Lonely Planet Writer

Other people's vacation photos

rosetta_stone_crowdYour photos of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum didn't turn out as you had hoped: they're mostly pictures of the backs of other people's heads as they crowded to get a glimpse of the famous artifact. The romantic photo of you and your fiancée in front of the Eiffel Tower contains not only the tower but nine other couples doing roughly the same thing, two chatting policemen, and a mime on a smoke break.

If you're an avid traveller, not only do you undoubtedly have photos like these with potentially unwelcome interlopers, but you've almost certainly interloped yourself, becoming one of the many unwitting extras that populate the vacation photos of travellers around the world. Thorn Tree user emmanuella posed an intriguing question on this topic on a recent thread: Do you think there might be a way to trace yourself in other people's photos?

We've all done it. Last week I accidentally ruined a stranger's photo twice in a row. A photographer was lining up a shot of a long hallway at Fort Point in San Francisco's Presidio, and I happened to step into the hallway just as the camera flashed. I needed to walk back through the hallway to exit but didn't want to ruin his second attempt, so I waited a moment and then peeked around the corner to see if he was gone — just in time to have my head in his photograph once again.

crushing_touristsMost of the time, however, you have no idea that your picture is being taken. You could be a member of a large tour group in Moscow's Red Square and have your photo taken by dozens of strangers. You might be reading the newspaper at an outdoor café in Segovia while tourists take snapshots of the architecture. Or, if you're very unlucky, you could be touring a temple in Taiwan when you're suddenly crushed from a distance by a pair of large fingers wielded by an especially malicious photographer. If you were so inclined, how could you ever find these photos?

This is a challenging problem, but perhaps it's not insurmountable. One suggestion in the thread was to search for pictures of events you attended in the past. You could always try a reverse approach like one user who posted a picture of a stranger and asked is this you in Jufureh in mid-February 2004? An enterprising Flickr user created a group called Other People's Vacation Photos but, while it's an amusing diversion, it hasn't brought about a single identification so far.

Given the rapid evolution of social networking tools and photo sharing with tagging, georeferencing, and face recognition, perhaps we're converging on a solution to this problem already. Facebook and other platforms support tagged photos, so you can find pictures of friends and family in photo albums uploaded by people you barely know or often don't know at all. Apple's iPhoto and Google's Picasa can use face recognition to populate a set of photos with tags, but this technology is not especially precise and is as yet only applied to small personal photo sets, not, for example, the entire Picasa collection. Will we soon be able to find ourselves in the photographs of complete strangers?

[Photos: Rosetta Stone crowd, by miche11e; Crushing poor, unsuspecting tourists - by eraine]