Saturday, June 11, 2011

The ethics of representation/la ética de representación

Weinergate, the "scandal" over Congressman Anthony Weiner's "sexting" (sending sexually suggestive images of himself via Twitter), raises some interesting ethical issues. Not about the Congressman's behavior -- I, for one, think that it is entirely too easy for the U.S. media to ignore the really big issues (like unemployment, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the "secret" war in Yemen) in order to focus on something that, in the grand scheme of things, is not that important. While I don't think an elected representative's personal behavior (especially when it involves men in positions of power and their treatment of women) is entirely beside the point, it shouldn't entirely overshadow our evaluation of how he or she fulfills the role for which he or she was elected. That is, what stands does he/she take? How does he/she vote on matters like reproductive freedom, military spending, and so on?

I am coming around to Guatemala, in case you were thinking that this doesn't seem like an appropriate entry for this blog.  But this "scandal" got me to thinking about our promiscuity with images, facilitated by Web 2.0 technologies, including the software that I use for this blog. So many of us, myself included, hardly think twice before uploading images we have taken with our digital cameras or our phones (I don't take pictures with my phone, at least not hear in Guatemala since I have one of the dumbest phones on the market; when I enter names in the directory, it only gives me 16 characters, hardly enough in a country where most people have at least two given names and two surnames, and it is often necessary to include the surname since so many of the first names are repeated -- I have at least 4 Josés and 4 Marias in my directory), without considering the possible consequences of such exposure to the people thus represented. How many of us, when we take photographs at a party, or during a visit, actually ask permission of our friends and acquaintances about publishing the photos on Facebook, Photobucket, or other sites? Sometimes we operate on the assumption, within specific networks of friends and acquaintances, that the images will be shared. Perhaps much of the time no harm is done, and certainly it seems that there are a lot of people out there who are only too happy to have photos of themselves splashed around the internet.

But not everyone.  And here's where I think that as anthropologists or social documentarians, we have to be a bit more conscientious, especially here in Guatemala, where many of us are working with communities, and especially indigenous communities, whose members historically have not been consulted or asked for their consent about how they are represented.  

Anthony Weiner and his bulging (so they say; I haven't looked) undies were thus on my mind the other day, June 10, when I went to Zacualpa for the fiesta patronal, camera, voice recorder, and snappy new mini-videocam in hand. I went to the fiesta for a couple of reasons, one of which was to gather some material that we could use for the radio station. The other day we were meeting to talk about how include more programs about culture in the broad sense - handicrafts, music, food --- and starting to plan some interviews with artisans, Maya priests, healers and so on. So, it occurred to me that I could slip over for a bit of the fiesta in Zacualpa (it is the next town to the east from where I live, about 20 km. away along the same highway that runs through the southeastern part of the department). Zacualpa is a town that was, like Chinique, hard hit during the armed conflict; the church was turned into a torture and killing chamber (I will probably blog about this separately) and it also has a very high proportion of migration to the U.S. And, like most highland towns in this part of the country, the population of the municipality (which includes not only the town proper but the outlying caserios and aldeas) is mostly indigenous. This year an indigenous woman, Doña Caty, is one of the candidates for mayor -- possibly a first.

I have some contacts in Zacualpa: in the church, and also a young woman who has a store selling weavings, supplies and also snacks and beverages; she was also a research assistant to Father Ricardo Falla, the legendary Guatemalan priest/anthropologist who accompanied the communities of people in resistance when they fled to Mexico during the armed conflict and then wrote about their experiences. So I called Ana and asked if she thought it would be possible to arrange some interview during the fiesta. I mentioned that I wanted to talk to the indigenous queens or princesses; I wasn't sure of what title was used in Zacualpa. Most highland towns have two parallel pageants: one to select the "Señorita" of the town (who is invariably Ladina: if there is an exception to this I'd like to know about it, please!!!) and one to select the indigenous queen, princess, or whatever she might be called. Actually most towns have a plethora of "beauty queens", down to very young children. "Junior Miss whatever the municipality", and so on. 

So I was interested in talking with the indigenous woman who was selected to represent Zacualpa, and Ana thought that would be possible, along with the men who did the dance of the bulls (baile de los torito). I also asked if she thought I could talk with people in the cofradía - the local religious "brotherhood". The cofradías are basically indigenous organizations (I wrote about them in one of the earliest posts on this blog), that usually own some property in common, and during the fiesta patronal, the cofradía members decorate their altars, and contract marimba bands to play.

I was able to interview the uxab tinamit, the "daughter of the town", as the indigenous representative is titled in Zacualpa, and her attendants -- there were actually 4 young women, and I will write about them later.  I couldn't find the dancers, so I headed to the cofradia to see if there was anyone to interview.

And here is where the dilemma of representational ethics entered the picture, so to speak. The cofradia is up on a small rise at one edge of the town, and Ana had told me I couldn't miss it because there was a big sign at the entrance that said "cofradia". That much was true. However, in front of the gate, which was ajar, were several men, drunken to the point of unconsciousness, sprawled on the dirt and gravel in front of the entrance. Inside the courtyard, the scene was not much better:  the marimba was playing, but the only people dancing were two men who were extremely drunk but not so far gone that they could not stand (after a fashion) and stagger around (after a fashion) to the music, clutching each other's hands. A few other men (mostly) in varying stages of drunkenness were present; one laid out face down on the ground, another stretched out and propped up on his elbow, and a few glassy-eyed women. So, what, if anything, to photograph? I wanted an "establishing shot" but it was impossible to frame the entrance without including the men in drunken stupor. I decided to take the photograph, but not to publish it -- at least not yet.

Why not publish the photograph? After all, that was the "reality" that I saw when I entered the space. I did respect the request of someone who approached me (also drunk but able to walk and carry on a conversation) and asked me not to take a close up shot of the altar. The musicians were content to have their photographs taken, and the people who were drunken but still able to stand or sit actually wanted me to photograph them too. 

But I was uncomfortable about photographing or sharing photographs of the men stretched out cold in front of the cofradía. They were in no position to give informed consent about being photographed. And also, even had they consented, I would have hesitated because of the politics of how indigenous people -- and the cofradias -- are viewed in Guatemala. One of the reigning stereotypes of the fiestas patronales is that they are simply an opportunity for the Maya communities to come to town, get drunk, and cause mayhem. Alcohol abuse is a problem in Guatemala, and more than a few women I know have talked about spouses who drank to excess, or even drank themselves to death. So I don't want to say that the stereotype is completely baseless, and simply a reflection of racial prejudice. Some Maya men (and women) drink themselves silly during the fiestas patronales (I am sure that some Ladinos do so as well but the Maya are more numerous and more present during the fiestas). An allied stereotype is that the cofradías are the epicenter of the drunkenness and disorderliness; that the cofradias don't have much religious value but simply provide an excuse (and a place) where people can engage in this kind of excess.

So, if I don't photograph inebriated people, am I masking part of the reality of the fiesta? If I only show photographs of the marimba playing, am I excluding part of what I saw, and presenting a skewed view of the fiesta (only the more positive aspects)? 


  1. I can picture in my head the image of all this indigenous man same as all the Native Americans in USA always Drunk? is that what the high light of the story? did they give you the consent of that? I do not know... if I was the indigenous community I would never again let you ever be part of it! with or without pictures!

  2. There is also the issue of whether people who are intoxicated can really give their consent in any meaningful way. At least, we say women who are drunk can't really freely consent to sex. I imagine some of the people who were drunk who wanted their photos taken may feel quite ashamed about that when sober.

    It also sounds like you arrived late to the festivities -- I bet there was some other stuff going on earlier. I've attended the festivities surrounding the moving of Maximon in Santiago Atitlan. The vast majority of folks are not drinking, and the festivities take hours. Ditto in Chichi during pre-Christmas festivities. Many cofradia take their spiritual and ceremonial responsibilities quite seriously.

    I generally tend not to take photos of people when they are down and out, partly because it can feel shaming to them, and leave them potentially feeling used and categorized and objectified. Of course there are great photographers who have done very moving photo essays on social problems, but the ones I remember the best, who were the most moving, were those that retained the subject's dignity in the face of their struggles.

    Plus, it's safer in the sense of physically safer for the photographer.

    Keep up the thoughtful questioning!

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  4. Responding more to "thread" -- The day I was in Zacualpa was not the day of the cofradía's procession; I think that was a day or two before. I got there around 11:30 in the morning, so probably not late in terms of whatever was going on for that particular day, but late, maybe, in relationship to the progression of activities over the week. I've attended the cofradía events in Chinique, and also in Chichi. I've spent more time with the cofradía in Chinique and while they take what they do very seriously, there is also a fair amount of alcohol consumption by some people, not all, and certainly not all of them cofradia members.

  5. Dear Kyra and Eliza: Thank you both for taking the time not to just read my post but also to comment. I always appreciate it when people give feedback even if it's critical; part of the point, for me, in doing a blog, is to have conversation.
    That said, Kyra, I'm not sure why you are so angry and dismissive. There isn't a highlight of the story; I wrote this blog as a way of thinking out loud about the choices we make about what to photograph and what to share. And for those very reasons about not reinforcing stereotypes I didn't publish that photograph. That photo represents one moment of a festivity that goes on for days. And so part of my point was to open questions about what any photograph represents: a moment that can easily be taken out of context. A lot of my Maya friends are very concerned about the impact of alcohol on their communities; the friend I had to meet that morning, a Maya weaver who lives in an outlying aldea, told me she avoids town during the fiesta and doesn't like her children to go because there is so much drunkenness. I hope I didn't give the impression that only Maya get drunk during the fiesta; there is a lot of overconsumption all around. Also, I was invited to the cofradía by someone in the town who knew most of the active members; I didn't just wander in off the street, and I absolutely asked the musicians whether I could photograph or film before I recorded anything, and I explained who I was, what I was doing (gathering material for the indigenous women's radio station where I am a volunteer) and what might be done with the recordings (play the music on the air, making sure we credited the group), and gave them my contact information. And other than one shot of the entrance, I carefully avoiding taking pictures that would be unflattering... or where people were not in a position to consent or not