Monday, December 12, 2011

The Reader, the Library and the Lens

The man in this picture: what’s his story?
Of various photographs I’ve taken that show people reading in libraries, this one draws my attention the most. The man in the picture is not the first ever to be absorbed in a book. But his hands are almost clasped (in supplication, stress?), and the title of the book that tops the small selection next to him, Mass Destruction, is striking. The photo has him close up — although he’s half around a corner, facing away, there’s a sense of intimacy.
A public library is a public place. Photographic design (angle, distance) or accident (blurring) means few people are positively identifiable. And being seen reading or in almost any other library activity is not incriminating, nor anything to be ashamed of. So I keep using the camera. 
There is an ethical question, however: if people don’t know they’re being photographed or consent to it, am I crossing a boundary, taking something more than just a photo? (I’m not the only person who wrestles with ethical issues in this setting. The history of public libraries is full of books whose presence on the shelves has been challenged by outraged citizens or staff, and full of debates over intellectual freedom and privacy — particularly since the US Patriot Act.)
A comment by the New Zealand writer Fiona Farrell makes me think that even the observed reader maintains his privacy, has a room of (and on) his own. “It is always so difficult to tell what is going on in a reader’s mind,” she writes in The Broken Book. “...The reader could at one remove be experiencing the thrill of illicit passion or considering bloody rebellion. No wonder the dictators and leaders of cults burn books and issue their edicts of forbidden texts.”
Visit a Latitude of Libraries for Claire's full essay and more pictures.

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