Sneaking Pictures of Strangers on the Subway: Public Service or Dick Move?

Sneaking pictures of people on the subway: public service or dick move?
Photo via Daily Intel

In the business of blogging about New York on a day-to-day basis, photos and videos of insane shit that happens on the subway are a no-fail, evergreen, universally beloved classic of the genre. Just off the top of my head, a few recent highlights (lowlights?) include the man eating an entire wheel of brie, the rat waking up a homeless man, that god-awful picture of a drunk guy who’d soiled himself (not embedding a link for that one), the above butt-on-pole incident, Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train, and an entire “subway etiquette” tag on Gothamist dedicated to user-submitted photos of commute infractions. They’re inevitably funny, and a solid way both to commiserate about the gross, uncomfortable indignities of city life and to spread the gospel of appropriate train etiquette. But they also might be a completely awful way to treat the human beings with whom we’ve tacitly agreed to share this city?

It’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while now, after friends got into an argument over whether or not it’s cruel to post screenshots of strangers’ Tinder profiles to Instagram (I say yes), and when a few months prior, I found myself mid-subway-snapchat of a strange, paunchy man taking determined, hilariously furtive swigs of his Diet Pepsi (I’ve never seen anything like it before or since) on the F train. Halfway through taking the video, it occurred to me I’d be subjecting a total stranger to ridicule for no reason, and I put my phone away, feeling like a monster. The dude went on his way, and the incident was lost to time.

There now seems to be an actual creep shot backlash, thanks to women who’ve had their pictures posted on a UK blog called Women Who Eat on Tubes (it’s just what it sounds like), and are planning an “Eat-In” protest on public transportation as a means of pushing back. Granted, it’s a fairly specific case—shaming women for eating publicly is a real loaded and invasive thing to do, and way too close for comfort to its pervy cousin, the upskirt photo—largely because it also involves posting stalker-friendly time and location details about its subjects’ commutes. But it does start to make you wonder why in the hell this kind of thing became standard practice to begin with.

In some cases, the argument could be made that it’s for the greater good. People should know that it’s unacceptable to eat fragrant food in enclosed spaces or to jam their asses against subway poles (or to lean on them at all, ugh), for example, and in the case of Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train, it generally reads as a lighthearted, effective way of calling out one particular facet gender privilege (that is, the assumption that your balls deserve more subway real estate than another living human). But even there, at least half the pictures just look like anonymous guys who are tired at the end of the workday and spreading out on train cars that don’t seem to be at all crowded. It’s almost more sad than vindicating.

For me, the issue was neatly (and horribly) summarized by Women Who Eat on Tubes’ founder Tony Burke, who defended the site as anthropological, saying, “At its truest form, it should cherish its subjects in the way a wildlife photographer cherishes a kingfisher in a river.” Sort of seems like a whole lot of the awful things that happen in this world could be avoided by remembering that even the worst idiots you encounter are people, not kingfishers who deserve to have their lives upended by one off moment, doesn’t it? But then, if you get on a crowded train and try to hog the space by the doors? You’re on your own. You deserve whatever’s coming to you.

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.