Another way to attract women to conferences: photography policies

There is plenty of evidence that quite a few women conference-goers don't like being photographed at conferences, especially when they aren't asked first. Conference goers report stealth photography, sometimes using telephoto lenses to get close-up photos without the subject's knowledge. Sometimes they are photographed against their will, such as photographers who continued taking more pictures even when directly told to stop. Some geek events have even had upskirt photography, shots down the front of women's shirts, and similar problems.

Camera with large lens

CC-BY potzuyoko on Flickr

The Ada Initiative recently asked women about their experiences with conference photography. Women reported that photography made it difficult to avoid letting stalkers or abusers knowing where they are, such as abusive parents or ex-partners. Some women experienced trolling, harassment and death threats triggered by new photos of themselves appearing online. Several women even have a dedicated group of stalkers who edit any new photo of themselves to sexually humiliate or threaten them. Other women are merely tired of being photographed like rare zoo animals, or their photos being used to promote conferences without their permission. More information on why some women dislike photography at geek events can be found on the Geek Feminism Wiki.

As a result, some women avoid or do not attend conferences where they can't opt out of photography or recording. That's why at all three AdaCamps to date, our photography policy is that permission to photograph attendees must be explicitly given. At AdaCamp San Francisco, our photography and recording policy was:

Do not photograph, video, or audio record anyone at AdaCamp without their express permission, sought in advance. Most attendees will have different colored badge lanyards showing their preference for photography:

Piles of lanyards in each of red, yellow and green. By Flore Allemandou CC BY-SA.

AdaCamp SF lanyards, by Flore Allemandou CC BY-SA

  • Green: Photographs always okay
  • Yellow: Ask before photographing
  • Red: Photographs never okay, don’t ask

There is no prior opt-into audio or video recording, you must always ask before recording.

Initially we used coloured stickers on badges to indicate preference, but they are much harder for photographers to see clearly and made some photographers give up entirely. Wide badge lanyards can be seen from all directions from a long way away. We are happy to say that we had no complaints about the difficulty of photography at this year's AdaCamp. We still need to devise a back-up signal for people without the ability to see the difference in the colours. Some suggestions include creating different patterns on each lanyard: Plain for yes, dots for maybe, striped for no.

Photograph of Jen Mei Wu, seated

AdaCamper Jen Mei Wu wearing a green lanyard, by Sarah Sharp

We recommend that other conferences adopt a photography policy that is not an automatic or default opt-in. Policies vary a lot, and sometimes include exceptions for group shots. What we like about the AdaCamp policy is that it is clear and unambiguous, not requiring any judgement calls about whether something is a group or individual photograph or similar. It has the additional advantage of not requiring people who never want to be photographed to opt-out over and over.

Other conferences with different photography policies include:

  • Open Source Bridge, which allows photography as long the subject knows they are being photographed, they haven't opted out, and any photographs are deleted upon request
  • WisCon, which allows video and audio recording and photography for personal archival use only unless an attendee opts out. It includes a suggestion to ask first, and a requirement to ask subjects before making an upload to a commercial website
  • Sirens, which requests that photographers ask before photographing attendees, and bans photography during programmed sessions unless the program information says otherwise
  • Con Carolinas, which requests that photographers ask attendees before photographing them, other than incidental appearances in a crowd shot

Photography at conferences may seem totally innocuous to most people, but when you ask women about their experiences, you can see how uncomfortable and even dangerous it can be. For some women, going to a conference without a photography policy means being photographed incessantly, a resurgence in online harassment and death threats, a dangerous stalker showing up at her hotel room, or pornographic photos taken against her will and posted online. Even without all these consequences, asking permission to take photos and post them online is just plain good manners.

Licence exemption: the photograph of Jen Mei Wu, used here with permission, is not covered by the Creative Commons licence for this post. Please visit the Flickr page for the photograph for information on re-using this image.