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, <>

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