Nov. 19 2013 07:16 PM

Photographic series on Instagram raises questions of privacy in public spaces

One of Quiet Observer’s photos

Golden Hill's Influx Café is an apt location for an impromptu photo shoot. The slick, midcentury-modern aesthetic, the black-and-red color scheme and the big windows letting in natural light are perfect for the hip patrons seated and staring into their MacBooks.

A local photographer is quietly documenting scenes at Influx and a few other neighborhood locales and posting them to his Instagram feed, where his more than 1,000 followers respond favorably to each portrait. He takes photos of his subjects without their knowledge, which isn't a new practice, either in the long history of traditional street and documentary photography or the relatively recent trend of online photo sharing (common hashtags like #creepshot and #hiddencamera indicate a clandestine shot).

The shutterbug, who would only go by his Quiet Observer pseudonym due to the nature of his anonymous art project, says he's tried to build an audience outside San Diego.

"The idea was always to capture a time and place," he explains in an email. "I figured these sorts of photos would be of more interest, and be better received, locally a few years down the road—more as a look back at a time that is now gone."

Some of the photos' subjects have recently discovered the Instagram feed, though, and not everyone views it as a harmless art project.

One Influx regular who prefers not to be named because she doesn't want to be identified in the photos, said she caught Quiet Observer taking her photo, and it made her extremely uncomfortable.

"The close-up photos he posts make me cringe," she says. The subjects "kind of seem like victims of his creepy hobby."

Others, like Roy Purdy, a regular who's shown up in the feed, says he doesn't think the photos are intrusive. With the ubiquity of photo-capable smartphones, he says, there's always a chance of being photographed in public.

"It's not like he's trying to make any money off of this," Purdy says. "It's just a guy on Instagram... And they're actually really nice shots of people."

Quiet Observer says his intention is not to make waves, but he thinks the proliferation of camera phones and Instagrammers purposefully taking compromising, secret photos is leading to a backlash against the work he and other street photographers try to do in a more respectful way.

The project is legal, and even Jason Twilla, one of Influx's owners, says that while he doesn't want any of his patrons to feel uncomfortable, he thinks the photos serve as interesting time capsules.

"I like the pictures," Twilla said. "And part of the allure here—we're kind of a fish bowl. Influx is a place you want to be seen."

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