Tool, or trouble? Facial recognition might be driving some sources away from the news

At first, Brittany Cantarella had no idea the man she accidentally swiped with her Chevrolet was named Lord Jesus Christ. But within two days, the minor traffic incident had gone viral. Reporters snatched the then 20-year-old’s Facebook profile picture and left messages on her grandmother’s answering machine. “It’s the girl that hit Jesus!” a man in Stop & Shop yelled.

“I wanted to hide, I wanted to run, I wanted to go far away,” Cantarella said.

Two months later, she was willing to talk to me about the accident at a coffee shop in western Massachusetts. She was resolute, though, that I not take her picture or shoot video. That’s because Cantarella’s experience with viral fame made her wary of having her image wedded to a traffic accident that would never go away online.

This small anecdote is part of a new media conundrum dogging the relationship between visual journalists and their subjects: most people happily publish their own picture online, but a growing number of them are becoming wary of having their image captured by visual journalists.

With facial recognition software becoming commercially available in the past few years, new technologies could further reshuffle the relationship between a subject and a visual journalist.

Ed Kashi is a renowned photojournalist who has spent the past 30 years shooting for National Geographic, the VII Photo Agency and dozens of other outlets. And, he told me in an email interview, he’s noticed individuals and organizations becoming more reluctant to allow visual access.

“There is more wariness and a desire to have more control over access and what you are allowed to show,” he said. “In some cases and with certain subjects, this new paradigm presents a dilemma and can halt worthy work.”

On balance, Kashi sees the change as positive. “Photojournalists are more accountable,” he said, since the people in the pictures can watchdog for accuracy whether they’re in New York City, Nigeria or the West Bank.

Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist Martha Rial, whose career spans over 20 years, agrees that photojournalists have a higher hurdle to get started on projects. “People are aware of how the 24-hour-news cycle has changed the perception of everything,” she told me.

“There’s no denying that it’s getting harder to convince people to allow photographers into their lives in a meaningful, substantive way,” said Jason Cohn, a Pittsburgh-based photographer and videographer, “and there’s no denying it’s for good reason on their part.”

Aside from his work as a photojournalist for outlets like Reuters, Cohn has been a member of his hometown city council since 2005. As a public official, he has become “really wary about photos taken of me, because you never know when a photo will be twisted or turned to be used against you out of context years down the road.”

With a few exceptions like spot news, visual journalists depend on their subjects’ consent. For a subject, that often means ceding control of your own image to a stranger.

Patience, respect and tenacity are the traits that photojournalists are taught to convince a waffling subject to appear in a story. Superlative photojournalists are renown precisely because they can find subjects who allow them to tell visual stories, regardless of obstacles.

How, then, does this wariness affect visual journalism? The problem arises when patience and time are not options visual journalists. That may be because they’re overworked daily journalists who don’t have time to talk their way into a storytelling picture. Or it might be because they are citizen journalists or students without the experience to explain the importance of their assignment. All might be too willing to take the first “no” as the final answer. That stops worthy visual coverage.

New technologies barreling into consumer products have the potential to further sandpaper the relationship between visual journalists and their subjects. That technology is facial recognition technology.

Over the past few years, versions of the technology have moved from law enforcement and big businesses to consumer uses, notably in Facebook and Google Picasa, according to Alessandro Acquisti, an associate professor of information systems and public policy at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University. He made headlines last summer with research showing he could find the name of 31 percent of CMU students who stopped at his research table simply by using facial recognition software and a database of public images from Facebook.

“You will never find me,” one student boasted before the experiment, Acquisti told me. The research team quickly found him thanks to a picture a friend posted.

“The subjects we identified, they were quite surprised,” said Acquisti.

Right now the kind of facial-recognition software Acquisti used for his research needs a frontal, well-lit shot to return a match.

“I’m pretty confident that [the technology] will get better and better over time. Whether it will ever meet or surpass human ability, it’s a difficult question,” says Acquisti.

If the consumer technology does become more powerful, it could have a significant effect on the subjects of news pictures. If a brutal actor like the Syrian government could find the identities of every protester, would it be ethical to take or publish a picture from a demonstration?

Sites like The Chive already feature galleries where they take pictures, sometimes from news or sports events, of women. Would those women want to be casually identified by anyone online? Those and other scenarios create an undeniable logic to not appearing in any news pictures.

Acquisti’s scientific research is more rigorous than the anecdotal wariness some visual journalists see. But “the behavioral economics of privacy,”
as Acquisti calls his research focus, portends a future where the subjects of visual journalism have new incentives to appear or not appear in the media.

“The joke is don’t put anything online that you would not like to have on the front page of the NY Times 10 years from now, because chances are that if you become an important person or you are about to be considered for an important position, that information will resurface.”

Should that message sink in, visual journalists may find themselves trying to fit in to a different equation.

About Brian McDermott

In September 2009, Brian joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst full-time. He teaches classes in photojournalism, video journalism, and web design.