Saturday, March 22, 2008

Some Thoughts on Photographing in Public

(Image and caption borrowed from The Daily Yomiuri, March 22, 2008, p. 3)

This post continues from a recent entry and subsequent discussion on the ethics and responsibilities of visual anthropologists photographing people in public places. I have been researching this topic during the spring break and find myself with a lot of data and sources to go through before I can make a coherent report. But in the meantime here are two recent news articles dealing with this subject. The first is about a secret shot of the reclusive Meiji Emperor sniped by a professional photographer.

Secretly taken photograph of Emperor Meiji released

A secretly taken photograph of Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) has been made public for the first time--nearly 100 years after a student at an Imperial Japanese Army accounting school had a photographer surreptitiously snap the shot at a graduation ceremony in 1911.

Few photographs of the camera-shy emperor exist, and very little is known of pictures taken by private citizens of the emperor at a time when the act of taking photographs was deemed disrespectful, so the picture is expected to draw considerable interest.

Tsuneo Ando, 83, a former company executive of Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, has donated copies of the photograph given to him by his father to places including Togo Shrine in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, as he believes it is of historical value.

The picture shows the emperor attending a graduation ceremony at an Imperial Japanese Army accounting school in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on May 16, 1911--the year before his death.

In the picture, the emperor is being led by the school's principal along a carpet rolled out on the school grounds from a tent bearing the Imperial crest of the chrysanthemum. Senior army officers are standing in a row in the background saluting him.

Ando's father, Noboru, a student at the school in its seventh graduating class, reportedly secretly asked a professional photographer to take a picture from the second floor of the school building.

From: The Daily Yomiuri Online, March 22, 2008

Are there still occasions today when the act of taking photographs is disrespectful?

The second article comes from Wm. Penn's TELEVIEW column that appears in The Daily Yomiuri every Friday. In a recent column he questions the use of photos taken in public.

TELEVIEW / TV raises questions in more ways than one

Am I the only one who finds CNN's use of other people's tragedies in the network's "distinctive journalism" commercials offensive? The scenes of little children and old men sifting through the rubble of their homes in the Middle East or an African child about to lose his parents to AIDS were definitely examples of distinctive reporting when they happened. But playing the scenes over and over again a dozen times a day now to advertise CNN seems like using their pain for profit. Or is it only me?

Link to "TELEVIEW / TV raises questions in more ways than one" at The Daily Yomiuri Online:

No, it is not only you, Mr. Penn. The use of photos taken in public that exploit the subjects and serve to profit the photographer remains problematic. The news media is not exempt, nor unfortunately are anthropologists. It is my hope to reconcile Japanese media standards, privacy laws and anthropological ethics to come up with some guidelines to share with students of visual anthropology. Any advice in this endeavor is greatly appreciated. Stayed tuned...


Anonymous said...

"Are there still occasions today when the act of taking photographs is disrespectful?"

Who gets to decide what is disrespectful and what is not? If the answer is anything other than "the photographer" or "an universal moral standard" (and the assumption that one exists), I'm cannot fathom how the answer to your question could be anything but "yes", followed by an arbitrary list of rules.

If you propose to compile such a list, I guess it's usefulness will be largely decided by how well you can back the rules you propose. The legally binding ones should be easy for most to accept but after that it gets interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

To address your points from the previous discussion, I'd still argue that when people in Japan leave their homes, they have lost their privacy. If you're carrying a phone, it's trivial to track your movements; there are security cameras everywhere: people using an ATM, going to a train station, knocking on their neighbour's door, etc are being filmed, and have thus de facto lost their privacy. If you're outside your home, and especially if you're on somebody else's property, the assumption should* be that everything you do might be filmed. And heck, even if you leave your keitai home and just go to the park, you're almost guaranteed to be seen by others.

How can that not "entail a certain loss of privacy", whatever the law says? Do the Japanese behave the same way in public as they do in their own homes? This is the implication of there being no loss of privacy caused by change in location.

Now, if the law says that despite this, people have the right to not have their comings and goings photographed, I would be interested to know how exactly that works in practice. Will somebody turn the cameras off at the ATM if I go in front of them and engage in an activity whose filming would violate my privacy? Probably not, but then what will happen to those tapes? Does the law specify that they cannot be used for Gaijin Hanzai part deux? (Where did the photos for the first part come from? Was a law broken?) If they cannot, can the owners still use the tapes internally as they see fit? (The leeway this would offer should be obvious.) Or does the law give me the right to go to them and force them to destroy the tapes that violate my privacy?

Though I guess realistically speaking, the authorities could just enforce the law differently depending on who you are so from a legal point of view, the above paragraph might be moot. Ethically, though, is there a difference between a corporate entity and an anthropologist doing the filming? Should the same standards not apply for both?

* "should" as in, for your own good, this is the mindset you should have. Not "should" as in, this is how the world should be. I'm not a big fan of the Orwellian aspects every first world country seems to have cultivated in the last decade or so. Maybe publicizing photos of people being stupid in public will make them notice they've lost their privacy and fight back...

visual gonthros said...

Thanks for your continued interest and comments.

Respect and disrespect might be determined by the moral standards of a given culture. Individuals in said culture will of course agree or disagree with the standards of their community. I guess I wasn't looking for a yes or no answer so much as examples of disrespectful acts of public photography.

You bring up many interesting topics (surveillance, Gaijin Hanzai, etc.) that we discuss in class and that I have written about in previous posts. But what I want to continue to concentrate on in this discussion are the standards to be followed by visual anthropologists when they take photographs in public. I am interested in this focus because as a professor sending his students out to photograph Japanese culture, I am concerned with protecting the privacy and indeed very lives of the people we study; I also wish to legally protect my students so that their actions resulting from the assignments I give them don't cause them any problems, legal or otherwise.

Privacy laws in Japan are certainly a part of this discussion. Yes, I agree that when a person leaves her house, she is giving up a certain level of privacy. But as per the Privacy Law of 2005 she still has ownership rights of her image. This same Privacy Law stipulates how the government and businesses manage her personal information. Don't get me wrong, I am not supporting this law or surveillance in the least. But our friend is aware of the public surveillance cameras and their purposes.

This is very different from an individual with a camera, capturing her image and using it without her permission for profit. So again, in the legal sense it is activity not place that is important. According to my media expert friend, there have been several court cases that support this law. For example, a famous athlete was photographed kissing a famous actress in a bar. The photograph was published. The athlete sued the publication and won. It doesn't matter that the bar was a public place; it was the nature of the private activity he was engaged in. Legally, his privacy was breached.

Respect for the people we study is paramount; this is stated in the ethical standards of the American Anthropological Association and others. Respect for peoples' privacy is part of this. How we honor this respect is what I want to discuss.

Social movements or revolutions to do away with fascist surveillance are outside of the scope of this particular dialogue. But personally, I'd be willing to sign up for the fight...