Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ethics of Visual Anthropology in Japan - Part Eight: The Dialogue Continues

I cannot believe it has been 5 years since the beginning of VAOJ's Shooting Culture in Japan project. The first goal of the project was to establish and suggest some guidelines for shooting film and photographs in Japan for students in my Visual Anthropology of Japan course. Through the years my students have produced successful blogs, photo exhibitions and films with no major ethical or legal problems. The second goal of the project was to begin and promote dialogue and discussion of the methods and ethics of shooting culture with an emphasis on Japan. VAOJ produced seven posts providing various sources and perspectives on the issues of shooting film and photographs in Japan. You can review these posts at the following url:


I am happy to report that the dialogue has continued (or was going on in places I had not yet seen). Here I want to provide a long overdue update that includes important resources dealing with photography and visual anthropology from academic institutions, anthropologists and photographers.

First, I would like to examine the efforts of the Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA, a section of the American Anthropological Association, AAA). On November 28, 2001 it produced the following:

Guidelines for the Evaluation of Ethnographic Visual Media


Ethnographic visual media (specially film, video, photography and digital multimedia) play a significant role in the production and application of anthropological knowledge and form an integral part of the discipline’s course offerings. Anthropologists involved in the production of visual works make valuable scholarly contributions to the discipline. In addition, anthropologists increasingly include visual media productions as part of their curricula vitae. Departmental and university Committees for Hiring, Promoting and Tenure are thus charged with judging the scholarly quality of these non-print works. Yet not all anthropologists bring appropriate experience or training to their evaluation of visual media and no standard guideline exists.

The above is the first paragraph which seems to be mostly concerned with academic institutions being able to recognize and judge the merit of visual methods and images in anthropological research. The last sentence is important that it indicates the lack of any guidelines in methods and evaluation. See the whole statement at the following url:


In 2007 the SVA, especially members Sara Perry and Jonathon S. Marion, began a series of discussions and roundtables on the ethics involved in visual anthropology. Their publication, "State of the Ethics in Visual Anthropology"(Visual Anthropology Review, Vol. 26, Issue 2, pp. 96–104) includes a description of the first three events (2007, 2008, 2009). Below is a brief overview of the SVA sponsored discussions and roundtables (italicized descriptions come from Perry and Marion 2010 for the first three events; descriptions of the last three events are borrowed from announcements on the SVA blog).

2007 "Ethics and Examples: A Discussion Regarding Visual Ethics"

Main theme: real-world ethical matters faced by anthropologists working with visual data (p. 96).

2008 "The Ethics of Visual Data: Picturing Inclusion, Collaboration, and Engagement"

Of note: cases from the subfields of archaeological, sociocultural and biological anthropology (p.97).

2009 "End/s, Ethics, and Images: A Roundtable Discussion on Visual Ethics"

Main theme: visual media, as with all forms of representation, are often used and understood in unanticipated ways outside and sometimes within their original anthropological frameworks of creation (p. 97).

2010 “Ethics and Images: A Discussion of Visual Ethics and Circulation”

Main theme: to explore the ethical considerations implicated and involved in the intersections of images and circulation.

2011 "Traces of the Image: A Roundtable Discussion on Visual Ethics"

Questions of interest: How have histories of anthropological practice impacted on our contemporary management of imagery? How are shifting visual technologies and intellectual paradigms disrupting or rearranging our ethical priorities? Where is representational authority situated in unstable, multiply-occupied/authored anthropological contexts?

2012 "On The Boarders of the Image: A Roundtable Discussion on Visual Ethics"

Of particular interest is the iterative and unstable nature of image use-the navigation of visual value systems and moralities across time, space, cultural and institutional context, particularly when circumscribed by programmatic ethical review models.

2013 "Conflicting Accounts: A Roundtable Discussion on Visual Ethics"

Goal: to investigate the responsibility of photographers, filmmakers, ethnographers to present a ‘balanced’ representation of the conflict.

These authors are to be commended for their work and keeping the dialogue going. Their "State of the Ethics in Visual Anthropology" also provides guidelines from other anthropological associations that have ethical guidelines for their members that the SVA and AAA currently lack.

Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth - Ethical Guidelines for Good Research Practice (March, 1999)

These guidelines address such issues as personal and moral relationships, trust and reciprocity between the researcher and research participants, power relationships, informed consent, rejection of visual methods, intellectual property rights, copyright clearances, etc. See the details at the following url:


Statement Of Ethical Practice For The British Sociological Association – Visual Sociology Group (December 2006)

These guidelines start out with an important Statement of Intent:

The statement does not represent a core method for resolving ethical choices or dilemmas, but aims to give direction and stimulate consideration of ethical factors in sociological research utilizing visual methodologies/methods.

The statement is not an exhaustive list of ethical considerations, but rather a guide to ethical practice in professional activities.

The strength of this statement rest ultimately on active discussion, reflection, and its continued use by sociologists. In addition, the statement will help to communicate the professional position of sociologists to others, especially those involved in or affected by the activities of sociologists.

The document goes on to consider professional integrity, legal considerations, relations and responsibilities towards research participants, covert research, anonymity, privacy and confidentiality. See details in the following url:


These two sets of guidelines are important and helpful. Again, many thanks to Perry and Marion for supplying them in their article. Perry and Marion go on to comment about attempts to provide guidelines:

...what they witness is our collective struggles with matters of visual competency and authority: with questions about what constitutes ‘‘the visual,’’ who owns it, who can reproduce and educate about it, where it resides, how it can be manipulated and construed, and with what effects, and who has the skill to manage it with the fewest adverse ramifications. At stake, thus, are major issues of accountability, responsibility, social justice, authorship, rigor, specificity, and overall proficiency and training in image production and circulation. These are matters common and significant to all forms and subjects of visual representation and to all who make, disseminate, and consume such representation. They may not always be manageable with the same tools or intellectual strategies, but as the SVA ethics roundtables attest, they are present and potent across the anthropological field - no subdiscipline excluded (p. 100).

Perry and Marion also indicate that a SVA ethics committee has been formed. I look forward to hearing more about this group and their work.


Another helpful resources that sheds light on these issues specifically in Japan is the edited book by Jennifer E. Robertson, Politics and Pitfalls of Japan Ethnography: Reflexivity, Responsibility, and Anthropological Ethics (2009; Routledge Press). ann-elise lewallen provides a chapter entitled, “Bones of Contention: Negotiating Anthropological Ethics within Fields of Ainu Refusal” (p. 3-24) where she describes the 1985 lawsuit of Ainu activist Cikap Mieko against editors of Ainu Minzokushi (Ainu Ethnology) for unauthorized publishing of her photo. lewallen writes:

In the portrait rights lawsuit she later launched, she challenged the way that scholars had treated her as a ‘research object’ and criticized the books portrayal of Ainu as ‘primitive,’ ‘barbarian,’ and ‘uncivilized.’ Although the lawsuit is framed as a ‘portrait rights case,’ Cikap’s rationale for launching the case stems from usage of her photograph in a text that epitomizes the colonialist invasion of Hokkaido and academic excess (12).

One result of this lawsuit was the Japanese Society of Ethnology (JSE) 1989 “Statement on Ainu and Research Ethics” which established general standards for Ainu research, urging researchers to recognize Ainu as a distinct ethnic group, to promote collaborative research, and to promote public education of Ainu issues (12). But JSE guidelines for all research lack except for their Research Ethics Committee brief report in Minzokugaku Kenkyu (society journal) that touched upon issues including relations between researchers and researched, concerns related to gender, obligations to repatriate research findings, copyright and portrait rights, informant remuneration, and language and translation issues (12). lewallen discusses the problem of a perceived "ethics allergy" [where a] compulsory code might impinge on academic freedom (13).


One final source I would like to present is a very important book that was mentioned in a previous VAOJ post and is especially relevant for this discussion:

日本写真家協会 [Japan Professional Photographer’s Society]
2007 スナップ写真のルールとマナー [The Rules and Manners of Snapshot Photos]. Tokyo: Asahi Shinsho.

This book is written in Japanese; I take all responsibility for any errors in interpretation of ideas or language. The book was written in the context of more and more digital cameras and cell phone cameras available and thus being used more often in public. In some instances, intentional or not, problems have arisen in photographing and/or the dissemination of images. The book endorses good relationships with people in the realms of trust, manners, etiquette, morals, human interaction and human rights. In the areas of publishing and displaying photos the book provides legal definitions and discussions of portrait rights, copyright, use rights, personal rights, property rights and publication rights. More specifically it provides various scenarios and gives advice for each setting. These scenarios include street fairs, parks, sight-seeing locations, temples/shrines, mountain hiking paths, sporting events, shops, etc. The following are general themes that appear in various sections of the book that I have summarized and feel to be good advice for taking photos in public in Japan (especially in the realm of not for profit and for academic use only):

1. Get permission; under most circumstances a release form is not necessary. Smile and give the ”simple asking gesture” before you shoot. It is usually obvious when people do not want to be photographed.

2. Explain what you are doing and offer to send/give photos to the people you are photographing.

3. If people object, don’t take the photo.

4. Don’t take covert photos.

5. Don’t get in the way of events or people resting (from an activity or hiking, for example).

6. Respect people and their property. Understand their personal and human rights.

7. Have a confident, positive attitude; always be grateful for taking photos.

8. Put yourself in the place of your subjects: would you want to be photographed in that particular situation?

This good advice along with the various information presented from these resources seem to reinforce the scenarios and advice offered in Part Seven of this series. VAOJ will keep this dialogue going through introducing more resources and posting related and articles. Please contribute to this dialogue through comments, ideas, experiences and recommended related resources.

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