Today as I walked my kids to their summer camp classes in downtown Chicago, we passed a well-dressed Asian couple sitting on a bench. My daughter is very outgoing and friendly and enjoys engaging with others (a true extrovert) and she said her usual “Hello” to this couple who immediately grinned and quickly started speaking in their native language to one another, smiling as they nodded at her and myself and her brother.
I thought nothing more of this interaction.
Since we were early, I allowed my children to play for a bit and pet any passing dog that was friendly. My daughter will usually shout at strangers 50 meters away “Can I pet your dog?” once she notices they have one.
It was when we stopped to pet “Barley the dog” that this couple appeared again (they seemed as startled to see us and me them) and they quickly began smiling and nodding toward us; they paused briefly then continued walking toward what I assumed was their apartment/hotel. (This is a posh area of the city).
After we said our goodbyes to “Barley the dog” we started walking the last few meters to the school. Around the corner we see the same Asian couple sitting on a bench enjoying the air. As we walk past they smile and before I even know what was happening, this woman snaps a picture of my daughter with her cell phone.
What this woman had done didn’t even register in my mind until we had walked a few feet away from the smiling couple. My mind was blown. A million thoughts started racing through my head:
Did that woman just snap a picture of my daughter?
Holy shit, is she part of a kidnapping ring?
Will she send this picture to a dude who will watch out for my kid at school and wait to snatch her?
Were they following us?
Nah, calm down Bethany, you didn’t get any negative or creepy vibes from them. (I usually do when appropriate).
What legal course of action do I have?
Should I walk back and grab the phone from her hand and delete the picture? Will I be arrested for assault/theft?
When I tried to briefly chat when my daughter said “hello” I didn’t think they understood me because of their blank stares and not responding.
If I make a scene will it scare my children?
A few more thoughts raced in my brain but you get the gist of my mental state.
As the story goes, I did not turn back and I continued walking the children to class. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of my child being violated so blatantly.
My daughter has blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes like many girls in the world. However, when I put her hair into braids she tends to look like a traditional “baby doll.”
When I take a step back and look at this situation, taking into consideration all my book learning and personal/professional understanding about different cultures, I believe in my heart that this couple were merely responding to a little girl that they may have never seen before up close in real life.
Their response to my daughter was similar to a little girl we met at a city park last year. This little girl was dressed in traditional African style clothing and our neighborhood boasts many first generation immigrant families. This little girl walked straight up to my daughter at the playground with eyes wide open and immediately began touching her long, blonde, silky hair.
I was completely fine with this interaction and surprised my daughter didn’t reach out to touch this little girl’s hair. Sometimes in life we encounter other types of humans that are novel and unique to us. Curiosity is a human characteristic. What I didn't like was a strange woman snapping a picture of my child without asking me. That made my feel out of control.
One way to feel in control is by gaining knowledge/learning. I needed to gather facts so I was aware of what, if any, recourse I had for future instances. What if some obvious pervert jumped in front of us and took a picture!? I don’t want my innocent daughter’s face on some perverts website.
Once I had collected my thoughts I called the Chicago Police Department 12th District (that department was the first number that popped up on my Google search).
When the kindly desk sergeant answered the phone I asked him, “Is it legal for a stranger to take a picture of my 4 year-old daughter without my consent on a public street?” He didn’t know. He wasn’t sure and thought since she was a minor that there may be legal action a parent could take. He transferred me to the detective unit.
A female detective answered the phone. She didn’t know and said “good question.” She asked me to hold while she went off to find the answer. I was on hold for a minute and then the phone disconnected.
I immediately called back the same number and got the same desk sergeant. I told him I believed a female detective had accidentally hung up on me and he transferred me back to that unit.
A man answered this time. I asked for the female detective and briefly explained my story (I had already told it in detail to the female detective). He was curt with me, almost to the point of being rude. He refused to outright answer my question and said he needed more information. Even after explaining everything again he would give me run around answers to my very clear question:
“IS IT LEGAL FOR A STRANGER TO TAKE A PICTURE OF A CHILD WHEN THEY ARE IN/ON PUBLIC PROPERTY?”
The long of the short of it is YES.
The key term I needed to remember/understand was “public space.” If this had happened on private property, or a school had released an image of my kids without my permission, then yes that has legal ramifications.
Of course, famous people have to deal with their picture being taken all the damn time. They don’t get to say no and I guess that’s why it’s called freedom of the press. But they’re famous, right? So, a person should expect that to some degree, correct? It is also why many buy large properties and live outside of urban centers.
Back to the Asian couple from the park. I honestly felt their reaction was as if my daughter was some sort of popstar that they were seeing in person for the first time. They wanted to remember that experience and they took a picture. Yes, without asking, but they did.
Then as I began to think even deeper, I thought about how people of all colors from around the world have been snapping pictures of other people they find interesting/unique/different since the invention of the camera.
National Geographic comes to mind. It’s a great magazine and I'm glad we have it and have been able to “document” other ways of looking/living but it comes at a cost.
Now that everyone is a documentarian...anyone of us, when out in public, could become the unwanted object of a picture. We also have the world wide web which has made it much easier for the illegal and lucrative market of trafficking children. It makes me uneasy when an adult stranger takes a picture of my child.
Finding a balance of being polite and courteous but aware and protective in today’s society is difficult. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to come up with a short and sweet answer. Rather, the bittersweet taste of technology is the flavor of the future. I doubt it will ever taste good to me.
At the end of the day we can’t control who and when pictures/videos are taken of us. Living in a city I’m always aware of all the CCTV and police cameras everywhere. They don’t bother me much because I’m not breaking laws. Nevertheless, it still takes some getting used to as humans continue developing more and more digital technology that makes our lives less “private.” Nowadays with satellites everywhere, even people in the country aren’t free from the wandering “camera”.
Moving forward, if I see someone trying to take my child’s picture I will put my hand in front of their face, put my ass between me and the camera and pretend I’m fixing something in the kids hair (I am a people pleaser and try to avoid intentionally pissing people off...that’s just me)...then we will walk away.
Seriously, what is the world coming to when a parent can’t just walk around with their kid without fear of people snapping pictures and taking videos?
Side note: Interestingly, my significant other had a similar experience with my daughter and an Asian couple at the Chicago Botanic Gardens one time. My daughter had politely said hello to this couple who immediately began smiling. Since their cameras were out they quickly snapped a picture of her. Yes, she was wearing braids. This did not make my partner happy, and she struggled as I am now struggling thinking about “What recourse do we have?”
New technology is not good or evil in and of itself. It's all about how people choose to use it. David Wong