Has Internet Outrage Over Private Photos Finally Gone Too Far?

Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Growing up, my parents took lots of photos of my family. Some ended up in picture frames on the walls or pasted in holiday newsletters — the rest in boxes, loosely organized by date. The photos are private. Most haven't been seen by anyone besides my mom. Today, the idea of private photos is largely laughable. Photographs snapped on a smartphone are backed up in the Cloud, posted on social media, or shared with friends. But while what we do with our pictures has changed, the way we take pictures — particularly pictures of kids and families — hasn't. We capture the mundane, the momentous, and the silly. The latter, taken out of context, is causing problems.

Posted online for all to see, a photo that you think is funny and innocuous may be deeply offensive to someone else. Take, for example, this professional portrait of a Louisiana family. The photo, which the photographer shared on Facebook, is clearly meant to be humorous. It's a family of five. The mother and two daughters have their mouths taped shut with bright-green duct tape, and they're tied together like a calf that's been lassoed using Christmas lights. The dad holds a handwritten sign that says "Peace on Earth" while a young son gives a thumbs up.

It's clear that the family in the photo thought this scenario was funny; it may have been used for their holiday card this year. I'd hazard that one of the kids thought it up (I vividly recall being eight years old and thinking the idea of having my mouth taped shut was hilarious). But, once the pic was shared on social media, people were outraged: It perpetuates the idea that women should be seen and not heard. It's emblematic of domestic violence.

Where does the idea of a funny family photo end and an offensive image begin? The photographer who shared the image to Facebook has since deleted her entire profile. Before that, numerous people commented that they'd be boycotting her services in the future. A woman's career may have ended because of one tone-deaf photo shoot that went viral.

In July, a mother posted a similar "silly" picture of her son that sparked outrage. The kid, who has Down syndrome, loves the washing machine. He crawled inside, his mom closed the door, and she took a picture. Her neighbors saw the picture and reported her to the police.

While the child's face is blurred in public re-postings, his mother says he was laughing and smiling the entire time, and I believe it. I took pictures of myself with my butt "stuck" in laundromat washing machines while in college, and that was fun; I can imagine the giggles of a small child who's able to entirely fit inside the machine. Was it necessary for the neighbors to jump straight to outrage when they saw this photo?

The unfortunate truth of the matter is this: Not everyone you're friends with on Facebook is your friend. Anyone who sees one of your photos has the ability to screenshot it, download it, edit it, and share it as they wish. Taken out of context, out of the imaginary private net of friendship you thought you were sharing to, all sorts of photos can become incendiary and offensive.

The only clear solution in this landscape is to think long and hard before sharing photos with anyone. You may think a photo of your baby with your old bong is hilarious. Child Protective Services probably thinks, not so much. So if you're someone's friend looking at said photo of that person's baby, use some judgment and empathy before you report it to Facebook. Are the people in the photo smiling, happy, and clearly not in any real danger? If there is concern, is it better addressed by messaging the image-poster and asking about the nature of the photo? Or better yet, stopping by in person and making sure things seem safe?

Some photos certainly deserve to be shared with the authorities. But for many others, the internet outrage is out of hand. Every questionable photo doesn't deserve to be publicized and ostracized. Take a chill pill, folks — especially when it comes to silly images that will quickly be forgotten.


More from Tech