March 12, 2011

Blogging archaeology: Photographs, locations, politics

Colleen Morgan over at Middle Savagery has a great new project going (already mentioned a few times here) called Blogging Archaeology, which is in anticipation of an upcoming session at this year's SAA meetings.  The link above highlights some of the responses to the first week's question: "Question 1: The emergence of the short form, or blog entry, is becoming a popular way to transmit a wide range of archaeological knowledge. What is the place of this conversation within academic, professional, and public discourse? Simply put, what can the short form do for archaeology?"   Definitely take the time to read through these posts, since there are some excellent, thoughtful responses.

So here's the question for this week:

"Blogging archaeology is often fraught with tensions that are sometimes not immediately apparent. Beyond the general problems that come with performing as a public intellectual, what risks do archaeologists take when they make themselves available to the public via blogging? What (if any) are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?"

For my answer I am going to focus on some of the dilemmas with posting photographs that can potentially reveal sensitive information.  I think Colleen's question for this week applies to both archaeology and anthropology in general, since choosing what to put online is always a critical issue (for academic, political, and even personal reasons).  It is definitely important to think about what's being posted, how it can be used, and what some of the potential impacts could be.

Monte Alban, Oaxaca, 2008

The photograph above was taken at a high profile site in Oaxaca, so it wasn't really an issue for me: people already know about this site.  But problems can come up when dealing with sites that are not publicly known (and protected).  While blogging is good for bringing about wider public understanding and knowledge about archaeology, there is good reason to think carefully about what we post.  I don't claim to have all of the answers, but I think about these questions all the time in the context of my own research and some of my past experiences.  Anthropology and archaeology can take us to some pretty amazing places, and it's a good thing to share these experiences with wider audiences.  At the same time, it's a good idea to at least think about what kinds of things should not be posted.  But it's not as if there is some clear cut line that makes everything simple.  Of course not.  Nothing is ever easy, is it?

When it comes to photographs (and naming specific locations), well, these issues always seem to be pretty difficult.  At some point we want to be able to talk about actual locations, rather than just vague regions.  Sometimes when everything is hidden there isn't much of the story left to tell.  So keeping everything anonymous certainly has its drawbacks, but there are also issues with letting people know where particular research sites exist (political reasons, etc).  As a general rule, I tend to be pretty conservative about the photographs that I post, especially those that relate to archaeological sites.  I worked on field projects while I was at SDSU and Palomar College in San Marcos, CA, and also worked on numerous CRM (cultural resource management) projects between 2004 and 2008.  Some of the projects were pretty amazing, and I always had my camera with me, but I didn't post all that much online, for some very specific reasons.  It's a fine line between bringing attention to an issue and making the location of a specific site known to broader audiences.  There were several sites that I worked on that either had sensitive material (burials, rock art, rock rings) or were in politically sensitive places (ie private property and so on).  Sometimes I will post photographs that show a general location, and provide a sense of the environment, but that don't really tell people where sites are specifically located, like this:

Anza-Borrego State Park, 2006.  This is where I spent most of the summer of 2006 working on a pretty massive CRM project.  Since we were out there in July and August, it was pretty hot (understatement).

Overall, though, I try to keep locations pretty vague when it comes to these kinds of archaeological sites.  But I would be interested to hear how some other folks deal with these kinds of issues.  How do you decide what to post, and what to leave out?  What kinds of issues (names, locations, politics, type of site, etc) do you take into consideration?  What kinds of methods do you use to give a sense of a site while still obscuring the location (I try to show landscapes that do not have specific landmarks that make the location easy to determine...sometimes you can show what a site looks like by providing a mid range shot that doesn't have a horizon).  In the end, these kinds of issues aren't exactly cut and dry, and there is never going to be one answer that works for all cases.  So it's a process that will always require thought and critical reflection.  When it comes to publishing and disseminating information, there are always going to be some risks.  It definitely helps to think through the issues at stake before posting online, rather than after.  Again, I'd be really interested to hear what others have to say about this.  I don't have all the answers, but considering my constant use of photography, I wish I did!

No comments: