Tuesday, December 14, 2010

perpetual photo op

Since beginning this blog a few years ago, I've written a number of times about people taking my picture without my permission. Usually, the stories I share involve me chasing down on my bicycle whoever it is that took the photo, confronting that person, and demanding my photo back. I know from the internet and from dwarfism listserves that I am not alone. Many other people of short stature have their picture taken without permission. Often times those photos end up on a website or on youtube, presenting the person of short stature in a very objectified and demeaning way. On this blog, and to others off the blog, I've said that my most significant fear is my image appearing on the internet in a compromising way. That's why I chase down cars after a passenger has taken my picture.

I've thought more about my reactions recently, and I've thought about what it means when a stranger takes my picture. I have begun to wonder if my anger isn't just about the possibility of appearing on some jerk's website. After all, chances are probably slim the person will actually post it. And if the person does, I probably would never find it. I think my anger comes from a different place.

On Monday, I received an email from a campaign called "I am Norm." The campaign is a group of young people with and without disabilities promoting inclusion and diversity by redefining what is quote, unquote, normal. In the email, the sender theorized that the most significant barrier to inclusion for people with disabilities isn't something tangible like housing, employment, transportation or education. The most significant barrier is attitudes. When people fail to treat others with respect, or treat others differently because of physical or intellectual difference (because they are not "normal"), then any level playing field of equal opportunity is lost and all of the tangible problems quickly follow. This may be where my anger lies when others snap a photo. Sure, I don't want the photo appearing on the internet. But even if the photo goes no further than the camera's card, damage has been done. Because by snapping the photo, that person has made a statement that, in his or her world, I am not normal. In fact, my presence is so removed from reality, a picture is needed to memorialize the moment. After enough people indirectly tell you that you are not normal, even if they are all jackasses, the sails generating one's confidence begin to deflate a little bit.

The only answer to this is to hope that groups like Little People of America continue their work and build a stronger community. The better that LPA does its job, the more familiar the average citizen in the United States and around the world will grow with dwarfism. The more familiar people are with dwarfism, the more "normal" it will become to see a person of short stature on the street and fewer people will freak out, grab their camera phone, and take a picture.

But what happens in the meantime? Yesterday, I was on my way back to the office from a supply store after picking up a calendar. I passed a guy on the sidewalk. Even though it was freezing cold, I could tell the guy was going to go through the effort to stop, pull out his phone and take a picture of me. I turned around. He had his back to me while fumbling through the pocket of his big parka. He found the phone, then turned around. I don't think he expected me to be standing directly in front of him, staring at him. He raised the phone up to his chest. "Do you mind, sir(sir??, really???)?" he asked. "Yes," I said. "Why?" he asked. "Because you are an asshole." (not a good way to raise awareness) I walked away. He probably still took my photo.

Though I may have re-evaluated the root of my discomfort around unauthorized pictures, I still believe, until the world does a better job of embracing differences, it's okay to confront a person with such a narrow vision of the world. Because there is nothing wrong with difference. If a person is uncomfortable around difference, than so be it. But when a person goes out of his or her way to marginalize difference, that is unacceptable.


  1. Well, I think that at least YOU will feel better about telling someone off. Nothing feels worse to me than ruminating about what I should've said or done. It feels better just to deal with it then and there then to let it eat at you.

    Reading your post, I felt bad because I know I've been one of those people who've made a comment here in your blog about normality, and probably taken the wind out of your sails. For that, I'm sorry.

    It would never EVER occur to me to take a picture, but I confess I might look twice or a few seconds longer at you if I were to see you in the street. Like I sometimes do with other people too. But, I think with most people, other things register in their minds as well, like a good looking face (from your photo), their manner, and the fact that you're out there just like me doing things.

  2. I can appreciate the magnitude of the daily monthly constant grind of being made to feel 'not normal' through people's words and behaviors.

    I once heard a famous white comedian make a comment that one should always have a F' You loaded in the chamber. To be prepared. He constantly got comments that like, "I don't like you but my husband does can I have photo? Your show wasn't as good as so and so's show" while he waited with them to take the photo. Or shouts that his show sucked from across a parking lot.

    His counsel to black people was that many (not all) of the situations to which they attributed to being black and different was in his opinion not due to race. It was because there was simply a lot of a-holes in the world. He's dealt with a lot and if he'd been black, he would've attributed it to that. He stated that in fact he's noted notorious a-holes who actually seemed to dial it down when dealing black people to avoid being seen as a racist though it may still have come across that way.

    This is not meant to diminish the problem of the perpetual photo op. Or that society can or should do more to rein them in line like the civil rights movement and decades long change in attitudes towards African Americans. But, in addition to all of that I just think there's a lot of a-holes.

  3. I meant to say society can and should not only work on reining in a-holes but mainstream attitudes as well.

  4. thanks for the thoughts anonymous. sorry I didn't respond. Thinking about your first comment, I believe it's only human to have a bit of curiosity. Even people who are physically different, like people of short stature, have that same human curiousness and will stare, or at least steal a glance, at something or someone that is different from the typical. We have develop problems when strangers indulge beyond the accepted curiousity and violate a person's personal space and dignity with comments or actions that steal a person's humanity.