News flash: strippers smoke semi-nude!

Angela HickmanWhen he published pictures of workers, dressed in the uniform of their trade, taking time out between shifts, the Torontoist news site’s editor found himself at the centre of a storm. The question: where’s the wall between private time and public space? Angela Hickman reports.

Do women on a rooftop in downtown Toronto have a reasonable expectation
of privacy? Does that expectation change if they’re in their underwear,
on the roof of a strip club where they work?

These are questions Torontoist editor
in chief David Topping has been asking himself since the website
published an article about Zanzibar, a popular Yonge Street strip club,
accompanied by photos of strippers taking rooftop smoke and social
breaks in various states of undress. Many of the photographed women were
wearing revealing lingerie and one of the photos depicted a woman bent
over and wearing a thong. Nearly all the women’s faces were clearly
Winnipeg Sun screen shot
A screen shot of the Winnipeg Sun story, with photo slideshow

The photos were taken by Brian Cameron, digital initiatives librarian at Ryerson University, from his office window. The story and photos were published on Nov. 24 under the headline “Meanwhile, up on Zanzibar’s roof…

The backlash started almost immediately.

Topping removed all but one of the 10 original photos and appended a lengthy editor’s note explaining why the changes had been made and where Torontoist had erred.

“Out of respect for those women and their privacy, then—privacy that they deserve, and that we did not for a moment intend to violate, but that we are very sorry if we have—we have removed all but one of Cameron’s photos from the article above,” Topping  wrote.

He says Cameron’s work came to his attention in the summer, when they were posted to the site’s Flickr pool, which currently runs at more than 117,000 photos.

Cameron did not respond to an interview request, but on his blog – in an entry titled “The Zanzibar Photos” – he wrote that he posted some of the photos on the Flickr site and Torontoist then asked to see more. He wrote that he asked for the photos to be removed after seeing the Torontoist story, and that he is “stunned and deeply embarrassed” by the reaction to the photos.

 “Posting these images to Flickr in the first place was not an easy decision, but I truly believed that the roof of a building in downtown Toronto is not private,” Cameron wrote. “These people were in public, in full view of anyone who has a window facing that direction. I also strongly felt that the images were artistic and definitely not voyeuristic.

“Once the images were posted on Flickr and the positive feedback came in, I suppose I became complacent, and felt that anyone who wanted to see the photos probably already had,” Cameron wrote. “In this era where people search for themselves on Google, I expected that the Zanzibar already knew that the photos existed.”

Editor Topping, too, saw nothing wrong with the photos at first. “When I first saw them, I just thought that they were really interesting, unexpected portraits,” he says. “Certainly there was not any sort of sexual aspect to it. And there wasn’t really anything at the time that I was thinking about in terms of privacy because I had thought – and this was a sort of mistaken thought I had throughout – I thought that the women who were pictured in the photos knew that they could be seen, which was sort of a defining mistake of this whole thing for me.”

Topping says he and his staff briefly discussed doing a story about Zanzibar then, but for one reason or another, it didn’t happen until late November.

“Torontoist is one of those things where sometimes stories that we have ideas for just don’t get picked up for a while. And then for some reason a writer is looking through our story list, which I compile every week, and something strikes them for whatever reason,” Topping says.

One week after publication, the Zanzibar post on Torontoist has 171 comments, some of which defend the article and the photos, but many of which say something along the lines of “Ummmm… Ewwwww… Creepy. Don’t you need to get permission from these people to publish their photos publicly? Just curious,” which was posted by “torontothegreat.”

Legally, the answer to torontothegreat’s question is apparently not, in Ontario at least. Under Quebec law, privacy rules are more strict about publishing photos of individuals. Ethically, whether or not Torontoist should have asked permission is another matter entirely.

If he could do it over, Topping said, he would have paid more attention to the perspective of the women pictured.

“I think that we should have heard from the women in it, the women who we pictured and also the women who worked at Zanzibar,” he says. “We spoke to people who work at Zanzibar but we didn’t actually speak to any of the women who are up on the roof…. If I had to do it all over again, we would speak to the women and if they had said ‘We don’t want our photos used,’ we would not have published the photos. Even if their faces weren’t visible – but they sort of were – we just wouldn’t have published those photos.”

Once the story, about Zanzibar’s history and the changing face of Yonge Street, was published it didn’t take long for other media outlets to write about, and republish the photos. Both the Toronto Sun and the Toronto Star ran stories about the photos, and the Sun republished all 10 photos online. The photos have since been removed from Flickr and from the Sun‘s site, but at time of writing can still be seen on the national Sun chain’s Canoe site, with the women’s faces blurred out.

In another Sun article, a bartender at Zanzibar describes two of the women as leaving work in tears. Reporter Jenny Yuen also spoke with one of the women pictured.

“I was really upset because I didn’t expect to have happen, to be taken pictures of while wearing what I was wearing,” Yuen quotes the woman as saying. “I don’t want someone to recognize me and tell my parents and friends. I didn’t want to be all over the papers and on the Internet.”

When Topping read that, he says, he felt “absolutely horrible.” He says: “The defence I used initially after the post was published, was … ‘Was there an expectation of privacy that the women had?’ And, if there was an expectation of privacy, as there would be if you were inside your home or something like that, then those photos would be a violation of privacy.”

His initial answer, he says, was that the women could not have considered the downtown rooftop a private place. “For me, the privacy of the women pictured was not enough of a concern,” he says.

“That was something that I should have kept in mind and thought about much more before we published, and I didn’t, and that was a mistake.

“Honestly, I’m just sorry,” Topping says. “I think some people didn’t get that from the editor’s note, that there was sort of a genuine apology being made, but if I could do it differently from the beginning, I would.”

Angela Hickman is completing her masters of journalism at Ryerson University. When she isn’t TAing Journalism Law and Ethics for undergrads, she writes about literature at Books Under Skin.