From a Navajo elder - a lesson in respecting privacy

He was a slender, elegant man. His face, though lighter-skinned than the typical Navajo's, was clearly Indian - as craggy as the outcroppings of rock in his native Arizona landscape. His cream-colored sombrero sat upon gray hair pulled back into a short pony tail; and against his fawn shirt he wore a grand collection of silver-and-turquoise jewelry. He was, in fact, the picture of Navajo dignity.

My daughter and I first saw him in the shopping-center parking lot. In obedience to the dictates of photojournalism - at which, I confess, I am a rank amateur - we had staked out a place by the grocery-store door. I had time for but one picture as he approached. As I clicked the shutter, he seemed almost to pause; then he went on instead into the supermarket. I was delighted: Unposed and unsought, he summarized in one image so much of the tradition and grace of his tribe. His picture was a real prize.

After a few moments, I too went inside; and finding him in a rear aisle, I snapped a second picture. He looked directly at me for a moment. Then, in a voice firm with understated rebuke, he simply said, ''No pictures.''

''May I take your picture?'' I ventured.

''No pictures,'' he repeated softly, walking away.

I complied; but the depth of my moral dilemma did not immediately dawn on me. I was going about my business when my daughter put it to me squarely.

''Are you going to publish his picture, then?'' she asked.

Her query brought me up short. He was the photojournalist's dream. He had taken no pains to hide himself, but had chosen to venture forth in public - had, in a sense, already published himself. To reproduce his image would surely further one of journalism's noble aims: to increase respect and understanding among the races. How could I not use his picture?

Yet I knew, deep down, that the matter was not that simple. I recalled having heard something which, the following day, a Navajo acquaintance reconfirmed: that taking a picture is, for many Indians, a way of taking away some part of the individual - usually without permission. And I recognized a purely professional problem. Had I been recording words, I would have honored without question the wishes of any subject who said, ''That's off the record.'' I would have respected unhesitatingly that desire for privacy.

And there, if you will, is journalism's dilemma: how to balance the right of individual privacy with the desire of the public to know and understand the world. At its worst, the dilemma produces the real disgraces of journalists who televise scenes of personal tragedy, adopt disguises to elicit information, or insist that public figures should have no private lives. But those sorts of flagrant breaches don't pose the real dilemma. Far more difficult are those moments when everything about a story cries out for publication - except an explicit desire for privacy.

Is there a way through this dilemma? Only, it seems, in the consciences of individual journalists and editors. It is there that the precepts of social conduct (of which the golden rule remains a fine example) must operate. It is there, too, that respect for the individual must take a primary place. It is there that the press must work harder to find ways (and there are always ways) to both tell the needed story and respect the needed privacy.

In this sense, that Navajo elder deserves both the story and the privacy. His lesson has been shared. His picture remains unpublished. I trust that is how he would want it.

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