So there’s this post over on Fans in a Flashbulb. It’s pretty great, and I’m not going to steal — I mean borrow — their images, so you should go take a look.
So the basic conceit of the post is that a Broadway theater in 1946 New York decided it would be super cool to have a mirror in their lobby! Except it wasn’t a mirror. The mirror was a LIE. Behind the mirror was a photographer, who would take pictures of people who were…adjusting their coats, refreshing their lipstick, maybe trying to get an eyelash out of their damn eye, whatever. The pictures are actually kind of cute. Humans doing human things! Isn’t it adorable? I’m kind of charmed, to be honest. But then I think about the fact that these people thought they were looking into a mirror, and the mirror was a goddamn lie, and maybe we got some cute expressions out of it but we also got what feels to me like a massive invasion of privacy.
I’m going to get personal for a second. In high school, ye olde realm of awful, I took math. I mean, everyone does; it’s one of those core requirements.
I was really bad at math. I was also frequently — who else remembers this about high school — incredibly under-rested. You can probably guess what happened.
Anyways, in junior year, a kid who sat next to me — let’s call him Bob (his name wasn’t Bob) — snapped a picture of me with his phone while I was dozing obliviously in math. I think he thought it was funny, and he and I were kinda-sorta friendly, in the way you are in high school, so he didn’t mean it maliciously. But he was showing it to his friends, and when I woke up he showed it to me. I think he expected me to laugh it off embarrassedly. He definitely did not expect me to get angry.
My anger at the time sprung more from my horror that I’d fallen asleep and there was photographic evidence, oh my god my academic reputation is RUINED than it did a sense of invasion of privacy, I think. I’m honestly not sure. Probably the privacy thing was squirming uncomfortably as my academic indignation roared, but this was before I’d become more or less acquainted with feminism and body autonomy, and I had no idea how to articulate that feeling of betrayal. So I followed Bob out of the classroom when the bell rang, and I didn’t leave him alone until he deleted the photo.
We were not quite as friendly after that.
Back to the trick mirror in a Broadway theater, fifty-some years before any of this happened. These pictures, charming as I’m sure they’re meant to be, strike me uncomfortably as invasive, even if the theater is a somewhat public space, even if its owner has the right to modify the lobby however they want. That doesn’t mean they have the right to document unguarded moments in such a permanent way — so that, fifty-some years later, we are still talking about them. (And, okay — so maybe I’m part of the problem here.) It reminds me uncomfortably of stuff like fake mirrors installed in women’s bathrooms, like my own mostly harmless experience. I wonder if the theater-goers ever found out about the pictures; how they felt about them. I don’t think they would have been pleased.