21 January 2008

Privacy, anarchy, and the law-abiding citizen

"(...)considero que Guatemala representa la irupción del caos en el orden occidental. Pero Guatemala es, de alguna forma, una manifestación tan radical de la disrupción del orden que se torna adictiva"
From "Un paseo en primavera" by Ronald Flores.

Pues I feel compelled to write a "real" comment (as opposed to one of my usual insidious tirades or cryptic diatribes)about a post in LAGPD entitled "Street photography or voyeurism?" , and when the comment reached three paragraphs I decided to make it a post. First of all I wanted to state that I am also grateful to Rudy for the pictures that give colour to my every day routine and warmth to my sometimes freezing (particularly with wind chill) reality.

The now-forgotten first post in elToronteco dealt with the issue of cameras on public transit. I want to expand my opinion about the issue of privacy. I have this conviction that privacy on public places is overrated (and to some extent an oxymoron). How can we expect not to be photographed or videotaped when we are on a space where anyone can see what we are doing? Technology has made available "recording" devices more accessible and more wide spread. As I have said in previous postings, I am not a lawyer, but "expectation of privacy" seems to me a gray area. I say, if I go into a "public" washroom and I get inside a stall and I lock the door I should "expect" not to be observed; but if I am crossing an intersection or paying for a chocolate bar at a convenience store I cannot claim that I was going on my "private" business and thus I should not be taped or photographed.

My second reaction was to the comment by One Way on the post in question. It is about the effect that legalism has on our behaviour. In the Euro-Northamerican reality we live with fear of lawsuits and breaking the ever changing/evolving laws. I say this because of the mention of children in photographs and the need for parent/guardian permission. In Guate, and that is my humble now-outsider opinion, issues of privacy and respect for the subjects of pictures are more a kind of "respect" or "manners" more than following laws. In the 90s, when I was taking a university course in Pre-school children observation we had assignments that required us to do exactly that, observe children, sometimes with their parents, in their natural environments (read Malls and Food Courts, as well as day cares and schools). I was not taking pictures of them, I probably would have if I had a camera phone, I don't know. But I was taking notes about their behaviour! Now that is voyeurism at a professional level. I was not required to do so, but I occasionally approached the parents and explained what I had just done. I also remember doing observations in day care centres where the only credential I presented was my word that I was a psychology student at so-and-so university. In Canada, to do research, nowadays, before I am able to see a child in a school I had to go through bureaucracy from my university, the school board, the school in question and have the permission of the parents. We also get the consent of the child and assure them that they can withdraw from the study/activity at any point. I believe this last thing to be the most important and essential. The rest is just legal covering-your-butt paperwork.

I honestly don't know which societal approach is better. The lawsuit paranoia or the relaxed naiveté. However, I do think that Guate is the paradise of anarchists that one of the characters on Un paseo en primavera, a foreigner, says (see epigraph above). I recently was put on the spot for being "law abiding". I have the feeling that it is a reaction of having grown in the midst of chaos. It might have been exacerbated by the laissez faire approach of my beloved parents, to whom I am grateful for not only having given me roots, but also wings. I cannot deny, though, that in Guate laws are not respected, and that is the default (the norm pues). I know I will get comments on this blunt statement. Again, is it good or bad? Isn't a society in which its citizens "decide" by an implicit agreement what is proper behaviour one that is more "free"? Is living in constant fear of being sued healthy? And, has it changed at all in the past decade? Is Guatemalan society more law-abiding than the one that I left at the turn of the century?

Back to the beautiful picture from LAGDP, and it is beautiful: the colours, the angle, the people, the objects, the light, I can go on and on. It is evident that Rudy HAD to ask for permission or at least let Jacques (now we even know his name) acknowledge his intentions because he is very close. But that probably was not 100% necessary for the couple passing by, and yet the post is tagged making reference to them. I hope my post doesn't make more waves than it is intended to, just some tumbos to feed the dialog about privacy and geographical differences in terms of laws, expectations, and customs.


janna said...

Interesting discussion, Manolo. Like you, I love Rudy's work, and I hope ethical fears don't make him hesitate and miss an otherwise wonderful shot. I wonder how much of a difference there really is between observing someone for an instant in a public place, and capturing that momentary observation forever in a photo? I don't think there is an easy answer.
I was aware that, while in Guate, taking pictures of children could possibly get you killed, as the indigenous have fears that white women try to kidnap their children. I took a beautiful, candid picture of an indigenous woman crossing a street with her little girl in San Pedro, and then smiled and walked away, hoping she would see I wasn't overly interested in her baby. Also, I tried to appear that I was actually photographing the lake, which was behind her.
This quote from you ("Isn't a society in which its citizens "decide" by an implicit agreement what is proper behaviour one that is more "free"?") reminded me of a discussion we've been having over at Citizen Orange about Martin Luther King and civil disobedience. I love how our discussions are often related in unexpected ways.

AntiguaDailyPhoto.Com said...

Manolo, I am glad that an insidious little comment, as you call it, have prompted two full entries about the implications of street photography in LAG. Good boy, good! well done. ;-)

Janna, I don't think the issues that OneWay and Manolo talked about from a first world perspective apply to La Antigua Guatemala, a tiny colonial town so used to being photographed. So don't worry, Manolo has not scared me away, yet. ;-)

Manolo, one again I thank you for all your wonderful thought-provoking commentary.

AntiguaDailyPhoto.Com said...

I meant to say once again...

Manolo said...

Janna Thank you for your visit and your comment. I actually thought of that danger there is for foreigners taking baby pictures in rural Guatemala. Rudy thinks that LAG is not Guate, so he feels safe being his usual shooter bug. I love the tradition the U.S. has of civil disobedience, from the pilgrims, Thoreau, and MLK Jr. Is one of the best traits of our neighbors to the South. If only more people understood it.
Rudy You are so nice to me, even when I am kind of trigger happy with my comments sometimes. I am going through a process of embracing my "double identity" and it helps me commenting on issues from this side of the border(s).