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Of pictures and permission — Do they know they're on your cell phone?

Of pictures and permission — Do they know they're on your cell phone?

Picture this: a family is comfortably seated at a high-end restaurant, enjoying each other's company and the fine cuisine laid out in front of them. To their table's left sits a young girl, who doesn’t look quite as comfortable. She is dressed down, and doesn’t have any food in front of her.

The scenario may sound familiar to you; you might have witnessed people’s domestic help waiting on them at eateries, or maybe you've recently come across a social media post of a sneaky photograph clicked by a patron at a restaurant going instantly viral.

The question is should these pictures have been taken in the first place?

How people treat domestic help is worth discussing and looking into. But so is the trend of photographing people without their consent, which is unsettling. More often than not, these photographs are taken without seeking permission from the very people they seek to advantage.

These individuals are featured in the photos — for thousands to look at and comment on their misfortune — without being a part of the conversation themselves.

With technological advancements, smartphones are increasingly being used for serious photography now. iPhones are the world’s most popular photographing devices, and it is easy to see why.

Camera phones have many advantages: they are non-intrusive which means that the subject in front of the lens is less likely to perform for the camera.

Take a look: Domestic staff at dinner: Restaurant owners in Pakistan speak up

These compact camera phones are easy to carry, and relatively affordable.

But, they are also discreet.

One can get away with photographing things — and people — without getting noticed. Oddly, not much thought is given to this position of power but as always with great power comes responsibility.

I understand the temptation of capturing a candid moment as you are witnessing it. Often, you know that if you intervene and ask for permission to photograph, the moment you are looking to capture will be lost. I was confronted with this situation while working on a story in Bahawalpur.

At the bank of what remains of the Sutlej River, a woman sat doing her laundry during a sandstorm. There was no population, or sign of human construction around her; just dry land and a thin reminder of what, depending on the season, can be an expansive water body. In that moment, without pause, I took a picture of this woman, without meaning to be intrusive.

I then approached her, introduced myself and showed her the image. She made it clear that she did not wish to be photographed. I apologised and deleted the photo.

I may be guilty of romanticising the deleted photo, but I believe it was one of the most captivating photos that I have ever taken - but it was more the woman’s photo than mine.

On various occasions, I have photographed people and approached them for permission after, mostly with the subjects allowing me to keep their photos.

Many of us are (unfortunately) guilty of photographing a street child or a beggar in hope of artsy shots for our beloved Instagrams.

This began to gather momentum when DSLR cameras became all the rage a few years back. Many an aspiring photographer would take to the street in hopes of getting an 'exotic' shot or two.

There are photographers who believe if a photo is captured in a public place, it is fair game.

Legally, they may be right. Ethically, it is another question — especially in the context of a metropolis like Karachi.

There are people who live on the streets of this city. Under various bridges, you can see families whose entire lives are on display. They have no private space; does that mean that anyone should be at liberty to photograph them?

These are not questions with simple yes or no answers.

We live in a changing world. Filming and photographing techniques are becoming cheaper, and more accessible for a larger body of people.

For the most part, this is great; we may be seeing a democratisation of the mediums.

Concurrently, we must realise the power of these small recording devices in our hands, and the ethical implications of how we use them.

As our rights to privacy continue to shrink, with big brother constantly keeping us under surveillance, we must fight against inadvertently being behind yet another lens — watching quietly.

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