. Write your own caption.
Photo: Joe Coca














But the temptation to shoot a candid picture of someone on the fly—someone gorgeous, or interesting, or just plain strange—is huge. And the odds of that image escaping into the empyrean to be viewed by anyone and everyone forever—also huge. Is having your picture on view to the masses on the internet any different than having your face on view in a public market? Makes me want to go put a bag over my head.

—Linda Ligon

1 thoughts on “When Photos Go Viral

  1. Margaret Hawkins says:

    Thanks, Linda, for giving voice to my frustrations about the b/w photo you included in your blog. For several years, I have been seriously ummmmm vexed about its being copied from my personal files, and being put on the internet without my permission. NEVER had I intended it for any use other than my own souvenir of a trip. It was an image on (that old-fashioned) b/w film, and it had never been printed by me or by any other person or firm. Outrage is a very mild description when I received it in a forwarded email a couple of weeks after my computer had been ‘serviced’. My attempts to backtrack the origin failed, and, after sincere searches by the upper-end executives and professionals at said big box store, the exact person who pilfered it could not be nailed. They did report some confessions that resulted in termination, but by that time, the image was out of reach.
    As we live, numerous things affect our trust – mostly in negative ways – and this experience more than most has given me deeply felt reasons to be very cautious of the internet. Attribution and credit are the least of my concerns with the photograph, and the words “NEVER AGAIN” are an oath that I will observe when it comes to that particular store.
    Thanks for assuaging my frustration to some degree, but my vituperation on the subject remains.

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