In the Blog

Too little, too late for the women of Zanzibar Tavern

December 1st, 2010     by Anastasia Szakowski     Comments

On November 24, Torontoist published “Meanwhile, Up on Zanzibar’s Roof,” a “history piece” by Edward Brown featuring 10 photos of female strippers taking their breaks on Zanzibar’s roof. (It is with reluctance that I link to this story, as I no longer want to drive traffic to Torontoist, but reading it may be necessary for context.) The faces of these women were visible and most of them were wearing lingerie.

My initial reaction to these photos was: Why do people care where these women take their breaks? Why are they considered a story and not Ryerson sunbathers or nudists at Hanlan’s Point? Ah, more fear of female bodies and stigmatizing of sex workers! It became much more serious when I considered how unlikely it was that these women thought they could be seen and had given consent to be photographed, and how publishing these photos would affect them. It may not be illegal to take or publish a photograph, but doing so can be unethical and incredibly damaging. Jordan Hale made an important point when she commented on the potential dangers of being outed as sex worker, something that Torontoist clearly never considered.

In response to the outrage regarding the photos, Torontoist editor David Topping argued that the story was about Zanzibar’s history and the accompanying photographs were appropriate (he later referred to them as “beautiful portraits”). Many of his responses centered around legality and “expectation of privacy,” which he did not believe the women on the roof had. According to Topping, if the women knew they could be seen, it was acceptable to publish pictures of them without their consent and the publication could not be considered “outing” them as sex workers.

I don’t buy any of those justifications, and here’s why: The only person Brown explicitly interviewed was Brian Cameron, who took the photos from his office in Ryerson University’s library. No voice was given to the women who work at Zanzibar. Brown did, however, speak with Zanzibar’s owner, who said that he thought the rooftop was private, a thought that Torontoist went on to imply was laughable:

To date, Zanzibar have never received a single complaint regarding the women’s rooftop lounging, they say. In fact, they are of the opinion that, considering the layout of the roof and the configuration of the surrounding buildings, it’s impossible to glimpse the rooftop at all. Newsflash, Zanzibar.

In other words: “Ha ha, Zanzibar. We can see you! So we’re going to teach you a lesson.” Clearly, Torontoist knew that there was likely an expectation of privacy and had no intention of respecting it.

It’s important to note that Torontoist asked Cameron for his photos rather than shooting them to accompany Brown’s story. According to Ryersonian, Cameron “wrote that his pictures, which he originally posted to his Flickr account, were used out of context and sensationalized on the website.” I think that taking the photos was creepy enough, but allowing Torontoist to publish them “out of context” is strange, no? The story seems as if it was written to justify the publishing of link-baity photos and not the other way around. (Note the “sex” tag assigned to the story.)

Topping later published an editor’s note at the bottom of the article, which stated:

While Zanzibar’s owner, Allen Cooper, mentioned to Torontoist that he didn’t think the roof was visible from nearby buildings, several other employees we’d interviewed for the article said otherwise. (“Who complained?” one male employee asked, half-jokingly, when it came up.) In short, we never thought that the women who were being photographed thought, themselves, that the roof—with buildings like Ryerson’s library overlooking it, and Yonge Street surrounding it—was private. But we don’t know for sure, we made a mistake… 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.

All great intentions aside, Torontoist does not seem to think that any privacy has been violated (note the reiteration of surrounding buildings and the “if we have.”) Furthermore, if Torontoist actually cared about privacy and believed that it’s deserved, why were “other employees” interviewed instead of the women?

What’s problematic about the publishing of these photos goes beyond violation of privacy. The photographing by Cameron and the assumptions made by Torontoist indicate an extreme lack of respect for sex workers, many of whom aren’t open about their occupations. As Stacey May Fowles wrote: “They [Torontoist and Topping] made the issue about ‘expectation of privacy’ and law when really it was an issue of carelessness and disrespect. At the end of the day, if someone can’t understand why exposing the identity of sex workers is problematic, they never will.”

In his take on the situation at The Walrus, Jeet Heer emphasized the importance of both privacy and respect for sex workers:

Given the exhibitionist nature of exotic dancing, it might be hard to believe that strippers could have privacy concerns. But these concerns make sense if we compare stripping to other jobs. The nature of modern work involves the creation of multiple identities; we are one person at our jobs, another person during our off hours. All work is a form of performance … a stripper can take off her clothes for ogling men and still not want her photo taken without her permission while she’s not working nor want such a photo to circulate on the internet.

Prevailing negative attitudes and stigmas about sex work makes it difficult for many sex workers to be open about what they do, so maintaining separate identities is crucial. This was not respected by Cameron or Torontoist. An interview conducted by the Toronto Star with Norma-Jean Anderson describes the effect that the photos have had on some of her coworkers:

“I was pretty mortified and I wasn’t even one of the ones in the photos,” said Anderson, who has worked at Zanzibar on and off for 20 years. “People will think we’re being hypocritical … but there’s a difference between what you do on (and off) the clock,” she said… … two of her co-workers quit their jobs and left in tears on Thursday morning, after the photos appeared online and in print. Another of her colleagues is a Ryerson student, she said. “How does she go to the library now?” Anderson asked.

Torontoist’s recognition of deserved privacy and their pulling the photos came far too late: an alarming 12 hours after the story was posted. Other news outlets and blogs had republished the photos, placing them in the eyes of who-knows-how-many people. As Anderson relates above, some women felt so exposed that they left their jobs.

Torontoist gave these women a conditional apology for maybe-invading their privacy. What they deserve is acknowledgment that the actions taken and assumptions made by Cameron and Torontoist were undeniably wrong.

Must-reads:

Dancers ‘distraught’ over secret pics,”by Jessica Galang

It’s not a fireable offence,” by Brad Whitehouse

“Zooming in on Zanzibar’s roof: Meanwhile, what do women who smoke on the roof of Zanzibar think?” by Brigitte Benoit

Photos of strippers on break stir up privacy debate,” by Carys Mills

Invasive Exposure: In Toronto, bird’s-eye photos of off-the-clock strippers raise questions of privacy,” by Jeet Heer

Peeping Torontoist: Should the local blog be posting pictures of strippers on smoke breaks?” by Kate Carraway

Tags: media savvy

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