I’m used to watching people, to paying attention. I watch people as they walk through spaces, I eavesdrop, I try to write their stories in my mind. I watch people’s mouths as they speak to me. I watch their eyes crinkle. I watch them tuck their hands in their pockets and shrug their shoulders, cock their heads to communicate consideration.
I’m used to being uncomfortable being watched. I feel watched in the dining halls at school, when I have to weave between tables to reach my friends. I feel watched when I walk the streets in Portland and now in Hong Kong. I feel watched in the airport when I cry over leaving home.
There is a line where I wonder about watching. I wonder if it’s okay for me to walk through spaces where people are struggling or trying to work or just trying to live, just watching and disrupting them. I wonder if it’s okay to watch people just for my own benefit. I wonder if it’s okay to go into stores and watch the workers, to pick up all the products, catalog them in my mind then retreat to write about the experience in my journal, to tuck it away to share with friends when I get home.
What are the ethics involved in watching? Do we owe something to the people that we watch if we somehow benefit from the interaction? Do we owe something only if it’s intentional? What does reciprocity look like in the case of the watcher and the watched? Is it enough just to buy a couple vegetable samosas? To say thank you and look people in the eye when they speak to me, ask me to come into their restaurant, ask me to do something in exchange for my observation, ask me to participate rather than just watch?