Blindly Accepting Terms and Conditions: Ethics and Dignity in a world of instant image sharing

Pictured above is the old practice of photographing one’s deceased loved ones to commemorate their memory. How will we be remembered now in the 21st century with social media and cameras equipped in every phone?

Mass shootings, viral posts, paparazzi, nightcrawler news, graphic images, and social media updates. Technology in the 21st century has changed the way that we share information at lightning fast speeds and has allowed ethically ambiguous fields to propel even further. From gossip sites to presidential tweets — -we are slowly becoming desensitized to the images we see and share, not thinking of the effects of these words or pictures. Only thinking in the now, the current moment we are dying to share.

I have been personally toiling with the idea of image sharing — -especially after being bombarded by facebook memories of my stupid posts I made nearly a decade ago when I was young and foolish. Uncaring of the consequences of tomorrow, now the images shared in my past will perhaps define how I am viewed in the future. Does anyone remember Photobucket? Live Journal? Whatever happened to those, do they still exist or did they rot and shrivel up like organic material. Double chins and silly memes may as well be my legacy. Not all pictures are harmless and immature when shared though.

After last Sunday night when a domestic terrorist killed over 50 people in Las Vegas and injured hundreds, respectable journalists blared uncensored images of victims as stories developed. It was clear that some of these pictures were being released even before the family had been notified. Their faces identified and confirmed by journalists stalking facebook photos, writing impromptu obituaries strung together by public facebook and instagram pictures. One woman’s impromptu obituary stuck out to me. An acquaintance, not family or a close friend, was quoted thinking she seemed nice after meeting her one time. Is this what her life would be defined as and how is this dignified? A possible quote by one of the nameless facebook friends we are socially obligated to add after one meeting? Will the guy I met at a party 10 years ago be the one recounting the stories for eager journalists as my ironic facebook photo is published? I do not agree to this and I do not feel anyone affected by these events would want to be treated in a similar fashion.

Human dignity, ethical treatment, respect, and morals are ever-shifting. How do we claim personhood — -independent and respected, deserving of dignity and treated ethically? Before it could be condensed to the right to privacy, the freedom of a private life. But we seemed to have signed privacy away by accepting terms and conditions without reading them. Human dignity is not personified or understood as a legacy, as something even existing in the future. There seems to be only now, when posting photographs of everyone including children seems appropriate. What happens in the future though? If children’s photographs are published online, their lives documented fully, how will they view human dignity? We may see our first lawsuits in 20 years as children sue their parents for their lack of privacy. Privacy now is only as good the private or security settings on facebook or Instagram. And yet, in the moment we do not foresee these risks, we only think of our current satisfaction and our current desire for sharing information. Children socialized in this world will of course smile for the camera, but that does not mean that their images are being treated in a dignified manner.

I find myself juxtaposing the two types of image sharing. Daily social media posts and harrowing and shocking news stories. Each extreme is shared immediately and expediently, the future be damned. When it comes to some much more serious events like atrocities, we must ask ourselves what the purpose of sharing these photographs are and what the effects are. How can this extreme image sharing bleed into our daily life and our numbed attitudes? Do we have autonomy and right to privacy when we go out in public? Do we allow our photographs to be published if we do not have the ability to say yes? Some argue that this kind of photography forces others to bear witness. To induce empathy. Atrocity photographs and images have served as political discussion and fuel for centuries. In the 19th century, the rich toured impoverished households to see how the ‘great unwashed’ truly lived. These tours influenced many to take up charity but their education came at cost of the humiliation of those who served as props. Images of the Holocaust educated millions over what happened, it served as a main political discourse for establishing human rights and the UN. Key NGOs and Human Rights groups publish photos of victims of violence to inform their audiences to donate money. These images are used for a utilitarian purpose. Use a couple for the ‘greater good’. That grey zone is difficult and incredibly sensitive to delve into though.

Has this use of harrowing images allowed us to become desensitized to current victims? I cannot say that it seems to be utilitarian or of the greater good to interview acquaintances and strangers about victimsä lives. Utilitarian sharing could still wait simply hours or a day to publish this information to give the families time to process their loss. Journalists even published that they were staring at victims facebook profiles — — obviously not even contacting or encountering the family. Let’s reflect about the countless journalists who have confronted families about deaths before they had even been notified.

Thinking critically about how we absorb and normalize these images may reveal how we have ingested or even recreated some of these practices. Do we take photos of poor street vendors on vacation without a thought because it is ‘teaching others’ or simply because we have a desire to share our immediate feelings and experiences? Is it self-serving, political, or ethical? Can someone being photographed even have the chance to say no before someone begins to record them?

Political atmospheres can change in the blink of an eye, things that were accepted and normal can become demonized and persecuted. Images of women wearing Western style clothing in the 1960s in Saudi Arabia haunt those women who now must wear conservative veils like the burka. It is viewed post haste as sinful and political despite it being the norm at the time. People socially interested in the concept of communism or socialism were blacklisted and hunted in the United States during the Cold War even after decades of political inactivity.

At some point we must self-reflect about our purpose behind posting photos. Is it to instill politicized empathy? Brittany Maynard’s story of terminal brain cancer and assisted suicide went viral and ultimately challenged current laws in states like California. But she had ownership over it. She published it herself, autonomously and decided to use her experience for political means. Yet we must confront the question that at what point is it ethical to make choices for those who perhaps cannot or do not fully understand the future consequences.

The 21st century will be inevitably defined in how we create human dignity in a world with blurred lines of privacy. Autonomy becomes impossible when one is socialized within the media, a canvas for photographs. Our mistakes will haunt us, every screenshot a terrible promise of retribution that we may possibly face one day. A sin we must atone for.

Also published on by Caitlin McEvoy

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