November 20, 2011

An exceptionally tricky past-time

I'm back in upcountry Kenya, the wild north.  The beetles seem to have gotten a little crazier while I was away.  They congregate outside my door around dusk and just scurry in circles when you try to shoo them; I now leave a broom by my door so I can sweep it clear and not accidentally crush any when I walk outside.  I've also started shaking out my blankets before getting into bed after finding a baby beetle on my pillow the other day.  In other news, we've been without internet and power for much of the weekend, though in reality it doesn't much affect daily life around here.  But I do have some wonderful pictures that I've been sitting on, unable to share.  

A major part of my project up here involves working with the community, interacting with people in neighboring villages.  However, for many reasons, we don't take any pictures of the people that we interview.  It's incongruous to assure people of the anonymity of their answers and then to snap a photo.  But on our way to a focus group last week, we stopped by the local "clinic" to inquire where we could find someone who speaks English to act as interpreter.  (Leading us to intercept 2 high school boys to help us for a few hours before their soccer game... many logistics of this work are arranged on a whim).  At the clinic waiting bay, there were over a dozen Rendille and Samburu women waiting with their children who graciously (and a bit giggly) agreed to having their photos taken.

The local equivalent of a fluorescent-lit, magazine-littered clinic waiting room.  

Taking pictures of people you don't know is an exceptionally tricky past-time.  The first rule seems straight-forward: Ask for consent.  But when the translation process is English-->Kiswahili-->Samburu-->Kiswahili-->English, it becomes a bit harder to confirm what points of communication and understanding have transpired.

But suppose you are confident in the communication and comfortable that proper consent has been established, what does consent entail exactly?  It gives you consent to take a picture.  Does it give you consent to develop that picture and put it in a photo album?  Does it give consent to show that photo album to your family?  To your friends?  Does it give consent to exhibit that photo at a gallery?  In a newspaper or magazine?  Is there a difference between showing your friends a picture in a photo album and sending it through an e-mail?  On Facebook?  On a blog?

I don't really know.  And in the absence of certain answers to the above questions, I'm more comfortable "hedging" my pictures by shooting them from behind.

Samburu or Rendille woman (the dress and customs are often undiscernable to outsiders)

Or by manipulating the contrast to obscure identifying features.

But people aren't faceless.  And I can't be the first to navigate this challenge.  The structure of our fellowship here has pointed out a helpful guide on ethical photography, much of which is focused on intent and the preservation of human dignity.  And to an end, perhaps concealing faces does more of a disservice towards dignity than the alternative?

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