Is It Just Me, or Has People-Watching Gotten Creepier?

The problem with people watching happens when we start to film people on the street.

I’m standing in a gated area at a small airport in an even smaller city in Italy. There are no more than 15 people in the same holding room; we are waiting to board a flight. Two men from Switzerland, one in a Hollister T-shirt and flat-brim cap, are answering questions that an American woman is asking in spite of the phone call she is on with Iberia Air’s customer service. (I know this because I hear her explaining that due to their negligence as an airline, she has had to miss important quality time with her Italian friends.) She’s wearing a black sleeveless dress; there are two strands of cowrie shells around her wrist. To my left sits a family of four; the patriarch is wearing sequined espadrilles. Their son is in denim cut-offs. His mother is holding a neon beach bag by Dior. Straight ahead of me stands a middle-aged couple in linen shirts and dark bottoms. They are both leaning over their carry-on suitcases. Next to me, my husband scrapes the mobile web, scrolling with the voraciousness of a love-drunk teenager decoding the text messages of a recent dalliance.

I know all of this because I’m watching them. Taking mental photos and unconsciously determining who these people are based on the information being presented by the languages they are speaking, the bags they are carrying, the way they’re standing, the clothes they’re wearing, the kinds of phones they are scrolling through. At its best, it is a fertile episode of people-watching that will be forgotten the moment we are summoned to board our plane. At its worst, it’s an example of implicit biasing that urges my mind to fill in gaps between the fractures of equivocal information presented, thus generating an extremely unreliable script.

The blessing and the curse of people-watching is that while it forces me to confront what is sometimes the most grisly of my hollow snap judgments, it also provides an opportunity to check myself, take those renderings for what they are (hallucinations) and lock them in a box to send deep into the foxhole of my subconscious. Never to be seen, never to be spoken about. Ever.

But what happens when its no longer my eyes taking the snapshots, but an actual camera? When these renderings are liable to exist in perpetuity?

When I am watching others, I skid off fastidiously the moment they catch me catching them. I pretend it never happened. When it happens to me, I am relieved that it was just their eyes looking, that the moment has passed and that no one will have access to whatever image remains in their memory. It is disturbing, even violating, to find that someone has been looking at you. So here’s a vexing thought: We say our Google search tabs are more intimate than our underwear drawers, that our smartphones have become the sum of our minds, and if these arguments are to be believed, then surely our camera lenses have become our eyes. And that would mean that innocent people-watching — legal by all accounts — is now people-filming? And if this is is true, we are up against a stark violation of privacy that is invisibly dancing through modern culture.

In the last two months alone, I have heard at least three separate incidences of involuntary photo documenting — digital people-watching. My brother’s girlfriend was photographed on the 6 train; she noticed it when she got up for her stop and saw the watcher’s camera roll, boasting at least a grid full of photos of her. One of Man Repeller’s own was snapped while taking in some air outside our office. While I was standing in the gated area of this very airport, one half of the linen-clad couple in front of me took a photo. At the time of its taking, I could not be sure if it was me on the other end of her lens, but I felt defiled. Unwillingly exposed. Angry. Maybe she sensed it because she approached me thereafter to tell me that she is from Portugal, that her daughter is a big fan and that it would mean the world if we could take a photo together. I complied with no hesitation and as the exchange ended, my fury neutralized.

My encounter was harmless but such won’t always be the case. There is an argument to be made that these photos will never see the light of day either, that celebrities have always fallen victim to people-watching that doesn’t just exist in perpetuity but that financially fuels the engine that is a tabloid magazine, that our constant attachment to a camera lens will be a blessing, too. If a crime is committed and it is captured, justice will be served. Then again, this line of thinking can be troublesome — case in point: the opening story in this essay from The New York Times wherein the backseat of the writer’s car is filmed with her child in it (she ran out to get a coffee, left her son in the car, had her license plate and backseat recorded by a stranger and when she got home, she learned there was a warrant out for her arrest).

So where is the line here? Is a popular Instagram account like @subwaycreatures, or the vast street style slideshows populated with fashionably unaware citizens any different? What is acceptable and what is not? Is there ever an excuse to document a stranger without their consent? Do you? Would you?

Photographed (and staged) by Edith Young. 

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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