Photographers Upset by ‘Ask First’ Stickers at BDSM Folsom Street Fair

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The Ask First Campaign is not primarily about photography, it’s about consent. But when the campaign’s popular stickers and their message was recently applied to photographers taking pictures of people at a public BDSM fair without asking, the proverbial claws came out.

The Folsom Street Fair is an annual BDSM and fetish event held in San Francisco, CA every September. It caps off Leather Pride Week and, as you might have already guessed, is extremely not safe for work. It’s also where the idea for the Ask First Campaign was born when creator Maxine Holloway found herself being groped and prodded by complete strangers who definitely didn’t have permission to do any of those things.

Instead of leaving never to return to an event like this again, Holloway created the Ask First Campaign, which passes out stickers and temporary tattoos with the slogan written on them and promotes the idea of consent in public places. They’ve passed out thousands of their stickers since the campaign launched in 2014, and last year they even set up an Ask First Photo Booth at the fair for people to pose with the stickers.

You may have seen them around, not only at the Folsom Street Fair, but even at more mainstream events like Burning Man.

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So what does this have to do with photography? In the age of smartphone cameras, facial recognition software, and the Internet, Holloway believes the idea of consent in public places has everything to do with photography. It’s also something that bumps up against the legal right to take pictures in a public space.

It’s this tension that Holloway receives angry emails from photographers about, and it’s what sparked this rant by a photographer named Tony Perez. Last Saturday, as people were preparing to head out to this year’s Folsom Street Fair, Perez took to Facebook to vent his frustration over the stickers (in rather colorful language).

His status, screenshot below, has gone viral:

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Strong language aside, Perez is, of course, 100% in the clear legally. The debate that his reaction has sparked, however, is less about whether or not he’s standing on solid legal ground, but solid moral or ethical grounds.

We reached out to Holloway—who told SFist she’s received several emails from photographers that mirror Perez’s reaction—to ask her what she thinks.

You can find her response below:

I think photographer’s that have this type of response are entitled and obtuse. Consent is important and is about more than just sex. As a photographer myself, I believe there are three things we need to consider when thinking about consent and the camera:

  1. The “legal right” right to photograph someone in public is irrelevant. One only has to look to the recent Brock Avery Case to understand that the law does not always allocate what is right, just, or consensual.
  2. Street photography has changed since the days of Gary Winnogrand taking photos on the streets of NYC in the 60’s. The internet, cell phone cameras, and facial recognition technology is a game changer when it comes to ethics and standards of street photography. The repercussions of someone being identified on the internet at the Folsom Street Fair versus being identified at a music festival, and where that image can travel, deserves a more nuanced conversation. As culture changes, the ‘how and why’ we capture people’s image is necessary discourse.
  3. The Ask First Campaign is also addressing the fact that nowadays everyone has a camera in their hands. At events like the Folsom Street Fair, people are using cameras in offending ways: SLR’s and cell phones are repeatedly forced into people’s personal space when taking “up-skirt” photos and snapping close-up pictures of people’s breasts.

These three things are not separate, and are all indicative of people believing they are owed or have the right to someone’s body. This is eerily similar to how our society excuses sexual violence and rape culture at large. I have very little empathy or tolerance for that type of ‘entitlement’ rational, weather it is about someone’s body or image.

This is why Holloway has extended the Ask First campaign to include what she calls “consensual photography.” She’s even published a set of guidelines to help photographers navigate these admittedly charged waters when attending an event like the Folsom Street Fair:

This conversation is not a comfortable one to have, but it’s one photographers should have.

One the one hand are those who believe you wave your right to any kind of privacy when you step into a public space, and limiting photography in any public space is a slippery slope. On the other are those who believe this is an issue that is easily navigated by considering the bounds of courtesy and common sense—in other words, “ask first.”

What side of the debate you fall on is up to you, one thing is for sure though: any public debate about photographers and photography is one photographers need to be a part of.


Image credits: Photographs by Cat Donohue and Courtney Trouble, respectively. Used courtesy of the Ask First Campaign.

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