Friday, August 2, 2013

Local Matsuri IV: People

While photographers recognize that a subject’s uncertainty about the use of a picture is often the source of interactional tension, they are for the most part sufficiently confident about the harmlessness of their photographing (to subjects) or its importance (to themselves, or to “public information”) and sufficiently interested in carrying on doing it that consent is not so much to be reckoned with among subjects as dispensed with (Henderson 1988: 92).

I like a bit of privacy myself, especially when it is so scarce a commodity these days. But I never take embarrassing pictures of people on the street and I always try and respect them, communicate with them and share my photos with them if I can. Japanese people are on the whole very cool with this. And if they don’t want their picture taken, 95 times out of 100 they just turn the other way (Goodrich, September 22, 2009).

It’s not easy taking photos of people in public that you don’t know. This is the challenge of street photography. One might ask what is the purpose of such an endeavor? To capture interesting characters and/or representatives of Japanese culture? Does this really add to the sociology of Japan?

It was my intention to walk around the matsuri and take pictures of people enjoying the festival. I especially wanted to photograph people wearing brightly colored summer yukata. I found, however, that people were busy having fun and I didn’t feel right interrupting them. I did ask a few yukata-clad women if I could photograph them but they all refused. And I understood. After all, who was this foreign guy with a camera, and what would he be doing with the pictures? As I walked slowly through the masses I felt as if I was some sort of perverse voyeur stalking prey.

But once again the mixed blessing of being a foreigner kicked in. People began calling out to me in simple English and were surprised when I responded in Japanese. During these short/fun interactions I asked if I could take their photographs and they answered by flashing the peace sign along with a big smile. Some people wanted to take my picture (as if I were some sort of celebrity?).

I also found I could take pictures of people working at food stalls if I bought something. People were also willing to be photographed if I asked a question about the festival or had an extended conversation with them.

For the visual anthropologist a bit of street photography might be an early phase of fieldwork. The camera can be a tool for creating interactions and building rapport. And of course the photographs are data, and a good source for reciprocity (giving photos to the people you photograph). Visual anthropology is all about long-term collaboration and negotiation in the areas of privacy and representation. But perhaps we are getting too serious here (when you do want to get serious, click here for more on the ethics of public photography in Japan). We shouldn’t lose sight of the topic, the Local Matsuri. We have enjoyed the mikoshi, the evening activities, the food and now let’s enjoy the people.

The next post completes this VAOJ arc - Local Matsuri V: くわしく.


Goodrich, Alfie. Japanorama Blog. "Faces of Tokyo: street photography in the megalopolis." Posted on September 22, 2009.

Henderson, Lisa. "Access and consent in public photography." Image ethics: The moral rights of subjects in photographs, film and television (1988): 91-107.

Visual Anthropology of Japan, Local Matsuri I: The Mikoshi, posted July 30, 2013.

Visual Anthropology of Japan, Local Matsuri II: Evening Activities, posted July 31, 2013.

Visual Anthropology of Japan, Local Matsuri III: Tamago Senbei, posted August 1, 2013.

Visual Anthropology of Japan, Ethics of Visual Anthropology in Japan - Part Seven: The Guidelines, posted February 13, 2009.

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