Is it ever okay to photograph someone in order to shame them?

This week, we compare two stories of internet justice to discuss using cameras as weapons, public shaming, and bullying online.

“The Adria Richards/PyCon debacle has left me wondering, is it ever okay to photograph someone in order to shame them?”
– JustWonderin

First some background for people who may not have heard this story. Last week, Adria Richards, a developer evangelist for software company SendGrid, attended PyCon, a conference for Python programmers. During one of the presentations, she overheard a conversation between two guys sitting behind her in the audience who were making jokes to each other about “forking” and “dongles” which she felt was inappropriate.

Without saying a word, she stood up, photographed them, and tweeted the photo with the text: “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and ‘big’ dongles. Right behind me #pycon.” The two men were escorted out by conference organizers.

In the days after the event, the story exploded online. One of the men was fired from his job. DOS attacks were launched against SendGrid and Adria’s webhost. Adria was harassed online and fired by SendGrid. In the end, as Amanda Blum put it eloquently, we all lost.

Here are a few troublesome facts. There is sexism in our industry. There are not enough women in tech. Guys tell stupid jokes. People overreact, online and off. The harassment Adria has received online since this event is unjustified, vile, and in some cases, illegal. But this particular column isn’t about any of those things. Instead, I’m going to focus on what JustWonderin asked: Is it ever okay to photograph someone in order to shame them?

And to answer that, I’d like to tell another story.


Way back in 2005, before Twitter existed, Thao Nguyen, 22, found herself trapped on an NYC train with a man who was looking directly at her, smiling, and masturbating. She, like Adria, decided to fight back with photography. She snapped a photo with her cellphone. The man bolted at the next station.

When the police were of no help, Thao posted the photo online in the hope that someone could help identify him. The story “went viral” (a phrase that wasn’t a cliché in 2005) and the photo eventually landed on the cover of the NY Daily News with the subhead “Brave subway flasher victim turns tables and snaps picture of perv suspect.”

It wasn’t long before the flasher was identified as Dan Hoyt, a noted raw food chef. He was convicted of public lewdness and sentenced to two years of probation and counseling. The event spurred local lawmakers to raise penalties for repeat offenders of such crimes, and inspired a movement that encouraged people to fight back with their cameras.


So here we have two stories of women feeling harassed. Both chose to fight back by posting photos to the internet. And both resulted in punishments for the men involved. Yet, to me, one is a victory and the other is a shame.

Thao Nguyen was trapped on a train with a man doing something lewd and illegal directly at her. Adria Richards was not trapped, was not the target of the action, and was in no danger. Thao would have been crazy to try and talk to her aggressor. I bet Adria could have shut those two guys up with a stern look.

Intent is part of the issue here. Thao posted the photo publicly to try to identify the man when the police could not. Once he was identified, she removed the photo from the places she’d posted it. Of course it lived on, but I remember being impressed that she said she’d take it down once he was identified and she kept her word.

It’s clear from Adria’s own account that she photographed these two men with the intention to bring them to the attention of the conference organizers. But by doing so in a public tweet, including the conference hashtag, she was also shaming them in front of the entire conference. I don’t know if that was her intent, but the result is the same. In the end, that tweet cost Adria and one of the guys their jobs.

In Emily Bazelon’s new book, “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying,” she argues that bullying is primarily defined by a power imbalance. Thao, smaller and younger than her aggressor, was clearly on the losing side of a power imbalance. With thousands of Twitter followers and the power to message everyone at the conference with a single hashtag, Adria was the one with the power, so in this case, the “bully” label falls squarely on her shoulders. And that is the key difference between these two stories.

So to answer JustWonderin’s question: Yes, there are times when fighting back with photography is absolutely appropriate. But only if you can tell the difference between a dick and a couple of schmucks.

That’s it for this edition of Fertile Medium. Thanks for reading to the end. If you’d like to ask a question for a future column, tweet to @fertilemedium or call (415) 286-5446 and leave a message. See you next time.

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