The Ethics of Taking Photos of People In Public

As someone who does a two-hour commute to Sydney on public transport six times every week (I accept your pity), using devices in public spaces is the only reason I can maintain any kind of sanity.

But, does the use of these personal technologies by individual members of the public, in uncontrolled, unmediated, open public space pose any problems to things like privacy?

Consider this photo: 


This is a picture I took of rush hour on the Bondi to Kiama train; both a tradie and a business man are using their phones, and a girl in the background is holding her laptop. We were absolutely packed in like sardines on this train, and not only did these people have their phones out – even though there was hardly any room for hands to be extended from the body – but most people did, including myself. There was also an abundance of people who were lucky enough to have fought for a seat who were using their laptops.

The tradie isn’t even holding on to anything on the train to stabilise himself, and he was almost falling over each time the train stopped and started, but he still continued to use his phone.

While public media places of the past, like cinemas, are managed and controlled by a set of formal and informal rules and ideals, the new public media space doesn’t really have any rules.

I have already explored the constraints put on the public in a cinema, and will now work to explore what – if any – are the rules of personal media use in public spaces, focusing on photography; and what happens when someone’s photo is taken and ends up all over the world.

The formal rules of public space


The Arts and Law Street Photographers Rights information sheet outlines that:

“It is generally possible to take photographs in a public place without asking permission. This extends to taking photographs of buildings, sites and people. In a case involving street surveillance photography used as evidence in a criminal case, an Australian judge stated “a person, in our society, does not have a right not to be photographed.” (Arts Law Centre of Australia 2016, p. 1)

While there are no laws around permission, there are some limitations in place. You can not use someone’s image for advertisement purposes without their express permission, you can not photograph on private property, and some ‘public’ spaces (music venues, shopping centres, hospitals) might be owned by government or councils, and might be classed as private property.

The informal rules of public space


Of course, most people would approach street photography in a polite way. For example, the photo I took above doesn’t include anyone’s face – I have made sure to conceal their identities in case they didn’t want their photo taken. If I was in a more relaxed setting, I might have asked if I could take their photo, but because tensions run high on the afternoon commute and people are more often than not frustrated and tired, I thought this would be the best way to approach the photo, while still remaining ethical.

Not taking photos of children (unless necessary), not including faces of people, keeping an open dialogue if anyone questions what you are doing and respecting someone’s wishes are ways to remain ethical if undertaking street photography. If someone asks you to delete their photo, even after explaining to them what you are doing, how the photo will be used and why you’re taking it, you should probably delete it.

This idea is supported by Joerg Colberg in his blog, where he states:

“In other words, it might be perfectly legal to photograph someone in a public space, but something being legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical as well… If that means that street photography is in some sort of trouble then, well, so be it…

…The onus is on photographers and not on the public. Art photography occupies a tiny niche in this very large world, and we cannot expect the general public to have the same kind of knowledge and/or understanding of photography the members of this tiny niche have… if someone clearly does not want to be photographed or if they are for their photo to be deleted after the fact, then I do think those wishes have to be respected.”

Why does it matter? 

As a journalist, the lack of restrictions on street photography and photography in public places is a great thing for me. I will be able to film and take photos of public locations for any stories I might end up covering, and still be covered under the law. But on a more casual level, there might be consequences.

Because people do not have a right to not have their photo taken, theoretically anyone can be photographed, and then that photo could be shared online and turned into a meme or viral image.

These two images, one of a girl at a school and one of a marathon runner were both innocently taken, and uploaded on the internet where they both became the memes ‘confused black girl’, and ‘ridiculously photogenic guy’ respectively.

While the photo of ‘ridiculously photogenic guy’ going viral was helpful to him, who was trying to break into the PR industry in New York at the time, sometimes these viral photos of unsuspecting people have a negative effect.


‘Alex from Target’ was snapped by a girl who he was serving at his job (a public place), and the photo of him went viral and he was  thrown into instant internet fame. Because of this, he faced popularity, but also death threats and insults.

Of course, not all device use in public places, and not all street photography, will result in the creation of a meme, but because it is 2016 and social media and the internet make it incredibly likely your images will be seen by a lot of people and impossible to remove, there are more ethical questions to ask before taking photos of people.


Arts Law Centre of Australia 2016, Arts and Law Information Sheet Street Photographer’s Rights, Arts Law Centre of Australia, Sydney, <>

Colberg, J 2013, ‘The Ethics of Street Photography’, Conscientious Extended, weblog post, April 3, viewed September 11 2016, <>


The Only Home In Australia With No Internet

Apparently, I was in a minority when I was studying year 12.

The year was 2011, and I still lived at home with my mum. I was doing my HSC – without any internet access (I still have nightmares to this day). We technically lived in ‘the country’, but I refuse to blame my rural city of 30,000 people for my mother’s refusal to sign us up to a service provider.

We had the internet the year before, but we moved house in the first few months of 2011, and mum didn’t feel the need to reconnect it at the new house. It cost too much money, and she was sick of telling me to go to bed when she wandered into the lounge room in the early hours of the morning, while I was still wide awake and scrolling through some website or another.

At the time, 79% of Australian households had an internet connection in 2011, so we were in the minority (ABS 2014). And I hated it.




But it has been years, and I now have an internet connection to call my own. I recently called my mum to talk to her about her views on the internet. She still doesn’t have it in her home, which means she remains in the minority. Here is what she told me.

1. Television is still a massive spatial component in her home

Because she doesn’t have the internet connected, my mother’s house still revolves around the television. The lounge room in her home has the TV in the centre, and the couch is facing it. There is no dining room, and she has a tray she sits her meals on, while she watches TV and has dinner every night. There is a mattress on the ground directly in front of the TV, which she rests on after dinner, often falling asleep there – in front of the TV.


She doesn’t feel the need to have the internet because she has everything she needs – entertainment wise – with the TV. She isn’t networked in the same way that I am, and she doesn’t understand why people need the internet. But she does need her TV, and she considers it to be the heart of her home.

This reliance on media is summed up in ‘Consuming Technologies: Media and Information in Domestic Spaces‘, a book by Eric Hirsch,  a professor of media studies, and Roger Silverstone, a social anthropologist and researcher:

“Why do communication and information technologies pose especial problems? One simple answer is, of course, that these technologies are not just objects: they are media. And it is their status as media which distinguishes them relatively, if not absolutely, from other objects such as plants or pictures, and other technologies such as refrigerators or hair dryers or hammers.” (Hirsch & Silverstone 2003, p. 15)

What is being suggested above is that we put more emphasis and worth onto technologies like televisions and the internet because they are media – and therefore interactive. Of course we give more attention to a technology which engages with us in numerous ways and on many different levels.


I’d suggest that my mum has no spatial or emotional connection to the internet, unlike most people in my generation, because she hasn’t been exposed to it, and hasn’t had an opportunity to engage with it.

She hasn’t experienced the internet in this way because…

2. She doesn’t fit the ‘normal’ internet-having demographic

In her article ‘Available in Selected Metros Only: Rural Melancholy and the Promise of Online Connectivity‘, Melissa Gregg explores why people who live in rural areas (like my mother) aren’t the focus of the Australian government’s broadband plan. She notes that:

“the promise of online connectivity is packaged as part of a suburban lifestyle that presumes wealthy (note the number of computers), leisured, nuclear families with stereotypical gender interests.” (Gregg 2010, p. 160).

My mother is not suburban, definitely not wealthy, we were never a nuclear family, and she falls outside of stereotypical gender interests. Gregg continues:

“Telstra’s extensive market research clearly corresponds with publicly accessible studies conducted by government agencies that show the presence of school‐age children is the principal factor in determining household broadband adoption—followed by income, education, occupation and employment… they also build a case for asking why broadband would ever be relevant to older citizens, or the poor or unemployed.” (Gregg 2010, p. 160.)

My mother hasn’t had school aged children in over five years, and she is older (50 plus), and poor. Perhaps these are reasons she doesn’t have, want, or need an internet connection.

While the internet may be changing the home spaces and practices of most families across Australia, my mum and her house are (for the time being) still stuck centred around the television.


Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014, Household Use of Information Technology 2012-13, cat. no.8146.0, viewed 10 September 2016, <>.

Gregg, M 2010,  ‘Available in Selected Metros Only Rural Melancholy and the Promise of Online Connectivity’, Cultural Studies Review, vol 16, no 1, pp. 155 – 169,<>