Since I am in the middle of working on grants in preparation for upcoming fieldwork, I have a lot of methodological issues on my mind. I am going to use photography as a primary part of my research plan, and there are some critical questions that keep cropping up: when should research participants remain anonymous? When does it make sense to show participants’ faces in photographs–and attach names/biographies to those faces? Many of the ethnographies that I read keep subjects anonymous–in text and in images–almost axiomatically. This is pretty standard practice for many ethnographers, and considering the ethics and politics of ethnography, I understand why. However, I am wondering if there are times when it makes more sense (or when it’s the best ethical choice) to actually show faces and attach names/identities to photographs. More importantly, whose responsibility–or right–is it to make these decisions?
I read two different ethnographies this past semester that put photography to use in some very different ways. One was Laughter Out of Place by Donna M. Goldstein. She made the editorial choice to obscure the faces of her research participants. This results in dark, ominous images throughout the text that have a somewhat unsettling feel. Interestingly, Goldstein consciously decided to keep her subjects anonymous even though they were seemingly open to having their portraits in her book:
While all of the people I came to know were enthusiastic about the prospect of having their photographs appear in a published book, I have chosen to fog their expressive and aesthetically pleasing faces to ensure their personal security (Goldstein 2003:2).
Goldstein’s decisions were anything but simple. Her research participants were dealing with very real personal dangers in many cases, so the question of anonymity is absolutely critical. Still, considering the fact that her research subjects expected to be pictured in her publication, did she make the right call? When should the wishes of people be set aside in the name of security and safety? Are anthropologists the ones who should make these sorts of decisions? Or should these choices be made, and agreed upon, in a collaborative manner? Are there cases in which ethnographers have to make the command decision and do what they think is best?
These are incredibly complex questions, and there isn’t some simple rubric that can give us the answers we need. Again, I am not denying the basic reasoning behind Goldstein’s actions, let alone the fact that such decisions are immensely complex. I understand the reasons why ethnographers keep names and places anonymous. Yet I wonder if this technique is always the right path. Mostly, this has me thinking about the ultimate use and purpose of ethnographic texts. Maybe, in some cases and for some purposes, obscuring faces and effacing names is definitely the best decision. Goldstein argues for the need to give voice, and to represent the real lives of the people she knows so intimately. But what power do they have, ultimately, when they no longer have names or faces? Are these women really speaking through this text, or have they been silenced in the name of IRBs, liability, and ethical decisions? What’s the use of all of the detail, context, and discussions about structural power if people might not even recognize their own stories?
The other photographically-inclined ethnography I read this past semester was Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg’s Righteous Dopefiend, which utilizes a pretty different tactic than Laughter Out of Place. The faces of research subjects are prominently displayed, yet their names are kept anonymous. This, despite the fact that Bourgois and Schonberg’s research subjects “gave Jeff permission to photograph and encouraged is to use their real names when they signed the bureaucratic informed consent documents” (2009:9). This editorial/photographic tactic allows for readers to witness the brutal lives of Bourgois and Schonberg’s research subjects, yet still provides a measure of anonymity and protection. Is this method more effective than what Goldstein employed? Does it all just depend on the situation? Again, who makes the final call in this case, the subjects of the ethnographers/photographers?
There are, of course, ways of using photography that sidesteps these issues. Places, events, and situations can be photographs in ways that capture details yet keep people relatively anonymous. I have hundreds of images that are basically details, like this one:
I end up taking a lot of images similar to this, and I use them mostly as part of a note-taking process. I use them to remember situations, conversations, and interactions. Photographs–at least for me–are a really useful way to make visual reminders, and they are tremendously helpful for sparking my memory. But images like this are only fragments, details of lives and moments rather than whole stories. And they certainly aren’t the kinds of images that appeal to people I have met and worked with during previous field experiences. By far, what people appreciate and find the most fascinating are portraits–of family, friends, etc. So I end up taking a lot of pictures of people, but I generally don’t circulate those images beyond the communities themselves.
This brings up another interesting issue. My guess would be that Bourgois & Schonberg, along with Goldstein, gave their research participants copies of images they took while working in the field. I do this all the time as well. So there are some different levels of media production happening during fieldwork–this means that the publication of a final ethnographic text is by no means the limit of media production that takes place during the ethnographic process. There is a whole layer of informal image production and exchange that occurs among ethnographers and the people they work with. Long after anthropologists leave, these images will remain tucked away in notebooks, albums, drawers, and stored on digital devices. Photographs are, as Elizabeth Edwards argues, all about “relationships made visible” (2006:33). They are tangible reminders of interactions, agreements, conversations, and collaborations. Photographs are definitely illustrative of the collaborations and long-term social relationships/bonds that are built between ethnographers and research participants.
But these bonds and relationships are not always all that prominent in final ethnographic texts. So there is a kind of disconnect that occurs between actual fieldwork and the final publication of ethnographies–maybe because these texts are often written, edited, and produced far from field sites and research communities. At this point, the question I have isn’t whether or not to take pictures of people that show their faces and reveal their identities–I do this all the time. The question is when those faces should be included in final ethnographic publications, and when they should be left out. Ethnographies are clearly produced for certain audiences–and they are not necessarily made for the research communities themselves. We all know this. This is, I think, one reason why ethnographers often decide to keep subjects hidden and anonymous. Maybe.
However, if the production of photographs is the result of established agreements and relationships between ethnographers and participants, what gets lost when people are made anonymous in final publications? Interestingly, while research communities are hidden and “protected,” the researchers themselves are prominently displayed and identified in final texts. To me, there is something worth paying attention to here. Ethnographies are supposed to be about the communities themselves (theoretically), but what purposes do they really serve? If their pages are filled with nameless, faceless, hidden people, what do they have to do with the lives of the people who took the time to work with ethnographers? I wonder, at this point, what a more collaborative ethnography would look like. How would ethnographic texts look if they were designed–at least in part–to appeal to the needs and meanings of the research communities themselves? Would participants choose to keep their identities hidden, or would they want to be prominently displayed–names, pictures and all–alongside the main “author” of the text? Definitely something to think about.
Bourgois, Philippe and Jeffrey Schonberg
2009 Righteous Dopefiend. Berkeley: University of California Press.
2006 Photographs and the Sound of History. Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 21(1/2):27-46.
2003 Laughter out of Place: Race, Class, Violence and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown.