Clubbing Twitter was sent into uproar in December when a punter posted a video of a fellow clubber, dancing shirtless in hot pants, at fabric nightclub in London. “Yo I’ll never be going [to] fabric again after seeing this,” the video was captioned. A string of abusive and homophobic comments followed, as well as an outpouring of support criticising the author, many quoting the club’s no-photos policy.
The person in that video was Michael Peacock: a 64-year-old retired railway engineer and regular clubber, who spends his days volunteering as a gardener in Lewisham. “When I found the tweets and the support he [the author] was getting, my heart sank,” Peacock says. He goes to fabric three or four times a month. For him, the dance floor has always been a safe place for him to express himself and his sexuality. “I get filmed all the time when clubbing,” he says of his Paris Is Burning-inspired dancing style. “I was never really bothered, but this incident has changed everything. I wonder how many times people have videoed me thinking, ‘Let’s film this freak’.”
Now that everyone has a camera phone and a social media presence, the filming of strangers has become unnervingly widespread – particularly in nightlife environments. It’s not uncommon to see people taking footage of strangers in clubs or raves, posting the clips on social media for clout and likes, and for the subject of that footage to unknowingly end up on screens around the world before they’ve even arrived home.
At its best, non-consensual filming is an invasion of privacy. At its worst – and especially if it shames someone who doesn’t fit the stereotypically white, cis, heterosexual male gaze – it can provoke hate speech. Post that footage online, and it will almost inevitably open up a can of worms, inviting others to voice their opinions about a person who never asked for it, potentially inciting ableism, sexism, racism, classism, ageism, transphobia and/or homophobia.
It’s also a real vibe-killer. A survey by Eventbrite in 2019 found 70 percent of respondents find phone use at events irritating, while 69 percent agreed some action should be taken to minimise it. Yet it happens all the time – just last week, a punter posted a video on TikTok at an Audiowhore event in London, captioned: “Found someone grandad at the Boxing Day rave buzzing of [sic] a 2cb”. The clip has now been viewed more than 156,000 times. The subject of the video turned out to be a long-time rave legend, known as Birdman.
Club culture is supposedly grounded in self-expression and escapism, but the reality of going out is often poles apart. That’s why non-consensual filming usually happens to people who look a bit different to your standard Essex lad clubber. John Junior, 34, is a mental health campaigner with physical and mental disabilities, who brings a yellow toy duck with them everywhere to raise awareness.
“I was sitting down at the bar at Impossible nightclub in Manchester, when I caught a group videoing me,” Junior says. “It happens a lot – and it’s fine if they ask. But if someone sits there and takes sneaky videos, then I see it online, it feels horrible. I’ve had things go online and been called all sorts: retard, reject, disabled, mental. I’ve had to have them taken down.”
Even if the behaviour is not explicitly coupled with abusive language, at the end of the day, it’s just creepy. Catherine Entwistle, a 26-year-old researcher, caught a man filming her group of friends while at a late-night bar in Deptford. “We were at the front dancing by the DJ, then I noticed this guy who had his phone out, filming us,” Entwistle says. “He wasn’t even attempting to make it subtle.”
Despite confronting the man and asking him to delete the footage on several occasions, he continued to film the group four or five times over the course of 40 minutes. “It was really uncomfortable,” Entwistle says. “I just hate the thought that someone would have footage of me on their phone, even if it’s not embarrassing or incriminating.”
Bryony Beynon, founder of Good Night Out campaign, says that she sees non-consensual filming by male guests happening “all the time” at the queer parties she works with, especially those run by and for people of colour. “In our training and feedback from venues, some of the most common behaviours in clubs and bars stem from usually, but not exclusively, men having this openly voyeuristic attitude to the place they are in,” Beynon says. “Respect must be earned if you’re a visitor to a community space.”
Fabric responded directly to the tweet of Peacock and gave the author, @Doddsyy97, a lifetime ban, for violating the club’s no-photo policy. Peacock says he is “very happy” with the venue’s response, but the author has since posted another video shaming people dancing in a different nightclub – with a mass of support. (VICE has reached out to him for comment.)
It goes to show that no-photos policies don’t mean anything unless they are respected. According to fabric co-founder Cameron Leslie, the venue’s no-photo policy was actually introduced when the venue opened in 1999 to ban camera crews, and was reinstated in 2021 when the venue reopened after COVID restrictions. Taking a cue from German techno clubs, fabric places a sticker over your phone lenses on entry to remind you of the rule. In light of the incident, the venue has also confirmed that from 2023 they’ll have dedicated members of staff making sure the policy is observed as much as possible. If people get caught breaking the rule more than once, they’ll be asked to leave the premises.
The venue is hoping it will eventually get to the point where the policy is self-policed. “There is a significant number of people who don’t understand why they can’t use their phone – it’s just such a part of daily life for them,” Leslie says.
The UK is still playing catch-up to other clubbing capitals, notably Berlin, where there’s more of a widespread understanding about why it’s not okay to film in clubs (there’s a reason why we rarely see any photos from inside a certain Berlin gay club). Still, it feels like a shift could be starting to happen. It’s not just fabric that’s catching on to the no-photos rule: Phonox in Brixton asks clubbers to “avoid using phones or cameras to take photos”, and Mint Warehouse in Leeds requests clubbers to have their flash off on the dancefloor, at the least.
Meanwhile, FOLD nightclub in Canning Town, London, has enforced a strict no-camera policy since they opened in 2018. “We put on mainly queer events, so it’s important to keep everyone’s privacy on a level they want it to be,” says co-founder Lasha Jorjoliani.
FOLD has a two-strikes and you’re out rule, and since their no-photo policy extends to professional photographers and videographers, you’ll be lucky if you see any footage from inside the venue at all. To really enforce an effective camera ban, both Jorjoliani and Peacock believe there can’t be one rule for clubbers and another for professionals: The dance floor has to be kept completely sacred. But if this was taken up by a larger number of UK venues, it would inevitably come at a cost.
Most notably, the dance music PR machine of clubs, promoters, and DJs, relying on videos and photos of laser-tinged crowds, would be somewhat destroyed (for better or worse). And there’s a danger that pivotal moments in cultural history would go unrecorded. Dave Swindells was a photographer for the likes of i-D and Time Out, documenting London club culture from the 1980s acid house scene up until the 2010s. His photos are now widely featured in books and exhibitions.
“It was about trying to capture moments, and celebrating nightlife,” Swindells says. “But I understand it’s a grey area. Intention is important.” Similarly, Instagram accounts like Magoozine and Tough Luck have amassed large, loyal followings, saluting the people and fashion of British club culture today in all of its joy, creativity, and rebelliousness.
Club culture deserves to be celebrated. But for the sake of protecting the people who are part of that culture, perhaps it needs to be recorded in a more respectful way. The issue with non-consensual filming is a lot more than one video at fabric: It speaks volumes about how misinformed the public is about what constitutes an unacceptable – even aggressive – breach of privacy.
“We love to imagine that our [dance] culture is outside of violence, but that’s just a fantasy,” says Marea Stamper, known by her DJ alias The Blessed Madonna, who has spoken out in support of Peacock. “People have been getting their asses beat for being gay from the beginning of dance music. Using the camera as a gaze to mock people in events is almost never an unloaded proposition.”
Now Peacock is calling for widespread action in club land. “There needs to be a seismic change,” he says. “I want all UK clubs and raves to follow the lead: No filming rules should be rolled out everywhere. I want something good to come out of this.”
No one wants more security or policing on the dance floor, but it’s likely it will have to be amped up until attitudes change. And it can start with us: Everyone can make a difference at a localised level. We can check our mates, help people to understand why non-consensual filming is simply not okay, and just try to live in the moment a bit more. So, for the sake of privacy and an all-round better vibe: just stop filming people at clubs and raves.