Who Owns Your Image?

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“Suddenly everyone I know — and many I don’t — snap and post photos of me…without permission, making my bad hair day go viral.” (Photo: Getty Images)

“No I won’t be in your selfie. It’s my movie and my theatre!” filmmaker Quentin Tarantino yelled at a guest trying to get a photo with him at a private screening of his award-winning The Hateful Eight. While I’m a female teacher who isn’t famous and I disagree with Tarantino on many topics, I’m on his side, hating this invasion.

In our new wired world, everyone with a smartphone is paparazzi, turning our lives into reality TV. Suddenly everyone I know — and many I don’t — snap and post photos of me at classes and lectures before I’m ready for my close-up. Alas, everything on the web lives forever and multiplies, like roaches. International editors, web designers, and bloggers have grabbed my latest frizzy-haired disaster to spread without permission, making my bad hair day go viral. They re-post it so often, I fear a horrible rendition stolen by a stranger will illustrate my obituary.

I’m not Selena Gomez, or a hot young model, singer, or fashionista who shines in the spotlight 24/7. As a veteran journalism professor who does public readings, it stresses me out that I can’t control my own images — or the trolls who trash me. I identify with Carrie Fisher, who responded to criticism about her looks in the Star Wars sequel by tweeting, “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments.” Even 23-year-old Gomez admitted that being weight-shamed after sneaky photos showed she’d gained 10 pounds, from her autoimmune disease medication, threw her into therapy. I asked my head shrinker why I have to compete visually in a profession that’s supposed to revolve around brains and words on a page.

In the last month alone, a plus-one at a holiday party I co-hosted at my home secretly shot me — eyes shut and mouth open with salad going in — sharing this pic with the planet via Facebook. Cringing, I untagged myself, but that didn’t delete it. In a panic, I found his number and phoned the guest, shocking him with my actual voice. (Yes, I’m one of the few who use my phone for more than texting.) He promised he’d take me down. Yet my horrible likeness remained on the site, stalking my newsfeed whenever one of its billion users pressed “like.” Next, a colleague tweeted a shot of me with half my face cut off, which my alumni association screen-grabbed and sent to 50,000 subscribers. Then my boss assumed I’d let a film crew tape me at work, using the footage at their discretion, forever. Finally, without asking, a student filmed a guest lecturer on her cell, despite being told school was “Off the record,” offering a preview of what that film intrusion feels like in my classroom.

Now everything’s on everyone’s record. Tarantino yelled at his obsessed fan, “Not tonight, not now. That’s like asking someone to pose at church.” Yet a friend’s Manhattan church actually sported the sign: “Don’t enter the sanctuary if you don’t want to be photographed or videotaped” since the service was live-streaming, the camera shy relegated to the choir loft upstairs. A local private school insists all parents sign disclaimers so shots of their kids can be used for promotion and online marketing. At a Jewish funeral home in the Midwest, you must dodge cameras attending a memorial (not a choice for the sobbing relatives offering heartfelt eulogies.)

Growing up in Michigan, I was a picture-freak, having rolls developed, making copies for my albums, pals and relatives. I didn’t hesitate to go digital, though in retrospect it’s probably my fault for embracing social media, gung-ho to invite 5,000 acquaintances to an event with one click. Hearing that publishers noticed your volume of fans, friends, and followers, I joined Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and followed others on Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr. My photographer cousin Dan took professional headshots for my profile pages and book jackets. Before our session, I hired a hairdresser, makeup artist, and stylist. Whatever special lighting or magic wrinkle filter Dan used worked. I planned to link my official public face eternally, albeit recently admitting they were taken “10 years and 11 pounds ago.” I loved curating myself, uploading crowd shots of readings, thanking the bookstores that hosted, knowing a bigger audience responds to posts with visuals.

I’ve tried explaining that reprinting someone’s pictures without warning could be violating their use of likeness rights, since without a release, this practice is often illegal. Nobody cares. So I’ve been stuck trying to get my worst stolen selves off the Internet by myself — an ordeal, if not impossible. Complete erasure requires money I don’t have for lawyers or companies who actually specialize in removing unauthorized cyber-junk.

I laughed when author Jennifer Weiner joked that she has to wear Spanx everywhere and get her roots dyed weekly. At least she’s a famous bestseller with five million books in print. If I had her royalties, maybe I’d feel more obliged when ambushed during a lecture. Yet as a middle-aged career woman trying to age gracefully, it’s depressing. I used to be proud I’d had no Botox or work done. Until I saw the downside on my laptop: I look like a middle-aged career woman with no Botox or work done. Why do people feel entitled to shoot and distribute my face without asking? Not to mention how miserable my makeup-less mug shot looks while Skyping or FaceTiming in the morning, the #IWokeUpLikeThis hashtag you won’t see. Even my handsome 30-year-old male coauthor lamented time he wasted getting his hair cut, shaving, worrying about clothes, and filters when he looks pale. He recently grabbed a shooter’s phone, deleted bad angles and asked for a retake.

After an August event I spoke at, a former student leapt beside me, clicking. I put my hand in front of her phone, saying, “I’m so glad you came. But please, I just did a three-hour panel with no air conditioning. I’m exhausted and sweaty.” Upset, she said, “I drove all the way from New Jersey,” assuming mileage entitled her to an instant portrait with the moderator. “I have a 375-mile minimum,” I tried to joke, feeling guilty. After struggling to make a living in my field, I was grateful that anyone wanted my picture. But is it my responsibility to fulfill her jones for a new visual status update? By needing to capture her plans for the night, she made me paranoid, spying around to make sure nobody else would reproduce me, instead of focusing on answering questions.

When I complained of this privacy problem, a fellow professor accused me of being vain. Was I? Examining an offending image, my husband said, “Don’t be crazy, you look beautiful.” He had marriage-blindness, still seeing me as the hot 29-year-old I was when we met (perhaps why married people live longer.) My therapist insisted I’m jealous — of myself from 20 years ago. He’s right. I am! Many older people are. I bet Robert Redford and Brigitte Bardot prefer their “befores” to their “afters.” I tried to be mature and stop attempting to control my every incarnation. I looked for my angle or trademark pose, like TV chef Andrew Zimmern’s penchant for holding up a crab leg for the camera. I tried hiding behind a book or just using one eye. But ultimately, I decided I couldn’t compromise my integrity — and vanity — to placate cyber-obsessives.
So I politely told my boss “no” to filming if I can’t choose what’s distributed, hoping I didn’t sound like a Hollywood diva. I begged my alumni association to delete unauthorized pictures from the web and use the lovely ones I refused to believe I no longer looked like. I asked students in the audience at my readings and panels not to shoot me for distribution without asking.

As millennials and Generation Z begin to age, they’ll learn the dark side of having to monitor yourself every time you walk outside — or invite anyone in. Instead, in 2016 let’s start a shocking new trend, where everyone asks you if you want to be photographed, posted, reprinted, and tweeted — pre-snapping. Or better yet, put down your lens and enjoy an experience not captured for your news feed. Mark Zuckerburg, kudos for parental leave and charity. But since there’s already a Facetune application to delete blemishes and bad smiles, so please order your minions to invent an app so we can Photoshop ourselves out of someone else’s candids.

Susan Shapiro is author of “What’s Never Said.” Follow her on Twitter at @Susanshapiro.net

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