Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A Facebook page sparks controversy over privacy rights in public spaces.
Who knew the sight of women eating could cause so much controversy? This week the London-based media has been debating a Facebook group showing just that. With over 21,000 members, the Women Who Eat on Tubes group features candid shots of women using a trip on London's subway system to catch up with a meal. As the group grew, comments on its pages became more overt in their latent misogyny, as if there was something inherently grotesque in a woman having an appetite and being in need of some food. To make the intrusions greater, the photos' captions also identified when and on which tube line they were taken, and what the woman was eating, as this journalist who featured on the site learned.
Of course, the group is just one of various candid photo sites currently doing the rounds. It's not entirely dissimilar to the romanticized images of young women of Buenos Aires Chicas Bondi or its male London equivalent, the tumblr and Twitter account Tubecrush. It also has some kinship with public behavior shaming sites like Singapore's STOMP – though that wouldn't exonerate it from charges of creepy intrusion – even though eating on London’s Tube is neither uncommon nor against any particular rule.
The group has still seriously irked London women (and not just women) who are planning an "eat-in" protest on London’s Circle Line Monday to defend women's right to eat in public without self-consciousness. It's this focus on one gender alone that puts the group in a class of its own – this isn't "People Eating on the Tube." The group has been seen as yet another way to ratchet up quotidian pressure on women to feel guilty and furtive about the most basic of needs. What next, one might wonder? How about Women Breathing on the Tube, showing transit candids of females greedily hogging more than their fair share of oxygen?
It hasn't helped defenders of the site that its creator has turned out to be an utter tool. Photographer Tony Burke has compared his role in helping to turn the world into an ugly smartphone panopticon to wildlife photography: "At its truest form," he told the Telegraph "it should cherish its subjects in the way a wildlife photographer cherishes a kingfisher in a river." Funnily enough, this kind of attitude seems to be prevalent in the group itself. Despite the odd unfiltered snarl about "fat pigs," most comments restrict themselves mildly to smug, faux-aesthetic commentary, for example comparing the site of a woman eating a pasty to a Greek statue.
This silliness aside, the fuss still opens up some questions about the enforcement of privacy. Do people have the right to prevent their photograph being taken in public? Some countries are coming to the conclusion that they do. Since March 15, Hungary has required photographers to ask permission before photographing anyone likely to be identifiable in the final shot. While this might sound like a charter for plain courtesy, the law's critics have noted how it could create a potential avalanche of petty lawsuits. More crucially, it will make impossible to photograph police officers and thus provide documentary evidence in cases where the abuse their powers.
Events within the U.S. itself show the dangers of being overzealous in protecting this sort of privacy. In Washington, metro staff members have been known to throw their weight around with photographers, even though they have no legal right to do so. Do we want to automatically cast suspicion on people who photograph the world around them? Most likely not. Hiccups like Women Eating on The Tube still show that we’re still playing catch up, yet to agree on where the acceptable limits of privacy in public spaces lie.