If it is legal does that make it ethically OK too?

The Idea of taking a photo of someone secretly in public whom I don’t know is daunting. Not due to the fact that I don’t know this person but the fact that I’m secretly taking a photo of them without them knowing and if I positioned myself in their shoes, I wouldn’t be so pleased with it either. However, it comes down to what they are doing with that image and where it’ll be. Australia has no actual laws surrounding people taking photos in a public place but the question in street photography is ideally the ethics. Is it ethically right to take a photo of someone without them knowing? Should we have to get their permission to take a photo in a public place?

I believe it comes down to what the image is being used for, especially when the image is of a specific person. In this case, I’m taking photos of people on their phones in public to showcase the principle of public and private media practices. It’s a generalised concept I’m aiming to express, whereas others may use photos in degrading formats that makes the ethical ideas and questions be argued. The Arts Law Centre of Australia states that there aren’t publicity and privacy rights that protects a person’s image in public places however, ‘a person’s image can constitute ‘personal information’ under the Privacy Act 1988 with the consequence that there are circumstances in which businesses and agencies subject to that Act may breach the law by publishing a person’s image’ (Arts Law Centre of Australia, 2016). Basically it concerns how the image is being used and in what context it is being taken in the first place.

Colberg addresses the ethics of street photography and the issues towards permission in taking a photo. Although it may be legal to take a photo of someone in a public space, it doesn’t mean it’s ethical as well (Colberg, 2013). He expresses the idea that street photographers need to tell publics what they’re doing in a valuable and artistic sense and its overall purpose. Overall, if people don’t want to be photographed, ethically, this should be respected. With this in mind, I went around the University grounds to take photos of people on their phones. The approach I took when taking images was that if I was purposely taking a specific image of one individual; I approached them after and told them what I was using this image for and if it was alright to be published on my blog. I showed them the photo just to make sure it was appropriate and okay. Whereas if the photo was a particular group shot or had a large number of people in it, I didn’t bother asking as it would be impractical. However if someone had approached me, seeing me take photos and voiced their concern over it, there wishes would be respected and I would have deleted it.

The subject of my photos were mostly on their mobile devices and from what I can see was either texting, on social media or the occasional Pokemon Go. I only know this due to being able to tell by their movement of their finger movements touching the screen such as the swift tapping of the keyboard for texting or the scrolling movement on social media. Otherwise it was from what I saw on their screens as they were in front of me. These common media practices are evident in public and private settings and I guess was nothing out of the ordinary; but things rather expected from University students. There was nothing surprising, thus the concern over what peoples images were being used for was absent. It can be argued if this is OK or not in various public situations, such as walking around- that may cause interference as they aren’t paying actual attention but I believe it depends on the setting (if there are many people around that you may be interfering with). There was an instance where I was walking through a shopping centre and was on my phone quickly to turn it on silent before heading to work. I was walking behind a slower crowd so there wasn’t any danger or idea that I was interfering with anyone’s way but someone walked past and whispered in my ear ‘GET OFF YOUR PHONE’. Times like this, I believe I was in an OK situation but others might not. Pew Research Center conducted a research in which outlined that people aged 18-29 are more likely to approve of cell phone use in many public situations.

Overall, the purpose of the images is the main concern that people may have when allowing pictures of them being taken. Although it isn’t legally an issue for people to take a photo of others in public, it’s rather an ethical problem that needs to be carefully addressed while respecting others concerns and wishes.


Arts Law Centre of Australia, 2016, ‘Information Sheet- STREET PHOTOGRAPHERS RIGHTS 2016’ http://www.artslaw.com.au/images/uploads/Street_photographers_rights_2016.pdf

Colberg, J. 2013, ‘The Ethics of Street Photography’ in Conscientious Extended. http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/extended/archives/the_ethics_of_street_photography/

Rainie, L. Zickuhr, K. 2015, ‘Chapter 3- When it is acceptable- or not- to use cellphones in public spaces’ in PewResearchCenter. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/26/chapter-3-when-it-is-acceptable-or-not-to-use-cellphones-in-public-spaces/


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