Naked Grandmothers on the ‘Net

How would you feel about naked photos of your grandmother circulating the Internet?


That’s the question we put to delegates from Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and Denmark during a two-day Digital Futures workshop hosted last month at University of Ghana, Legon. Our discussion on “Digital Ethics” was sandwiched between others workshop sessions dealing with digitisation project management, metadata, and fundraising, facilitated primarily by Simon Tanner, King’s College London, and Perpetua Dadzie, University of Ghana.

An attack of Domsor- a (semi) affectionate term Ghanaians use for the frequent power outrages inflicted on them by ECG, the state energy supplier- meant a slight reshuffling of the workshop programme and us leading the late afternoon session on day two. Heat, humidity and a heavy lunch left us wondering if delegates would in fact be dozing their way through the discussion. How wrong we were! Digital ethics, it seems, is as much an obsession for others as it is for us at Books meet Computers, especially when the topic at hand is digitising Africa’s misappropriated heritage.

The scenario we presented was entirely imaginary but, like all good fiction, had its roots in reality. Imagine, we said, that an archive somewhere in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province has been given money to digitise its collections with the proviso it makes them available online. (“Given money?” you ask! Ok, so we took more than a pinch of poetic license.) Anyway, while rooting through their “fictional” archives, the archivists come across a whole photographic collection of an indigenous San community, taken in the 1890s. Among these are several pictures of naked men and women. What should the fictional archives do?

Because we like to mix things up a little bit, the delegates divided into groups and each took on a particular role in the decision making process: granddaughter of the woman in the photograph; President of the funding body; grandson of the photographer; Head Archivist; Indigenous People’s Rights Activist were among them.

Delegates defend their position on digitising the photo in question

Delegates defend their position on digitising the photo in question

Some pretty thought-provoking points came up over the next half hour, as did some creative solutions. The group representing the Archivists argued for digitising and making the photo available on grounds of historical significance. One of our Indigenous Peoples Activist groups wanted the photo available to use as part of a campaign showing how indigenous people had been exploited in the past and needed compensation.

Each group touched on copyright issues but were more concerned about ethics than legality. Anticipating backlash from the San community, groups suggested various ways to make the photo “less offensive,” ranging from blurring the private parts of the photographed woman before putting online, to restricting access to the photo and consulting first with the community.

Interestingly, only one group said an outright NO to digitising the image. That said, their argument –that the San community suffered unimaginable economic, social and cultural humiliation under colonialism and apartheid, and putting the photo online was a further violation of their rights- was fairly convincing.

However, every other group said they would opt to digitise the photo, albeit with caveats. While we may have decided differently, democracy rules! But we can’t help wondering if responses would’ve been different if we’d asked elsewhere…

Finally, a big thank you to everyone taking part and to University of Ghana for their wonderful hospitality.

"Debating the ethics of digitisation." The Digital Futures 2015 workshop group, taken outisde the Balme Library,, University of Ghana, Legon

“Debating the ethics of digitisation.” The Digital Futures 2015 workshop group, taken outisde the Balme Library,, University of Ghana, Legon