Friday 23 August 2019

Sarah Caden: 'School ban on cameras will kill off family photo albums'

We all want photos of our kids' big days, but oversharing is causing problems for everyone, writes Sarah Caden

‘Most of us want to take pictures of the big and small events in our children’s lives, and other parents want to do the same’. Stock photo
‘Most of us want to take pictures of the big and small events in our children’s lives, and other parents want to do the same’. Stock photo

Sarah Caden

In most houses in Ireland there will be photo albums, shoeboxes and envelopes, stuffed with family photos taken through the years, most likely dating from pre-internet when we still got around to printing them.

The significant occasions of our lives are recorded there, and unpacked on occasion to stir memories of people and times past or to show to the kids.

The big events are all there. Births, marriages, First Holy Communions, Confirmations, 21st birthdays and family holidays.

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We see our past childhood selves, our then younger parents, our now late grandparents, and we see those other people who populated our lives. Cousins, classmates, childhood friends, summer-holiday besties we never met again.

Their names sometimes come to us immediately, sometimes take some scrabbling around to remember, or their names never come but we remember the time they forgot their togs and had to go swimming in their underpants, or cried for their mammy on a school trip, or had a wonky Communion veil. And some are just supporting cast, forgotten, but there in your family photos all the same.

Obviously, it is all different now, and not only because we barely print the endless photographs we take. We are inundated with images of ourselves and everyone we know and, it could be argued, the proliferation of photographs has diminished their significance.

The other alteration that resurfaced last week is the issue around including other people's children in your family photos.

For the last decade or so, there have been rumblings around whether it is acceptable to take photographs of assembled kids at sports events, school plays and big occasions such as Communions and Confirmations. Reasons cited include worries that images of children could get into the hands of paedophiles or people of ill-intent, and, more recently, that it is a breach of children's privacy for adults other than their parents to manage their image.

Anyone with a child will know that you fill out forms ahead of any event, granting or denying permission for everything from simply taking your child's picture to using their image for advertorial purposes.

And, if you have a child, you'll know that many schools now forbid uploading of photographs and videos to social media, or, further, have banned photography and filming altogether.

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has, of course, been cited as the reasoning behind this, but last week, the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) issued new guidance with regard to photographing children at school, social and sports gatherings.

"The DPC often receives queries from schools, parents and even photographers about taking photographs at school events," it said. "These events range from concerts and football matches, right up to sports days, Holy Communions and award ceremonies."

What the DPC office was hearing was that schools issuing bans were citing GDPR as a sort of outside force imposing this upon them.

This is not a valid explanation, however, according to the DPC.

"This type of activity falls under the so-called household exemption under the GDPR," said the DPC. "This provides that the GDPR does not apply when a person processes personal data - for example, a photograph of someone in the course of a purely personal or household activity."

"Personal or household activities could include social networking," it added.

So, it's not a breach of GDPR to photograph children other than those that might be your own at a gathering or event, nor is it forbidden to post that photo or video on WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram or whatever happens to be your social media poison.

However, said the DPC, in cases where a parent might feel uncomfortable about their child's image being captured and disseminated who knows where, if they make those misgivings felt, they should be respected and restraint should be shown.

Should be. But it can't be enforced, so good luck with that one.

It's that issue of discomfort that counts, though, in this debate. If you put GDPR aside, the next reason that will be cited to ban this sort of photographic activity is the fear that images of children will get into the wrong hands. Wrong hands being those of paedophiles and people of ill-intent. This is pretty much a red herring, though. Sadly, if these people want images of children, they are easily come by. They are the bogeyman that it's too easy to reach for, while really the issue is more one of less life-threatening discomfort.

It's an issue of control, in a world where we have very little any more. Most of us want to take pictures of the big and small events in our children's lives and we understand that others want to do the same. We accept, on a basic level, that if someone else takes a picture of their kid at a school event, then our kid just might also be in the frame.

Sometimes, we are even grateful when other parents take the photographs or videos, if we can't see our little darling from our vantage point, or can't make the event. And when that parent puts the results up on the class WhatsApp, we are pleased. But where do the images go from there?

Each parent may send it to their parents, or siblings, or friends. Do they identify your child? Do they tag them? Does Facebook then know who they are for the rest of their lives? Do the pictures come with notes like, "That's so and so's son?" or "Second from left is the class bully?"

As adults, we know this is a modern world of endless comment, criticism and even cruelty. We see adults broken every day online, whether publicly or privately. We don't want it for our children, but we have no way of stopping it.

Taking photographs at school events or group occasions is an issue of privacy, but with a small p. It's about the culture of endless exposure and this debate suggest, that on some level, we fear it for our children.

When it comes to this issue, it's possible to have completely conflicting feelings. Very few of us want to ban outright the candid ensemble childhood snaps that we know provide entertainment and even moments of emotion in family life. There is more to the patchwork of a life lived than memories of just ourselves. The supporting cast, both remembered and forgotten, are part of the fabric.

To edit them out is to make our lives smaller somehow and yet something is driving this school ban that shouldn't be dismissed. It's not as easily explained as GDPR, but more rooted in a certain lack of faith in each other and trust in the culture of sharing. Its consequence, however, could be a lean and friendless photo album of family life.

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