Walking through the horde of bodies at this year’s Folsom Street Fair celebrating kink and diversity, I noticed people wearing big yellow stickers with two words – “Ask First” – printed in cursive. These stickers were meant to send a bright and friendly message for others to: “Ask first before groping me,” “Ask first before taking my picture.” I learned this from the Ask First campaign founder, Maxine Holloway, as we spoke at her booth during the fair. She told me this was the second year the stickers have appeared at Folsom.
Holloway is a porn performer, sex-educator and filmmaker. Her goal with Ask First is to establish an etiquette of consent in kink spaces. She explained how many women who attend Folsom are offended by unwanted touching. I brought up how the campaign promotes asking consent before photography and Holloway said some people don’t want their picture taken
“But isn’t this a public space?” I asked.
“Cameras are getting too close to women’s bodies,” was the flimsy answer back. Interestingly, Holloway didn’t raise the specter of images posted on social media having a negative impact on a fair attendee. I kinda had the feeling this might have been more about sex-worker respect than school teachers getting fired.
After twelve years of shooting Folsom Street Fair for queer news or for the documentary, Folsom Forever, this was the first time I wasn’t slinging my Canon videocamera and monopod. Never before had I been able to just enjoy the fair like everyone else.
In the crowd, I also noticed many people wearing items I’ve come to associate with the Anonymous movement – bandanas across the face that only revealed eyes, Guy Fawke masks from the movie “V For Vendetta” and muzzles based on the character Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises.” Typically these disguises appear at heated demonstrations, hiding identities from the police cameras trained at the protesters. Sure, pony heads and black leather hoods have been a part of the Folsom scene for years. But today’s attendees are incorporating smokescreens that tap into tools of modern civil unrest, becoming Anonymous at the fair as well.
Smartphones, DSLRs, video; for better and for worse, cameras have become an inescapable part of the Folsom experience. Ask First and Anonymous present two distinctly different approaches to exerting control over an individual’s privacy when photographed at San Francisco’s notorious kink and sex-positive celebration.
I left Folsom troubled by Ask First’s campaign to restrict photography to consent in a public space. Doing further research, I found Ask First wasn’t the only voice egging on photo consent etiquette. Jay Barmann of SFist also encouraged consent before taking pictures in his SFist’s First-Timer’s Guide To Folsom Street Fair Weekend 2015. Between Holloway and Barmann, it wasn’t clear whether consent for photos ethos was implying the activities at Folsom weren’t ones of pride, but shame. Or did they simply want to give control to individuals, like sex-workers, to decide who and who does not get to take their picture?
U.S. courts have long held that an individual has no constitutional expectation to a right of privacy when in public space. And I have a constitutional right as a member of the press to take pictures in public for news and documenting purpose of my work.
“It is perfectly legal to take someone’s picture because you are on a public street,” Demetri Moshoyannis, executive producer of Folsom Street Events, tells anyone seeking to know the official policy about photography at the street fair. “That said, it is always appropriate and polite to ask first…A core part of our community’s motto is and always has been ‘consent’.”
Consent. Permission. Compliance. Acquiescence. Consent may apply to a situation, but not always in the way we want it to.
About myself, I got started shooting camera for the gay porn company Catalina Video in the late ‘90s. I held a Los Angeles Police Department press badge for twelve years while working for Reel Gay TV. From 1996 to 2009, I shot on the official video crew for the International Mr. Leather contest. I’m also the director of two feature documentaries examining the leather/kink community, KINK CRUSADERS and FOLSOM FOREVER.
During the process of uncovering archival images for my documentary FOLSOM FOREVER I found there was a dearth of visual representations for the fair from its start. From 1984 until ’90, the fair transitioned from its origins as a neighborhood political action event into the leather/kink celebration it is today. I searched at Folsom Street Events, the Leather Archive and Museum and SF’s GLBT Historical Society. Documentarians like myself are limited to ephemera such fair posters, board meeting notes and oral history.
We can’t hold a prudish bias when it comes to documenting the richness of our story.
Besides being a time period without smartphones and limited video cameras, the early years of Folsom were marked by shame issues. Folsom Street Fair took kink out of the darkness of night in hidden places and put it in the middle of a public street for anyone to see. These early kinksters took the hit for any culture criticism – including mainstream gays – and religious shaming.
One video clip I did find circa 1990 was from a concealed “lipstick” camera shooting through a pinhole to remain undetected as they filmed. If there was ever a time Folsom was a dangerous place to be where only committed sexual radicals played, it was then. Thumbing one’s nose at shame made the party all the more decadent.
So imagine our visual history amounting to a bunch of blurred-out faces. We’d never know who did attend – did the demographics change in gender or sexuality over the years?
“Nude is not lewd” is the policy at Folsom, but what if nudity is banned? Documenting these changes would be grossly underserved by an “Ask First” camera policy.
Taking still pictures and recording video get lumped-in together because they’re both media, but they are vastly different tools for the operator. I would never claim to be a still photographer and I admire my photographer friends greatly for their skills. Stills and video continue to exist side by side. Stills function to freeze the moment, with each picture being taken individually. Video rolls on time’s passage, capturing sound and motion. As a videographer, I can’t keep turning my camera on and off just because I see a yellow “Ask First” in the midst of a flogging session. With a still, you can crop the shot. With video, you must blur out what everyone else plainly sees. Asking for consent takes an honest moment and turns it into a staged one with poses and put on smiles.
Let’s say in the best of best intentions, a culture of consent takes hold as policy at the fair and camera use by the media and citizens is curtailed. Police will continue to record who we are and what we do.I hope we’re not so naive to think a police presence beyond uniform isn’t blending amongst the traffic. I am bothered by any policy that encourages the public to give up rights the police continue to have.
Venus’s Playground is an enclosure with a big tent close to the epicenter of the fair. What goes on inside the tent can’t be seen by the general public. Folsom Street Events provides this “safe space” – for women only. They can play together without fear of the gawkers and cameras. Should media be interested, a VP representative will explain the purpose of Venus’s Playground. And if a crew did go inside the tent, I believe it would be best served by an all female crew to keep a sense of safe space.
“This isn’t about shame or pride; it’s about creating safe spaces,” explains Moshoyannis.
It’s a quaint notion our community holds about consenting to cameras and safe spaces. Like the leather contestant who forbids photographs because he wants to keep his safe space…while he seeks a public title. Whether you compete in a contest or play in public, you need to accept the media. If we want to be taken seriously as a community, then we have to accept the laws everyone else has to play by.
In the middle of a public street in broad daylight surrounded by thousands, what is a “safe space” when it comes to individuals concerned about being photographed?
Holloway stated in a later email, “I believe that creating a comfortable and consensual photographic environment/practice is on the onus of the photographer – not the public for being at an event. It is often impractical to ask every person in the frame for permission. But there are many verbal and non-verbal ways to communicate with a photographic subject. If someone clearly does not want to be photographed or if they want their photo to be deleted after the fact, then those wishes should be granted.”
My words may come off as insensitive, but anyone in the leather/kink community who’s worked with me knows I’m an ethical journalist not into harming others. I seek clearance to shoot in private spaces, In most cases, I don’t record some if they don’t want to be photographed. Sometimes I don’t honor them and still adhere to journalistic ethics. Journalists are trained not to hand over or delete materials collected because someone complains. It takes a court order to compel a journalist to turn over their work product.
“Our body is ours (sic) – if you think that you may be invited to interact with, or even photograph, someone in any way – it is your responsibility to ASK FIRST, and then listen to the response you’re given. It’s really that simple,” says Holloway.
Folsom Street Event’s Moshoyannis said, “Honestly the topic of photography never even came up during our initial conversations…(with the Ask First campaign)…Ask First is a suggestion, an encouragement, not a legal requirement.”
Truthfully, the only consent a fair attendee gives to enter Folsom Street Fair is consent to being photographed. Anything else can be broken down to enforceable laws to protect attendees.
Why not tell attendees at the gates there will be thousands of camera at the fair that are legally entitled to be photographing in a public space. Attendees have no expectation of privacy being on a public street.
With an approach like Ask First, it seems possible a fair attendee could be given a false sense of protection from cameras conferred by the stickers. This can lead to angry encounters when photographers don’t ask first, or continue photography even if asked to stop. During my own career, I’ve filed two assault complaints after being attacked by people who were being filmed in public for news stories.
And what recourse does a person have if being photographed in public? Very little. If they complain to the police, the police will lecture them about the right of the press to film in public. But if someone complains to the police about inappropriate touching, the toucher can be arrested on the spot.
From reading Holloway’s fundraising materials, she never indicates Ask First is concerned with outing a kinky mother from Nebraska with photos. Rather, it’s about empowering sex-workers right to control their images, Holloway seems most bent on protecting. You know, the porn stars at the booths hawking videos and such. Ask First becomes a cause to allow sex-workers to discriminate about who, and who can’t, take their pictures in public spaces. Does the photographer who gives a ten-dollar bill get consent? Can consent be withheld because the photographer is too old and fat…of not the right ethnicity…gender?
For those who say Folsom has gone mainstream, lost its edge to the lookiloos and Muggles: When someone can still get fired because of a picture taken at the fair, then Folsom still is radical, counter-culture, shocking event. We’re still struggling for acceptance of our flavor of diversity in this country. To attend Folsom Street Fair is a political act. There is no place for a sex-positive policy that restricts our freedoms and empowers shame, not pride.
I applaud Holloway’s efforts to address unwanted touching through her Ask First campaign. It is policy based on legally sound principals around harassment and sexual assault. Enforce the laws. Yet just because I point my camera at you doesn’t mean I’ve harassed you or sexually attacked you…or caused you to be standing in a bread line wearing your G-string. What I’m doing is my job as a photojournalist.
Though my camera can “shoot,” it is not a metaphor for a “gun” nor a “penis.”
If you don’t like cameras or fear pictures from Folsom could ruin your life, then your “safe space” is in your home, a private play party, or becoming Anonymous in the 21st century.
But don’t demonize the recording tool I use to legally show the public the lifeblood of Folsom Street Fair.