The other day, a man with Tourette Syndrome got on the subway. The scenario played out as it usually does – people were jolted by an out-of-place sound, looked straight at the source for a few seconds until they figured out what was happening, and then slowly turned their attention back to what they were doing before. There’s an overwhelming normative pressure after a few seconds to look away – he can’t help it, don’t make him feel awkward. But what are the ethics of listening in a situation like this?
The human question of when to look or not look is usually clear-cut. When in doubt, don’t. And whatever rules apply to your eyes apply ten times as powerfully to any recording device you might be carrying. A person with (what seem to be) unfortunate physical anomalies is not to be photographed unless you know them very well, and unless you can convincingly demonstrate to the viewer that you are framing the subject out of consideration, not exploitation.
Photographers have negotiated these normative strictures throughout the life of the medium. Street photographers like Diane Arbus (and just about any war photographer you can name) have been called exploitative, even as they insist that their work carries a greater journalistic or aesthetic value. Many professional photographers habitually carry a copy of Krages’ “Photographer’s Right,” a document that explains in one page that a photographer can legally document anything and anyone publicly visible to them. They produce this when confronted by a police officer or private citizen who questions their right to take a picture of something, which happens more often than you might expect, a testament to deep-seated expectations about what kinds of documentations are or should be OK.
Audio recording presents a unique set of ethical issues that overlap but do not align with photography’s. I am curious to hear from readers their thoughts on a few specific questions.
– When is it appropriate or inappropriate to use a sound recording device?
– When is it appropriate or inappropriate to use a fully concealed sound recording device?
– What constitutes an ethical presentation of sonic material? (i.e. if I had recorded the man on the subway, should I have asked his permission before posting the piece here?).