11 July 2012

I got fat-papped* for the tabloids

Mike Lawn's picture of us
I co-produced an event at the weekend called The Fattylympics. I've given an account of what this work entailed elsewhere.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to keep them out, the event took place in an open space and was gate-crashed by some journalists who refused to respect our clearly-stated request that they stay away. This is ordinary behaviour in the UK, where unethical practise is endemic within the profession. One of the journalists was a photographer called Mike Lawn (possibly a pseudonym, the URL has the name Graham and files attributed to that name), who provides work for the Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid. Lawn sneaked around all day, failing to disclose that he was a professional photographer, he took pictures of people without their consent and sold them for publication to a newspaper that probably everyone featured in it hates. I was one of the people, someone else was featured and mis-named as me (maybe because inter-departmental communication at the Mail is terrible, maybe because all fatties look the same to the normals, or could it even have been a strategy for covering their arses legally if they didn't actually name us correctly in the photographs?!).

I'm interested in the idea of fat people as objects of fascination. We are objects of fascination in medicine, and in research. I hadn't been able to articulate it until now but we are also photographic objects of fascination. Headless fatties make this clear. And being an object of fascination brings with it forms of symbolic violence; we are dehumanised and belittled in that gaze. Perhaps the quality of the fascination in each field varies, but it's a fascination nevertheless, people really want to look at us, especially when they are sure that we won't stare back or look at them. No one looked back at Mike Lawn, he's as forgettable as they come, but he was looking at all of us keenly on Saturday.

It is ludicrous to think of myself as a pappable object, an object of fascination. At the moment I spend most days at home, working on my thesis. I lead a fairly quiet life, with moments of exuberance like the Fattylympics dotted around it. I live on a small amount of money, I don't pursue fame or draw attention to myself through my appearance, although I am opinionated and like to share my thoughts where I can. I am mostly very obscure and unknown. It's unbelievable that my picture would help to sell newspapers, especially all red-faced at the end of a sweaty day, with my hair all dishevelled, and topped with a preposterous Fattylympics towelling headband. I was wearing Birkenstocks too.

I remember the moment it happened. Kay and I went to fetch the Fattylympics medals from the back of the car. This was the first time we had been alone together since the event started, and it was the last push before it was time to end. We were chatting intimately as we walked with the pole full of medals towards the venue. A guy hopped out from nowhere and took pictures of us without asking. I remember his weird, hunched over stance which I now understand was the stance of a photographer. He didn't have a showy camera. I foolishly assumed that because we were having a private moment we were immune to any intrusion. I thought it was weird he'd want to take our picture in that moment and asked him to send us his pictures. "I will," he said. Reader, he didn't. The reason he didn't is that the pictures he took are worth money to him and won't be thrown away on Facebook, or given to anyone. Maybe he'll sell them, and others he took, elsewhere.

Going through the photographs that other people shared, I see Mike Lawn more clearly. It's chilling to see him appear in other people's pictures, seeing him getting in there, taking pictures of trusting, unsuspecting people. This may be legal but it is abusive. Mike, you are probably reading this, what do you say? How much money did you earn from taking our pictures? How are you going to make this better?

I have regrets about how this played out on Saturday. We could not stop the media from gate-crashing, we confronted some people and did the best we could to keep an eye open for intrusive and unwanted behaviour, but these people are sneaky liars and they did their job under those terms. On the other hand, we could have been clearer about warning people that photographers and journalists may have been present. Because of these experiences I will probably never again produce a fat activist event in an open space. Thanks Mike.

Until fat people stop being dehumanised objects of fascination, we will continue to be money-makers for exploitative journalists and photographers. This means that fat activists, especially those in the UK, or any place where the media is feral, might think about building media strategies that protect participants, especially during public actions. This is a big job. It entails building media literacy, building enough self-esteem in people to be able to say no to all forms of exploitative journalism, to develop practical strategies for keeping people safe from media intrusion.

There are small consolations from the experience. A picture of two fat dykes carrying a pole of home-made medals appeared in a high-circulation newspaper. Hello, we exist. And Kay was wearing a t-shirt that I got her at the Allied Media Conference, for a fantastic project called All of Us or None, which fights discrimination against prisoners and supports prisoner rights. I am glad the image of a golden fist and the slogan All of Us or None got reproduced far and wide. It would have been better had we given our consent, however.

*papped = to have your picture taken by a paparazzo. Fat-papped = to have your picture taken and sold without your consent because you are fat.


Leia Organa said...

As an amateur photographer here's my understanding of the legality of this - or non-legality, as it may be. It's perfectly legal for me as a photographer to take a picture of you if you are in a public place. I can use that picture in any way I please - unless it is for commercial gain, i.e. I am going to make money from its use. In that case, I have to obtain what is known as a 'model release' - a piece of paper signed by you, the model, giving your permission for the photograph to be used commercially.

I may have interpreted the law completely wrongly, but on art sites I'm part of, in order to sell one's photography as prints, one must obtain a model release. I am assuming this 'photographer' (I am loathe to call him that, as I think of a photographer as someone with a modicum of talent rather than a predilection for taking quick-and-dirty snapshots) did not do this?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Leia, are you in the UK? Do you know if we have any redress against the photographer? Please email me off the thread if so, I don't want to give the guy any ammunition.

Lauren said...

I mentioned to my mum that you guys had asked on Facebook before the event not to speak to any journalists and we both said that it'd be hard to tell even if some turned up, given how sneaky and two faced they are. And I think I saw the guy and made eye contact with him as I was a bit suspicious, but having too much of a nice time to confront him (plus I felt it wasn't my place to do so). It's funny because again, myself and a friend were sneakily photographed by a bunch of students on the way to Unskinny Bop prom who then pissed themselves laughing at what they took. but again, I was in too much of a good mood to do anything. It's just a bit of a bizarre experience knowing you're so plainly hilarious/grotesquely fascinating to people. But I digress: what you and Kay did was absolutely amazing, and did more for community building than the fucking olympics or a thousand shitty journalists could ever hope to achieve.

Charlotte Cooper said...

I think part of the work around media at fat events is enabling people to speak up if they see something weird that they're not comfortable with.

Lorna said...

Press Complaints Commission Editor's Code?

"iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent.

"Note - Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

"ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

"iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources."

Don't know if you could make a complaint under any of those.


Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Lorna.

JM said...

In the UK a photographer doesn't need a model release for photos taken in public.

I'm sympathetic that because of the way these images were used, you're unhappy with them being taken.

But I have to say that press freedom is important too. The photographer was given the assignment to go and take pictures at an event in a public space. The reporters were doing the same. While the way the Mail's article was offensive, I can't follow your leap the next step. Probably you wouldn't really want it to be the case that journalists had to get extensive permissions before reporting on events.

Being able to go to things and have access to events unfiltered by the agenda of the organiser is genuinely important and not sneaky or two faced. Obviously in this case the article that came out was a disservice to journalism, but that's because they didn't just report the event, but added a layer of offensive commentary. The reasons they thought it was a story was also problematic of course.