Another casualty for free speech? Women eating on the Tube

Film-maker Tony Burke has risen to attention because of a Facebook group he created in which people post sneaky photos of women eating on London’s Tube. He defends his creation in the name of "reportage" and "art". But how well does this argument stack up? And do only women eat on the Tube? (It doesn't, and they don't).

Film-maker Tony Burke has risen to attention recently because of a Facebook group (now a Tumblr blog here) he created in which people post sneaky photos of women eating on London’s Tube. The group has attracted a large number of followers and incited a backlash by feminists who claim that the group is misogynistic and its founder irresponsible, accusing Burke of contributing to a culture that shames women’s bodies.

In his defence (let’s call it that for now), Burke has used a number of arguments that are, at best, specious. In the process, he has managed to trample all over the reportage genre and furthered the misguided notion that anything can be justified as art. In this interview with the BBC, we hear Burke appeal to “reportage” and “art” as if these ideas are self-evidencing. Later, he claims the project is a non-issue because the group was in fact taken down by Facebook. Lastly, he excuses himself from any responsibility as it was never his intention for the group to go viral.

It would take me several pages to shepherd readers across the gaping holes in his argument, so I’ve decided to focus only on the dubious role “reportage” plays in his defence. I’ve done this because I believe Burke, poor bugger, is doing himself a great disservice by not taking a few key concepts on board. Meanwhile, women are rounding their thighs and filling their gullets, while he flounders about for tools that just aren’t in his shed (so this one’s for you Tony).

“It’s reportage”.

Next to labeling his project "art", let’s call this Burke’s most persuasive line of argument. This justification has currency because reportage is supposed to be in the general interest. How can anyone condemn the guy that puts his iPhone on the line — the guy that uses his stealth, his nous, his creativity, to bring to light stories that would otherwise go unnoticed, possibly screwing over future generations because of public ignorance? Criticising Burke for his “reportage” is meant to make that little liberal democrat in you feel dirty. Who will keep society in check if we dismember the fourth estate? Who will give bigots their freedom of speech?

Before we get too carried away with Tony’s pivotal role, some qualifications are in order. Like art, there’s good reportage, and bad reportage. There’s also stuff which isn’t reportage at all.

As Burke doesn’t do a very convincing job, the onus is on us to prove whether women eating on the Tube is actually in the general interest and secondly, whether it justifies documenting the issue surreptitiously. The “insight” Burke seems to be sharing with us is that women have ruefully forgotten that the Tube is a public space. His evidence? They treat it like their dining room (that’s a private space remember). Indignation to his project only confirms his point that concern over privacy has reached such heights that we’ve forgotten where the real boundaries are.

I agree that there’s something salient in the privacy-public debate. Google Glass and CCTV in London raise questions about the future of our privacy. But to hold up eating on public transport as evidence of blurred boundaries between public and private domains is such a mundane insight that I hesitate to say anyone outside of Burke’s Facebook circle would consider it reportage. If I’m wrong, I shed a tear for civilisation. While I don’t doubt that Burke’s project has tabloid value, this is a far stretch from labeling it reportage — an irreproachable genre in his eyes.

But maybe there is another angle to his “observational study”: people’s reaction to being caught in the act. Here lies proof of the issue's significance! “We’re all wildlife” Tony says, rebutting criticism that he’s objectifying female commuters. Is he guilty of a bit of post-hoc reasoning though? Burke himself claimed that the project was only ever meant for a small audience of “like minded” people. How could he anticipate such a backlash? And how could this backlash constitute the original idea?? Burkkkkke you're being inconsistent.

Without a strong reason (artistic or newsworthy) to photograph his subjects the way he does, and to provide a forum for others do to the same, it follows that Burke should inform his subjects of exactly what he’s subjecting them too. Instead, he asserts his mysterious right as a Reportage Photographer. But the problem is, Burke isn't exactly tip toeing around authorities in Pyongyang. To put it another way, would seeking consent from his subjects compromise Burke’s ability to tell the story? Probably. But did the story have any integrity in the first place? No.

It’s noteworthy that he never actually engages with the main sentiment of those that opposed to his group. Did anyone tell him that women are angry, not because they were “caught in the act” but because they were framed as the only ones “caught in the act”? Nevertheless, if a culture of misogyny has informed the shape of his Facebook group, its hardly the job of an artist or a reporter, let alone one man with a ballooning social media platform, to address it — that would be biting off more than he could chew, right?

But let’s throw the guy a bone. Even if Burke’s project was reportage or better “wildlife photography”, even if he’d grown up confusing The Telegraph with independent journalism, he’s still totally fucked up his vocation. His “observation” -- that only women eat on the Tube — seems kind of strange. Strange enough to pique the curiosity of even the most jaded reporter (or is he a scientist now?), and maybe, just maybe, prompt further investigation. Unless of course, its got something to do with — what’s that thing called again? — oh yeah, confirmation bias.

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