Papa D. and the Privacy Law: New dilemmas for researchers*

By Fridus Steijlen

Last April, I visited the mountain village of Bittuang in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia for the fourth time. This is one of the eight locations in which we record daily life for our audiovisual project Recording the Future. On each of our visits to Bittuang, we stay at Mama D.’s house. Visiting Bittuang and Mama D.’s makes me feel at home in the village and also within the family. We had already interviewed Mama D. and Papa D. a couple of times, along with their children and their partners.

This year, something special happened. When I sent a text message to Mama D. asking her if I and my three Indonesian colleagues would be welcome to visit again, she told me that Papa D. had passed away four months earlier and that his funeral was planned for September. In Toraja, people are buried above ground, and funerals are major events. Papa D.’s body was laid out behind a red curtain in a traditional house, a Tongkonan, in the village of his birth. This made the encounter with Mama D. all the more emotional. It was obvious that she missed Papa D. and that his absence during our visit had created an empty space. I told Mama D. that I would like to visit Papa D. in order to honour him and to say farewell to him. “Of course,” she replied. “You are like a relative to us. And, of course, you should film some footage inside Papa D.’s Tongkonan,” she said.

Visiting Papa D.

On the day we went to see Papa D, I received a request from my institute (the KITLV) to sign a form, through which I would agree to the use of a picture of me on its website. This was necessary due to the new and more stringent European data protection law that became effective this May. When we entered the Tongkonan, Papa C., the youngest son, emotionally announced to his father that we had arrived. He begged him to wake up and welcome us and talk with us. While I sat down, my colleagues started to record and to interview family members about Papa D. While sitting there and watching my colleagues talking with Mama D., I started to puzzle about the impact of the new privacy law. It requests that researchers are open and transparent about their goals and aims. Over the last 12 years, I have had multiple conversations with Mama D. and her husband about our activities. But did we really have the same understanding of what our team was doing? And of her family’s participation in the project over the course of all those years, and the implications for their privacy? And, to be honest, did I really understand those implications myself? Should I ask Mama D. to sign a release form? She considered me to be a relative of sorts and asking her to sign an agreement would feel like offending her.

Of course, I realise that the fact that she considers me kin of sorts and that she invited us to film in Papa D.’s Tongkonan does not give me the right to decide whether pictures of Papa D. and his family in mourning should be made available to the outside world. It is a difficult question, because as long as I am involved in the project, I can oversee how this intimate recording of collective mourning and the cultural meaning of death is used. But what if I am no longer associated with the project? Who will then take care of Mama D. and Papa D.’s intimate moments, and the emotional call made by Papa C., asking Papa D. to welcome us?

Where to next

The encounter with Papa D. in his Tongkonan and the observing of my colleagues as they filmed left me puzzled. In a way, I felt that I was paying tribute to Papa D. by adding these new recordings to the parts of his life we had already captured. But the intimacy of the moment forced me to think again about the privacy of people. I think that Papa D., as I knew him, would be proud to be part of this recording. But I cannot prove this because he did not sign an agreement. And the same goes for Mama D. On the day after our visit to the Tongkonan, I told her that our recordings would be watched by other people and wondered what she thought about that. “That is okay,” she said. “No problem.” But does she understand the implications? And, moreover, do I? I signed the agreement to allow my picture to be used by the KITLV. I do not know if the woman who is framed ‘orange fan’ in the online newspaper I saw that morning has signed a release form or that for the press different codes work.

What I do know is that the new privacy law stimulates us to think about privacy. But I do not know (or rather, I doubt) whether it will work in the field and in day-to-day anthropological work, for which we are using audiovisual techniques more and more. I would not want to hurt Mama D.’s feelings by asking her to sign a form. Yet, at the same time, our research partners have the right to privacy and for these very intimate moments — which, within the context of the research, become ‘data’ — not to be shared.

* In the spirit of the new privacy regulations, I anonymized Papa D. and I blurred the faces of the people gathering in the Tongkonan.

Fridus Steijlen is Professor Extraordinary ‘Moluccan Migration and Culture in a comparative perspective‘ at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the VU University, Amsterdam, and senior researcher at KITLV. He is working on postcolonial migration from Indonesia and daily life in present day Indonesia.

This essay was first published on the blog of KITLV.

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