Photo/stories from the field: anonymous portraits and other practices in the ethics of representation

In writing with Christos about child photographers for the Encyclopaedia of Children and Childhood I remembered Sally Mann’s iconic work Immediate Family. The work, featuring her three children, published in 1992 is a reminder of the anxieties that the nexus of childhood and photography stirs up. Public outcry on photography of children is fuelled by ideas of childhood innocence and fears of exploitation and vulnerability. These anxieties have been on the rise in the UK, and culminated with the case of the Plymouth nursery worker in 2009 who admitted to assaulting and photographing children in her care and sharing the pictures with two accomplices online. The case resulted in stringent photographic practices in early years settings and schools, and public suspicion of street photography involving children. In the Global South, photography of children is approached with different fears of exploitation and the propagation of harmful racial stereotypes, as the recent case of National Geographic suggests.  More generally, the issue of digital footprint has become ever more pressing as our lives go online, and we share images of ourselves, each other and our children.

It is in this climate that research on the Connectors Study has been undertaken, and we had to think seriously about the use of visual methods with children from the outset. The above examples are of photography of children, our project reversed the roles and put children in the photographer’s role, documenters of their own lives.

From the outset, we spoke extensively to children about the ethics of representation, both their own representation and that of others as they went off with the digital cameras with which we provided them to document what mattered to them in everyday life. We explained anonymity and its limits as ‘not telling people (including your parents) that it was you who told us something, unless you tell us you are being harmed’. Translating such ethics into visual language is challenging. The requirements of anonymity for most social research and with children in particular, makes conventional portrait photography difficult.  Drawing on the International Visual Sociology Association’s Statement of Ethical Practice and the NSPCC photographic guidance (which is far more sensible than I expected it to be at the time, and now no longer exists although can be accessed through the Internet Archive), as well as legal advice for drawing up legally compliant ‘media release forms’, we talked about anonymity in photography in terms of faces. We explained that of all parts of the body our faces identify us the most, but our bodies are also who we are and so we thought together about creative ways to take pictures of ourselves and others that told a story about who we/they were without revealing their identity.

Some children adhered to these ethical codes and did not take many or any photos of people, or experimented with creative approaches and unusual angles. In one case, and slightly mortifying because the outcome was utterly unintended, one London mother told us that her son would now not take any photographs of faces because he thought that photography should not include faces! Most children ignored us however and followed the more established photographic conventions of portraiture. We have collected lots of selfies, as well as photos of mothers and fathers, siblings, and friends and strangers on the street. We won’t be making any of these photographs public but they do inform our analyses, and we look for creative ways to anonymise them where using them adds to a prose (e.g. PPT has a handy ‘impressionist’ blurring function which gives a sense of an image without revealing identity).

Alongside our multimodal ethnography, we also experimented with publics creating methodologies in the form of an exhibition and the blog. So, what do with all these faces? In preparation for the workshops we ran with children as part of our photo/story method, and during the workshops, we reiterated the approach to anonymity we had taken. Many of the children, within these parameters, chose to make photo/stories using pictures where faces where not visible. In a minority of cases, children continued to flout research ethics and used photos of themselves and their friends, their parents and their siblings. Here we relied on a situated and processual ethics approach. Situated and processual ethics (Neale et al, 2012) understands ethical decision-making as an ongoing and dialogical process, a discussion between children, families and researchers in this case. In all cases, the use and audience of the image was explained. For those photo/stories that used images we got permission from study parents and child, as well as the friends and their parents who featured in the images. Throughout the project we also used an internal newsletter, featuring study children’s photography, as a way of giving a flavour of what going public with an image or one’s image might feel like.  Parents were the children’s first public at the end of the children workshops in spring of 2015 when we exhibited the children’s photo/stories on the wall, and separate private viewing was held for families before the exhibition public opening.

A final challenge we grappled with was recognition. Yes, we were doing research and that meant guaranteeing anonymity as much as possible but within the conventions of exhibiting, we also wanted to practice some form of recognition of the children as creators of the photo/stories. The photo/stories were their work, not ours. Here we came up with the idea of ‘anonymous portraits’ of the children as a way of acknowledging their authorship of the photo/stories without compromising their identities. The idea came from both artistic and activist practices past and present.  There is a long tradition in both of concealing one’s legal identity in order to safely make private troubles public when it was unlikely that a novel by a woman author would be published or the raising of a contentious issue would endanger someone’s life. During the children’s workshops, we worked together to take anonymous portraits. We asked children to strike a pose that said something about them without revealing their faces. The children took photos of each other with a polaroid camera, a professional photographer worked with the children to take the same portrait with a DSLR for better image quality*.

Of course, our faces are not the only way we can recognise each other. Tattoos, jewellery, clothing, a voice, a particular stance may all be a signature of identity, especially for those who know us well.  It is also not possible to define all audiences: many people who came to the exhibitions we hosted took photographs of the photo/stories on their mobile phones and the exhibition catalogue is freely available to download from the study blog. We have no control over the reproduction and circulation of images once they are out there. It is also the case that retrospectively those who were happy in the present to consent to their use of their image might change their mind, and we will need to have those discussion of what we do if that is the case. Our judgement was that the images that the children produced and chose to use, following discussion with us and their parents, were ‘low risk’. Most parents also felt similarly.  The images collected overall, as well as those used, are not the visceral, uncanny or perhaps intimate portraits found in Immediate Family. There are things that artists and artists/mothers can achieve with the camera lens that researchers and their subjects do not. But our children’s photographs go a long way in conveying the vicissitudes of their everyday lives from their perspective and following their aesthetic canons, and this is worth circulating more widely and understanding more profoundly.

*In London, the photographer Marysa Dowling had already and unbeknown to us at the time of coming up with the idea of ‘anonymous portraits’ been developing her own similar photographic practice called ‘concealed portraits’ and we connected over the similarities of our thinking. You can see Marysa’s conceal-reveal project here. We thank Ioannis Kafkas and Pranay Rupani for working with us in Athens and Hyderabad respectively.