A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page)
The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

Shooting and Showing Without Consent:
A Cultural Controversy

We received this e-mail from a friend (used with permission):
"I recently attended a film festival that is produced in Canada and sponsored by the local outdoor equipment retailer in Berkeley. One of the films was shot by a photojournalist who had smuggled a digital video camera into the holy city of Mustang in Nepal where the culture of the gentle and very spiritual people have remained untouched and unvisited by foreigners. Cameras are prohibited. The photojournalist got a guide to show him through this area while he documented it and ultimately turned it into a film. Needless, to say, this is rare footage. After the watching the film I felt horrible because I had become unwillingly complicit with the photojournalist for having viewed what should never have been photographed. Did the filmmaker violate photojournalism ethics? Did the film festival organizers violate a code of ethics by showing the film?
Slovak documentary filmmaker, Pavol Barabas traveled to the remote country of Mustang, Nepal, where tourists are not welcome and cameras are forbidden. Barabas smuggled in a camera and filmed secretly. He said in a radio interview that he "wanted to make a film about the etiquette of traveling and not just about Mustang. By this, I mean having respect for the culture of the country you are visiting." Since the production of his documentary film, Mustang, he also said that he has "received many letters from people who seem to have developed a fear for the kingdom. They are worried civilization will reach it and that unhealthy tourism will arrive there and start to destroy the place." (See

Kevin Whitfield, World Tour Manager for the Banff Film Festival called the film "controversial, but brilliant." He said that in an interview with Festival managers regarding the ethical questions of how the film was made, Barabas said, "This film is my true declaration of respect to Mustang. Is it a bad film if people, after seeing it, feel an urgent need to preserve the culture of this country in its untouched form?"

The irony of believing that one shows respect for a culture by violating that culture's customs seems to be lost on the filmmaker, but not to our friend who also felt violated by being shown the award-winning documentary as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour. In responding to our friend's outrage, we realized that the ethical issues that are evident in this situation have direct companion issues for the gathering, production and publication of journalistic video and stills.

1). When is it right to bring the culturally private into the public domain?

One need not hike the Himalayas to find cultural groups that have prohibitions against recorded images. Native American traditions, depending upon the tribe, might disallow anything from photography or videography of sacred sites or ceremonies to the recording of images of community members without consent. Respecting traditional societies while getting the news is a balancing act well understood by those who shoot for news organizations that cover or serve traditional populations.

Barabas raised the rhetorical question, "Should they [the people of Mustang] be able to prevent this beauty from being seen by people like us?" We answer, that in almost all cases, of course they should. It's their country and their culture. Minus some undisputable newsworthy event, communities different from dominant society have the right to protect violations of their culture from outsiders.

Ardis McRae, a graphic designer and photographer for Indian Country Today, said that she balances being a journalist with respecting traditional cultures by keeping both perspectives in mind. For example, while she might shoot a traditional funeral procession, she won't record images of people in prayer. "When you see them with sage and sweetgrass or picking up the Eagle feather, the camera goes down." If the photojournalist is unsure what is culturally insensitive to record, her advice is "always ask first."

President of the Native American Journalists' Association and free-lance photojournalist, Mary Annette Pember, said that with more than 500 different tribes in North America, "there are no hard and fast rules," so it is "good to tell people what you are doing and why. If you sneak and do stuff covertly, you are endangering some very fundamental elements of their belief system by not protecting them."

In addition, she said that it is hard to tell a meaningful story without the informed cooperation of those within the culture. "Otherwise," said Pember, "You end up with a Colonialist look at these colorful darkies." She believes that treating non-dominant cultures as inferior is a product of journalism based on white middle-class society. "I really have an issue with this whole "taking element" of photojournalism," she said. "It is very predatory."

The mythical "people's right to know" has been used to override individuals' or minority groups' desire to protect themselves from unwanted intrusion or exposure. And indeed, there are important stories--governmental and personal corruption, military actions during wartime, social conditions of vital concern to those in the larger community--that need to be told visually even though those involved might not want the general public to know. But these stories, we would assert, are rare and should only be undertaken after a thorough discussion of the pluses and minuses for journalism credibility and cultural sensitivity.

A newsroom discussion should include the balancing of harms caused by violating cultural norms against the harms caused by not violating those norms. It is clear that violating prohibitions against filming or taking pictures causes harm to the individuals and groups who are unwillingly exposed, as would any unwarranted invasion of privacy. Many cultures also believe that violating those norms also causes harm to the violator. It is rare that there is harm caused to the viewers who do not see those pictures.

2). Under what conditions should people provide informed consent for their image being made or used?

It is rare for journalists (or journalism educators) to think in terms of informed consent. Journalistic research is not governed by the same boundaries set by Federal and institutional regulations for social science researchers. Although photojournalists or documentary filmmakers do not have the same legal obligations to make sure that their subjects are willing participants, they have no less of a moral obligation to make choices with consideration to the impact that their work will have on their subjects. Unlike other field researchers, journalists are not trained to consider how their greater power in relation to the subject might be exploitative; nor are they trained to consider the impact of their media representations of their subjects. However, journalists should understand that situations in which deception is the only choice for getting desperately needed pictures into the public domain are exceedingly rare. In almost every case that involves filming or taking stills of individuals or groups with customs different from the dominant culture, photojournalists should explain what they are doing and why.

Barabas reportedly received permission from the King of Mustang to film (on the condition that the Mustang army and police not find out), but no such opportunity to provide consent was extended to individual citizens of the country. It is common in traditional communities for research projects to require group or elder knowledge of the project as well as consent of individual participants. While that legal requirement does not extend to journalism, few journalistic endeavors in traditional communities would be harmed through an open discussion about the project's purpose.

3). What do news managers have a responsibility to tell viewers in regard to gathering techniques that violate minority cultural norms?

When the violation of cultural norms is necessary, the producers of the material should be prepared and able to defend that violation publicly and to do so in a way that provides viewers the choice of not participating in continued violations. Our friend felt angry at the film festival organizers for not having "established ethical standards for what they will and won't accept into the festival."

Whitfield made clear that the film sparked a discussion about ethics among conference organizers. "I wouldn't say that we support people taking photos without permission and without proper authorization. We try not to censor films or make choices for the greatest good. We'd rather our audiences make that decision for us."

Debra Hornsby, Marketing and Communications Manager for the Banff Mountain Film Festival said, "The intent of the film festival is to provide a platform for creative work from a multiplicity of viewpoints and cultural backgrounds." Noting that Mustang was not the first secretly-filmed piece that the Festival had showcased, Hornsby said, "It is important to allow those viewpoints to be heard," rather than reject the project for violation of local laws or customs.

The problem, of course, is that, without advance warning about the ethical concerns presented by the viewing, members of the audience are not given an opportunity to give consent to their participation. Invasions of privacy are repeatable violations. If individuals or groups feel harmed by the taking and showing of recorded images, then additional harm is caused by each display. Some members of the audience might choose to act on their own moral agency by declining the choice of participating in further violations. Here, Banff and other film festivals with similar viewpoints might take a lesson from television news in which pieces generally start with disclaimers or warnings for sensitive viewers when questionable content is forthcoming.

The Banff Film Festival requires that each entrant "represents and warrants material in the film being submitted by the entrant to the festival is libelous or defamatory or violates any right of privacy [emphasis added] or publicity of any person...." Hornsby said, "Our reading is that the film does not violate that stipulation in our regulations."

The stipulations of what the Banff Film Festival would disallow allows it, as do the stipulations of most news organizations, to stay on the right side of the law. This perspective ignores the ethical concern about the protection of subjects. Whitfield and Hornsby suggested that some of the controversy about Mustang might exist because the film was translated to English from the original Slovakian, but the arrogance of those who believe that they have a right to whatever they can take is a global concern. To our knowledge, no professional society codes of ethics address the need for journalists to be culturally sensitive in pursuing the news. We think they should.

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