Monday, March 10, 2008

Karma or Photographic Revenge?

I was standing on the platform at my local train station when I noticed a camera lens pointed directly and menacingly at my head a mere three feet away. I felt violated and scared, as if a gun was pointed at me. Instinctively I turned away, offering the back of my head. Probably not the best tactic if it was in fact a gun. As I heard giggles from my attacker(s), I realized that I was packing as well. I pulled out my Xacti High Definition Digital Movie camera from the pouch at my side, flipped the screen open and the lens cap off and twirled around to find my attacker(s) gone. I ran about, searching the platform until I came across a young couple. The male was taking various shots, showing off the results to his female accomplice who in turned laughed and then hit him in the head. This process was repeated a few times before my train came. I quickly aimed as the train approached and was able to get a couple of shots off.

They never saw it coming. I was able to board the train without anyone being none the wiser of my crime. It was self defense I told myself...

In class we have been discussing the ethics and responsibilities of photographing people in public. I have written about this dilemma before. Susan Sontag (1973:14) likens a camera to a gun. We load, aim and shoot. We can do as much harm to people with a photograph as we can with a gun. We have to act with responsibility when handling cameras and using them in public. Ideally we want to talk with the people we shoot and ask their permission. Sometimes this isn't possible. How do we deal with such situations? What are our ethical responsibilities as visual anthropologists?

My students have also been dealing with this topic in their blogs of late. Many have been frustrated when people do not give them permission to photograph them. Some resort to quick or long distance sniping. Some take advantage of occasions when others (or everyone) is photographing the event. Are these tactics appropriate? Do these tactics result in satisfactory and useful images? Are the people we purport to study (and protect) being harmed?

So why did the young couple attempt to shoot me at the train station? Was it karma or photographic revenge for all of my visual anthropological transgressions? Most likely the young couple were playing and wanted a photo of a strange gaijin. But it does give me pause to consider what I - what we - are doing.

Let's be careful out there, people.


Brad Rice said...

In regards to being photographed as gaijin, something similar happened to Cyberbird and I when we were on our way to Nara. There was someone over by the crosswalk at Tofukuji station taking a picture of us (supposedly). The camera lens was pointed directly at me, so I believe he was. I just stared right at him, and made a face of mock surprise. I really hope that comes out on his photos.

If I'm going to be photographed as though I'm a rare animal, I'm going to have fun with the photo.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Fedorowicz,

Would you be so kind as to post this announcement on your blog and circulate it on your anthropology student listserv or among your students?.

Thank you,

Marc Hebert
NASA e-Journal Editor
PhD Student, Anthropology
University of South Florida
4202 East Fowler Avenue, SOC 107
Tampa, Florida 33620-7200 U.S.A.

Attention grad and undergrad anthro students: Please
consider submitting an article to the new anthropology e-
journal sponsored by the National Assoc. of Student
Anthropologists (NASA). The call for papers (pasted below)
is organized around the theme for the AAA 2008 Annual
Meetings. Completed manuscripts of 1000 words should be
submitted by April 21, 2008 to
See below for more information...

The National Association of Student Anthropologists (NASA)
will launch its first online publication, The NASA e-
Journal, under the banner of the 2008 American
Anthropological Association conference theme: "Inclusion,
Collaboration, and Engagement."

We seek scholarly submissions from undergraduate and
graduate students worldwide about the application of
anthropological theories and methods outside of academia or
across disciplines for the purpose of exploring,
problematizing, or addressing social problems. Have you
worked in an internship, co-op or another job as a student
anthropologist and wish to reflect on how you relied on your
anthropological training? Perhaps you collaborated with
students from other disciplines at a volunteer organization
and seek to describe the value you added from an
anthropological perspective? Is there a paper you submitted
for a service-learning class where you addressed a social
problem using anthropological methods? Have you done
fieldwork in a community where you sought to create positive
social change in the process of gathering data? Tell us
about it! Scholarly articles should be 1,000 words in length
and will be subject to a double blind review process.

We also welcome innovative commentary submissions to the e-
Journal. Commentaries are opinion or avant-garde pieces of
work which are the original work of the authors. These
submissions are to express the next generation of
anthropologists' ideas, goals and beliefs of the direction
our discipline should head, be it locally, nationally or
globally. We seek a plurality of voices on this issue and
intend to raise awareness among fellow students as well as
more established anthropologists about the direction our
discipline is heading. Commentary submissions might include
such mediums as written pieces (1,000 words in length),
photo stories (10 photos + 1,000 words of commentary in
length) and videos/YouTubeC clips (10-minute maximum in
duration + 1,000 words of commentary in length)

Submission Guidelines:
Please submit a full 1,000 word manuscript for consideration
by midnight EST on April 21, 2008 along with any
accompanying materials.
. Authors should complete their submissions according
to the AAA style guide
. Submissions should be saved in Microsoft Word ".doc"
format with the file title being the first author's last
name and first initial. (example: HebertM.doc)
. We invite authors to provide drawings, graphs and
maps to enhance the visual component of each article. These
should be included as separate attachments in the email.
Graphics should be saved as ".jpg" format. The file name
should be the first authors last name, first initial and
then the number of the photo. (example: HebertM1.jpg) Please
also include reference in your text where graphics should be
placed by inserting the above identifier in the text.
. Videos should be provided as a link (if located on a
site such as YouTube) or included as a graphics file in a
readily viewable format such as QuickTime or Windows Media
. Please send submissions to the e-Journal editorial
team with the subject heading "NASA Manuscripts - Vol. 1" at

Authors will be notified regardless if their work has been
selected for publication or not. We look forward to
publishing submissions for Volume 1 of the NASA e-Journal in
the fall of 2008 and spring of 2009.

visual gonthros said...

The issue I think is not that we foreigners are getting photographed as rare animals, but are we as visual anthropologists trying to photograph the Japanese as rare animals? And are they having fun with us? Some students have commented that they try to get organic shots (i.e. without the peace sign). Long term ethnographic fieldwork would take away these kinds of problems (the people we study would eventually get used to us and our cameras), but what do we do in other situations?

How would you feel if a Japanese anthropologist used the picture of you making a funny face (and without providing context) as somehow representative of you or your whole culture?


Anonymous said...

Is that something an anthropologist might conceivably do? Some random jackass might, yes, but somebody with real academic credentials, i.e. somebody whose opinions and work other people might actually care about?

As for the ethical concerns, I think you could present a good argument that anything that takes place in public space is fair game, regardless of how the subject feels about it. People going about in their daily lives will be captured on dozens of surveillance cameras in any case, so how is one extra photo taken by an anthropologist going to hurt them (apart from the possible misguided hurt feelings over their "privacy" being offended)? What's the legal stance on this in Japan, by the way?

visual gonthros said...

Thanks for your comments and questions.

There have been several cases when anthropologists and other scholars have violated peoples' privacy through photography. Credentials don't seem to matter in these cases. Nor should it. These are ethical issues we are dealing with, not simple academic concerns.

As for the legal regulations in Japan... I have consulted with a colleague who is a media expert. I summarize what he explained to me as follows (any inaccuracies or mistake in interpretation is my own responsibility):

In Japan, it is not a matter of place, but activity of what a person is photographed doing. Thus "public space" does not seem to be a legal argument. Three major criteria of violating a person's privacy are: 1) being photographed doing an activity that an average person would not want to be caught doing, 2) that the person is easy to identify in the photo, and 3) the information in the photo is something not already known. These criteria are gray and fuzzy.

My colleague went on to explain that defamation is different in Japan that, say America, for example. If a photograph assists in making a false claim, that is defamation in America. In japan, it doesn't matter if the claim is false or true. What matters is if the person's character had been damaged or lowered.

Usually these issues aren't a problem unless some sort of profit is being made from the photograph. Even in the case of profit-making, no there no real major punishments or penalties. Sleazy weekly magazines sometimes publish problematic photos knowing that they might be fined only 2 million yen. They can budget it as an operating expense.

But we as visual anthropologists cannot merely follow the law. We have higher ethical standards we need to follow. I would like to continue this discussion and try to mediate between laws and professional ethics.

More comments and questions are enthusiastically encouraged in this endeavor. Yoroshiku!


Anonymous said...

So, what you're saying is that credible scholars are allowed to get away with that by their peers? Or were said scholars an exception, who were then shunned and had their reputations tarnished forever?

Anyway, I mentioned the credentials because there's a difference in credibility between what an anonymous poster on the internet says is true and what a university professor says is true. Of course, some people seem to go by "if something is said, it must have at least some truth in it, no matter who said it or why" so I realise this line of argumentation is not strong enough to support a case, so let's move on...

Looking at the criteria, there seem to be no legal objections to taking photos of people going through their normal daily activities.

Before we consider the ethical issues, let's for argument's sake presume the following:

1) We will not do anything unethical with the photos we take, such as present them without or in the wrong context

2) we will not publish photos that could foreseeably be considered embarrassing or harmful for the subjects (ie, we censor that kind of photos or simply don't publish them at all)

Now, I can understand how somebody might feel unhappy about having their photo taken, but then again somebody will feel unhappy about just me being there (stealing their jobs and living on welfare, etc.). Whatever I do, I'm going to make somebody unhappy. I don't mean to say that since somebody is going to be unhappy anyway, I'm free to do whatever I want: I can see why it would still be unethical to make somebody unhappy by punching them in the face, for example. But this discussion is about things that have no concrete effect on the subjects' lives.

I foresee a counter-argument that there's some kind of a difference between aversion to being photographed and racism. What exactly is it, though, aside from the fact that you can identify only with the former? As I previously stated, people who have left their homes will get photographed (and videoed) in any case, and thus have lost their claim to "privacy". So with that in mind, is the aversion not as irrational (if not more so) as racism? After all, what exactly will they lose from having one extra picture taken?

visual gonthros said...

Racism is outside the scope of the intended subject here.

Credentials and ethics/morals are quite two different things. I would like to think that anthropologists have a higher calling but of course that is not the case. Anthropologists are humans studying humans, so perhaps there is even more potential for ethical/moral problems, whether they be intentional or accidental. Thus the elaborate code(s) of ethics developed by and for various professional anthropological groups.

And thus this discussion: how to take photos in public without harming the people we study.

People with or without credentials can do harm to people by photographing and publishing photos without permission.

This discussion is trying to come up with guidelines for all potential visual anthropologists whether they have credentials or are students in the Visual Anthropology of Japan course (actually it is probably more important for the latter).

Presumptions and assumptions can be dangerous; it would seem that the individual making such presumptions and assumptions would have to have much knowledge about Japanese culture. Where does this knowledge come from, especially for a student who is only around for a semester or a year?

In some cultures leaving one's home might entail a certain loss of privacy, but not in Japan. Once again, it is "activity" rather than "place" that is more important.

I am working on another blog post on this subject - look for it hopefully in the next week or so.