Monday reads: looking back to week 6

We took a break last week, which has made it possible for many of you to catch up with your week 5 posts and start to make headway on week 6. So this is a quick scout around late arriving blogs, recalling that the week 6 task involved observing people using either fixed or mobile media devices in public places, asking some questions about the ethics of representing others with or without their awareness and consent.

Realistically, the conventions for handling the representation of others with care have been overtaken by the fact that we are now permanently surrounded by cameras. To see what this is all about, just google “distracted while walking” or, more precisely, “woman falls into fountain while texting”. In the latter case, which I’m not linking to, the woman concerned later suggested that she wanted to sue the shopping mall for making the video of her tumble publicly available. As she said:

‘I didn’t get an apology, what I got was, “At least nobody knows it was you”,’ Marrero said. ‘But I knew it was me.’

So this is on our minds as we think about the ethical dimension to public space ethnography.

I’m really delighted that some of you are breaking out into video blogging for BCM240, so I’m going to kick off with Rachel Farley, telling the story of travelling by bus and, the social awkwardness of filming herself in a  public place. Listen along to her story of becoming part of an engaged spontaneous public when Steve Irwin died:

Rachel also shared an excellent and thoughtful 2013 article on public space photography, where Nell Frizell is asking Is it ever OK to photograph strangers on a train?

Amelia Murphy went off to the mall, and sat watching people using their smartphones either together or in company. She has several images of identifiable individuals, and has written about what she observed without permission, but with sympathy and care.

As I observed the tiny food court perimeter I was shocked with the level of technology present in this tiny space alone. You don’t honestly realise the level technology plays within our lives until you stop for a moment and observe it in its natural habitat. It’s become safety blanket for several of us an integrated part of our communication network without us even knowing it.

Angus Collocott also went to the mall, and in Operation Covert Observation he took photos to look at how people in food courts respond to food court TV. Angus writes beautifully about the moment when you put photos on a blog, and suddenly become aware of publishing something that was previously private and taken without consent. His solution is to look for a journalistic code of conduct and see whether he feels his practice stacks up.

Adelaide Haynes tackled the dilemma a bit differently, asking permission from one person (her friend) who is highly identifiable in a photograph of students in the library, and blurring out others that she didn’t ask.

Isabel Napier is also thinking about the ethical complexity of capturing people in the background of your tourist photo. Under a beautiful photograph of the entrance to Disneyland, she reflects on the people who now form part of the background of her memory of being there:

I photographed the entrance to Disneyland when we first arrived, and also captured two separate private moments occurring in the frame. The smiling family, would likely not consent to me intruding, nor the couple hugging on the opposite side, but my intent was to photograph the entrance, not them. Does intent behind the photo make it ethically allowed?

As she points out, when photos were printed and put in albums on the other side of the world, very few people who have raised an objection. But we now have a proliferation of channels that make it very hard to limit the circulation of an image. What is the nature of privacy under these circumstances?

Jacob Foster has developed a neat solution: audio capture of consent. This is a high standard, but even here Jacob realises afterwards that the recording only indicates consent for the photograph to be taken, not to be published. So if you’re thinking of using a method like this it can be really helpful to prepare ahead of time, so you don’t skip something. There are two challenges with using a consent rather than a deidentification model, and one is an odd one: people who are happy to consent informallywill sometimes be much more wary of giving formal consent. This is a human response, so just think about how best to provide reassurance and also to make clear (and again to make this clear on your blog) how to contact you to have an image removed.

But what if you decide that even with robust alignment to journalistic standards, and even with a means of capturing consent, sometime the photo just needs to go untaken? Angus Baillie captures a moment where he chose not to photograph something even though it was of direct significance, because of many different cultural sensitivities at play including age and ethnicity. This one really left me thinking.

A lovely start to the week, everyone. Thank you so much — really so much thoughtful work here in relation to how ethnographic research tackles its hardest issue: the care of others.

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