Don’t fear the snapper

Back in the old days, when cameras still used film (and if you don’t know what film is, get off my lawn you pesky kids) everything was nice and simple. Pictures were used for brochures, prospectuses, leaflets and magazines. Usually they would be taken by a professional snapper at a proper photoshoot and with a PR person on hand to make sure everyone signed a consent form. Even so, the system was less than perfect. For a start, you had to make sure the pictures could be tied to the consent form – not easy, unless you had a scanner and a work experience student with a high boredom threshold and nothing better to do than scan/file/catalogue. And even then, things could go wrong. I remember a colleague taking a call from a very distressed chap who had just seen a picture of himself and his wife on a council publication. Everything was tickety-boo so far as the consent forms were concerned, but his wife had subsequently died of cancer. Red faces and embarrassment all round.

Some time later, digital photography came along. That made the cataloguing a bit easier, because at least you didn’t have to scan the pics. But still, dead people, changed circumstances, time-consuming, imperfect. Still the system of consent forms limped on. By now, organisations like my old employer (a small local authority) had a stack of them, but no-one willing or able to actually catalogue them. Which of course meant the forms were completely useless. Nevertheless, the pile grew higher because “we have to have permission forms and that’s what we’ve always done”.

And so we come to the age of social media and smart phones. Anyone can instantly take a picture and share it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a hundred others. Oh look, I’ve just Tweeted a pic of myself writing this article. Every school play, assembly and sports day is going to be covered in some detail by dozens of parental reporters, eager to share their precious moments with friends, family and You Tube. So, how does the old consent policy work? To me, as much as I understand the concerns about online safety, it simply doesn’t, especially when everyone in the public sector is under pressure and admin staff are a dimly remembered luxury. It’s an impractical and outdated bit of policy paranoia that is completely unworkable in a modern digital age.

Before I left my LA, we had stopped gathering consent forms for digital media (although old habits died harder when it came to traditional media…). A quick ‘do you mind?’ was all that was needed before taking a picture of happy shoppers at the farmers market, or at a consultation event. For schools, some guidance (and basic common sense) for the staff tasked with running the school’s social accounts is all that is needed. The vast majority of people are perfectly happy to be snapped and they simply get that social media = pictures of people. That’s the real clincher, people have moved on from the old days when they feared the Man In Black with the Magic Box was stealing their soul. It only seems logical to move policy on to a point where it directly intersects with public expectation and understanding.

Just my two penn’orth, what do you think?

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