Friday, February 13, 2009

Ethics of Visual Anthropology in Japan - Part Seven: The Guidelines

The Shooting Culture in Japan Project has been updated. Click here to see Part Eight of this series.

Reviewing the Project

As part of the Visual Anthropology of Japan course I teach, I send my students out to photograph "Japanese culture." Every week we have a new focus and theme, for example: early impressions, neighborhood, people, pop culture, globalization, religion, gender, sports, politics and changing impressions. Students are to take their own original photographs to illustrate the weekly theme and post at least two photos along with 200 words of text on an internet blog.

While there has never been a problem with the assignment, students have from time to time expressed concerns about taking photographs in public. Do we need to ask permission? Do we need a written consent form? Can we snipe photos from afar with our telephoto lens? What about shots of large crowds - how can we possibly get permission from everyone? Can we blur out the faces of individual we shoot to protect their privacy? How can I ask people's permission if I can't speak Japanese? Aren't all shots taken in public fair game?

These are all challenging questions that deserve more attention and explanation than "use your common sense."

With this in mind I have researched and posted information and data on several related issues here on VAOJ with the ultimate goal of establishing a set of guidelines for students of visual anthropology in Japan.

In Part One I provide some background into the problem, especially in the Japanese setting, along with discussion of privacy issues and portrait rights.

In Part Two I provide information on various academic codes of ethics, rules of conduct and photo posting guidelines including those from the American Anthropological Association, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association and Japan Today. The Right of privacy is also discussed.

In Part Three I examine regulations pertaining to terms of service of internet blogging and photo/video posting services. I also include information about Fair Use and Creative Commons.

In Part Four I provide comments from photographers and photojournalists currently working in Japan. How do they deal with taking photos in public?

Part Five examines the actual laws in Japan pertaining to photographing in public, privacy and defamation.

Part Six provides casual thoughts pertaining to this project and several scenarios where photographing in public may or may not be problematic.

Here in Part Seven I propose the following set of guidelines, not as a prime directive or final ruling, but rather as a starting point for further dialogue and development. These guidelines are for my students and not intended to dictate any rules or ethical standards on any other professionals or individuals engaged in similar activities. These guidelines are far from perfect. Personally I find some of them to be too conservative and too restraining, especially from the perspective of an artist/photographer/photojournalist (as my father was all three, I have some insight here). In the end the guidelines serve to protect my students; I cannot expect them to judge based on years of experience and/or possess Japanese cultural "common sense."

Protecting and honoring the people we study is a major theme of the guidelines. I believe this should be done while conducting research in the field and as a part of the collaboration we do with our informants/subjects. Various devices employed after a photograph has been taken to provide anonymity are problematic in that they take away from the true illustration we hope to provide in cultural description and in the end cannot fully guarantee privacy or protection. Also, they might serve to actually reinforce the difficult environment we struggle to work in. As Mark D. West writes in his Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle: The Rules of Scandal in Japan and the United States (2006):

Once reserved only for truly information-sensitive cases, cheaply produced hype is used now even in cases which the legal context might not require it. The result of such "care" is often a heightened sense of sensationalism, sexiness, and mystery. As anonymous and unaccountable commentators with altered voices and hidden faces tell their stories, separating truth from lies in an already confusing system becomes even more difficult for viewers (p. 113).

Some examples:

Current advertisement for Keihan Train Line and its affiliated travel agencies; main caption reads: "travel from the usual station" (meaning you can start your journey conveniently from your local train station). Why is the woman's face cropped off? Is it to protect her privacy? What are we to focus on in the picture? A young woman sitting on her luggage? Was Keihan not able to get their usual model for this ad campaign?

Darkened image emphasizing the outline of the informant: the shadow knows...

(Image borrowed from With this new software (among other things) you can combine the faces of two individuals to disguise them both. Is this really useful for anthropology or any form of photography?

Link to "Face Swapper Privacy"

Artistic representations disguising the individual?

Other questions:

Is a street performer and the crowd he attracts fair game for photographing/filming?

How about someone dressed to attract attention? How about the people around her/him?

Does a smile or a pose indicate consent? How can the visual anthropologist judge how multiple audiences will react to the photo and the subject(s) within (are they seen in a good light or a bad light or a strange light?)? Should subjects be compensated? How?

If someone doesn't even know they are being photographed, can they really be hurt?

Can visual anthropologists in Japan get away with an in-your-face style of photography?

These are not easy questions to answer. But they are addressed in the guidelines. So, enough procrastination... Here they are... よろしくお願いします。

"Visual Anthropology of Japan" Student Guidelines for Photographing/Filming in Public (version 2009.1)

Preamble: The Environment, Intention and Practice

As visual anthropologists, the subjects of our research are of primary concern. They share their information as informants/collaborators and open their lives up for us and for the purpose of cultural description. Ensuring that our research does not harm the safety, honor and privacy of our subjects is our primary responsibility.

As visual anthropologists, we have the responsibility of sharing our research and findings with the general public as an academic exercise for educational purposes only. Our research is not a money-making endeavor. We must be especially careful in the cultural descriptions we provide, avoiding intrusion of privacy of the people we research. We strive to present honest and honorable discourse, endeavoring to avoid embarrassing our subjects and/or presenting them in a false light. Critique or critical comments must be handled in a sensitive fashion.

As visual anthropologists, we are engaged in both scientific and artistic activities. We must balance our creativity and originality with the protection of the people we study. We must also give credit where credit is due when we borrow the work, words, ideas and/or images provided by others. We work within the realm of Fair Use.

At the same time, we as visual anthropologists acknowledge the challenging environment we find ourselves in when doing our research in Japan. Japanese laws and court decisions dealing with privacy, defamation and portrait rights are obscure and ambiguous. Oftentimes the general public can be seen as over-reacting in their interpretation of current privacy laws. Not all in the public setting can be seen as fair game for photographing or filming. As such we as visual anthropologists have the responsibility to protect ourselves from lawsuits and prosecution.

As visual anthropologist working in Japan, we acknowledge the above responsibilities through our honest intentions and honorable practice.

Section 1. Students are advised to make their academic/scholarly/for educational purposes only intentions made clear on their blog through the following actions.

A. Provide an academic disclaimer: "This blog is a class project for my Visual Anthropology class; as such it is for educational purposes only. All photos posted here are taken by the blog author unless otherwise noted. If any problem with the posting of a particular photo is brought to my attention, I will earnestly review the problem and remove the photo if necessary."

B. If asked, actually remove problematic photos from the blog to avoid any legal problems.

C. License the blog with a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike License. This grants the blog owner certain rights while at the same time reinforcing the idea that the blog and its contents are being created and presented within the realm of Fair Use.

D. Refrain from adding any page elements to your layout that might result in making any money. Such an action would run counter to the noncommercial aspect of the creative commons license.

E. Give proper attribution for all work, words, ideas and/or images borrowed. This can be done through a standard academic citation and/or by providing the url of the source (or a hot link to the source).

F. Consider adding a watermark to your photographs and/or posting them in low resolution. Keep in mind that you lose some control over the images by posting them on the blog.

Section 2. Students are advised to ask permission of the people they photograph/film when at all possible. Subjects should give permission to be photographed and have their image posted on an internet blog. Oral permission is adequate as this is a not for profit, academic exercise.

A. During long term ethnographic projects, students should gain permission from their subjects/informants/collaborators. Continual negotiation of this permission is necessary as new situations arise and new people enter the research setting.

B. When photographing/filming in certain locations (temples, shrines, private property, etc.) watch for signs banning camera use. Be careful with your camera flash and any sounds your camera might make. Try to avoid getting in the way of others. Do not do anything that will interrupt the event you are researching.

C. When photographing unknown people in public, ask their permission first. However, there are instances when this is not possible, appropriate or would run counter to the goal of one's research. In such cases, ask permission after photographing/filming. If you are working with a digital camera, offer to show the image to the subject.

D. If you are photographing/filming in public at a crowded event and other people are taking photographs/filming, it is most likely acceptable to photograph/film as well without having to get permission from everyone in the crowd.

E. If you are the only one photographing/filming in public at a crowded event, it is a good idea to ask a few people around you what is going on and if it is appropriate to photograph/film. However your questions should not interfere with the event itself. Be discreet.

F. Sniping photographs/film with a telephoto lens from afar and taking secret photos/film should be avoided. This can be considered secret research which is also to be avoided under common anthropological ethics. Blurring faces and/or adding black bars over images do not effectively guarantee that the subject will be anonymous. Also, such techniques can be seen as taking away from any the whole point of illustrating one's cultural description.

G. Anything and everything in public is NOT fair game to be photographed/filmed in Japan. Even unintentional intrusion could be harmful to people appearing in the photograph and leaves the visual anthropologist at risk for legal action. Do not assume that your status as a foreigner in Japan will protect you from any privacy or defamation laws.

H. When seeking permission to photograph/film and blog, answer any questions the subject might have. Do not force them to do anything they do not want to do. Research standards as outlined in the AAA Code of Ethics should be followed whenever possible.

I. If you have difficulty speaking Japanese, you can 1) ask a Japanese-speaking friend to assist you, or 2) prepare a written script with appropriate questions, your name and the url of your blog. You can either speak the script or show it in written form.

J. Compensating the subject/informant/collaborator really depends on the depth of the relationship between the former and the visual anthropologist. Money compensation should be avoided. Sharing the url of your blog along with a hearty "thank you" should be sufficient. However, for long term relationships you might want to consider giving the subject a copy of the photograph/film, language exchange or some other simple personal favor. We must never forget that we cannot do our work without the cooperation and generosity of others.


Comments, please.

See Part Eight of this series (September 2014):


Anonymous said...

Great article. As a photographer and photojournalist in Japan, I find this country's people to be far more accomodating about photographs than, say, the UK where the people seem to take out the rage of being under 24-7 surveillance by the state on people like me, who are producing an artistic record of their passage through the city.

Wherever possible I always offer the camera [when I am shooting digital] to the person I have photographed, so they can see the shot I have taken. Where necessary or possible, I always ask if I can take a shot. If not possible or necessary, I dont. People either dont mind, or they look the other way.

I have a personal rule of never taking pictures of people in embarassing situations, unless the situation they are in constitutes 'news'.

This article has been a superb read. Thanks for all the time and effort you have out into it.

Felicity said...

Excellent series. I was in need of information specifically for Japan, as I'm hoping to start filming documentaries here soon. I have watched TV and noticed the blurring, but until my Japanese husband mentioned filming others in public might be illegal, I had assumed it was the same as Australia. Already your articles have provoked me into removing one of my photographs from the web. I will reblog this on my site: Thanks!