Ollie O’Neill was minding her own business in London’s Soho last Monday evening when she was alerted to a man who had secretly been taking photos of her legs. The 24-year-old civil servant and poet tweeted that he had taken “at least 20” photos and that she’d been left “really shaken up” by the encounter.
“Why are you taking photos of my legs? I want to know,” O’Neill asks in a distressing video of their confrontation, which has been retweeted almost 9,000 times. “Don’t f***ing take photos of me in public you f***ing weirdo.” To which the grey-haired man says that he’s “a professor at the university in Oslo” who is “looking for fashion”.
I’m really shaken up. A lovely woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I knew this man, and informed me he had been taking photos of my legs. He had at least 20. I only saw him delete one. This was 17:30, HSBC in Chinatown. @metpoliceuk is there anything that can be done? pic.twitter.com/rulZ32e0Mo— Ollie (@olliecmoneill) 30 September 2019
“I’m wearing tights. What fashion? Delete the f***ing photo,” O’Neill retaliates. The man refuses, adding, perhaps most gallingly of all, “You should be proud!” He is then shown deleting some of the photos while she tells him: “I dread to think of all the other women you have taken a f***ing photo of.” Again, he tries to legitimise his actions by claiming to be a professor. O’Neill hits back: “You are on your own f***ing phone taking photos of women’s legs. That is not professional photography.”
O’Neill urged people to retweet the video “so people know his face. I’m sick and fucking tired of existing this way.” (He has since been identified on Twitter as Svein Sundbø, a former member of staff at a library in Oslo, who, O’Neill says, “has been behaving this way since at least 2011” – and not a university professor investigating “fashion”.)
In her original tweet she also called on the Metropolitan Police for help – because it’s not immediately obvious what the law says on non-invasive photography in public places. Where do you stand if it happens to you?
In most cases it’s not an offence to take photos of people in public or on public transport without their consent, but it might be illegal in some cases depending on the circumstances. “There are relatively few legal restrictions in terms of filming or taking photographs in a public place,” explains Ryan Whelan, the lawyer behind Gina Martin’s successful upskirting campaign. “The relevant exceptions are when that photography is indecent or amounts to harassment or stalking. Continuing to take someone’s photograph after having been asked to stop may constitute harassment.”
Continuing to take someone’s photograph after having been asked to stop may constitute harassment.Ryan Whelan, lawyer
Upskirting – taking covert photos beneath someone’s clothes without their permission, often performed in crowded public places – became a crime carrying a two-year maximum prison sentence in April under the Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 following Martin’s tireless campaign.
It effectively comes down to privacy. If the photo isn’t taken from beneath someone’s clothes but in a place where they should have a reasonable expectation of privacy (like a toilet or a changing room), it could also be a crime under the new Voyeurism Act. Moreover, if the photography is proven to have caused harassment, alarm or distress, the Crown Prosecution Service could also look to pursue a public order charge. But taking photos of strangers from a distance – as in O’Neill’s case – in public places isn’t a crime.
Given the prominence of unsolicited photography and the covert filming of women in public places in contemporary internet culture, it’s clear that many people – typically men – feel entitled to violate women’s privacy for their own pleasure. When the now-defunct Facebook group “Women Who Eat on Tubes” – which compiled photos of easily identifiable women, yes, eating on the Tube – went viral in 2014, it sparked a backlash against voyeurism and stranger-shaming. Journalist Sophie Wilkinson said she was deterred from doing it forever after the humiliation of herself being papped while eating pasta salad and subsequently trolled on the group.
But online stranger-shaming is still happening – and it’s often women at the receiving end. Social media accounts chronicling sightings of fashion trends in the wild, like @hot4thespot (featuring that Zara dress) and @leopardmidiskirt – both compilations of unsolicited photos of women who just so happen to be sporting the high street trend du jour – can go viral virtually overnight. Meanwhile at the sleazier, more dangerous end of the spectrum, it emerged this week that pick-up artists have been secretly filming women on the street while they harassed them, then uploading the footage to YouTube.
If your photo is posted online without your consent and the content isn’t intimate or obscene (unlike cases of revenge porn, for example), or intended to cause you distress, there’s not much the police can do. You’ll have to contact the site administrator or report it to the social media platform to have it removed (as Wilkinson did with her pasta photo).
The lack of legal protection for victims of unsolicited photos in public places may explain why it’s so common for women to be violated in this way.
Cathy Read, 26, a creative assistant in London, was on the Piccadilly Line two years ago when it happened to her. She was wearing a “short playsuit” while travelling alone on a 35-degree summer’s day when she spotted her own legs on the phone screen of the man sitting opposite in the reflection of his glasses. She confronted him and was struck by the lack of support from fellow passengers.
“He got more and more angry, saying he could do what he liked,” Read remembers. “I was visibly shaking and moved to the end of the carriage while he continued to leer and shout obscenities at me.” She got off at the next station. “No one said anything or asked if I was okay.”
I noticed he was either taking photos of me or filming. It felt like a serious invasion of my privacy but when I confronted him he just laughed and continued.lucy broad,24
Lucy Broad, 24, a legal professional from Suffolk, had a similar experience with a man on a London Tube in January while chatting to her friend sitting opposite her. “I noticed he was either taking photos of me or filming. It felt like a serious invasion of my privacy.” She confronted him “because he was doing it so obviously and didn’t seem to care, which made me uncomfortable” – but he “just laughed and continued”.
According to a 2017 survey, public transport is the most likely place for people to be photographed without their consent: 39% of those who admitted sharing photos of strangers online said they’d taken the photos on public transport, while 26% had taken them on the street and 20% in a restaurant or bar.
Sophie Newton, 27, a model and actress from southwest England, was on a flight alone seven years ago when three men took photos of her while laughing from the row in front. “I saw their phone screen in the cracks between the seats and they kept lifting the phone above their seats to capture more pictures. It was brazenly obvious.”
Newton didn’t challenge them because she “didn’t want to cause a scene” and add to her embarrassment. “I sat there stunned, red-faced and on the verge of tears. I felt violated and angry that they felt they had the right to do it.” Since then, she says she is “wary of large groups of men” when she’s alone. “It makes me feel insecure and quite worried.”
Fiona*, 27, a charity worker in London, has had photos taken of her in public by strangers three times: twice on public transport and most recently during an exercise class “in a fairly exposed [and] public” area of her gym. “I could see a guy, who wasn’t taking the class, continually looking over,” she recalls. Feeling uncomfortable, but because it was a public gym and she was in the middle of an intensive workout, Fiona tried to ignore it.
“Then he came closer, took a picture of me when I was on all fours and left. I didn’t stop or complain – my first thought was that it would be difficult to prove and I’d be embarrassed if I’d made a mistake. But on reflection, I’m absolutely certain that that’s what happened.” She didn’t report it and hasn’t been back to that gym since.
Several of the women quoted here were adamant that society and the law are only just beginning to understand the impact of privacy invasions and of the infringement on a person’s bodily autonomy, citing the momentum of the upskirting campaign in the last two years. Fears of victim blaming and accusations that they were “asking for it” abound.
“Women are put off from saying anything for fear of being turned away,” says Broad, explaining why she didn’t report her incident on the Tube. “I once reported a man who, on an otherwise empty bus, was rubbing his crotch while staring at me and making gestures. I was told nothing could be done.” Then there’s the difficulty of proving a potential perpetrator’s actions and the risk of embarrassment if they’re wrong.
For its part, the British Transport Police says that while photographing someone on the Tube or other public transport systems isn’t illegal, if it’s persistent and you feel harassed, it could be a criminal offence. The force urges anyone affected to text its non-emergency number on 61016.
“The priority is to ensure you are safe. If there is any threat to your safety then move away, call the police, alert other members of the public,” says Whelan, suggesting that confronting the perpetrator isn’t always advisable.
“In an age when deepfakes are so prevalent and images on the internet last forever, it’s really scary to have your photo taken by a stranger,” says Broad, summing up the attitude of many victims. “There should be real repercussions.”
*Surname has been withheld to protect the interviewee’s identity
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