In the day and age of modern technology, where everyone has a phone with a camera on it, are we free to take photos of whoever and whatever we wish?
Well yes and no.
According to Arts Law Center of Australia – Street Photographer’s Right it is perfectly legal to take photos of people in the public, even without their permission. “It is generally possible to take photographs in a public place without asking permission. This extends to taking photographs of buildings, sites and people…There are no publicity or personality rights in Australia, and there is no right to privacy that protects a person’s image.”
As long as the photographer does not breach the following circumstances (The Arts Law Centre of Australia, 2016):
- If the publication of the photograph of a person is a breach of the Privacy Act
- If the photographs of person were obtained as the result of the photographer trespassing on private property
- If the taking of the photography results in the breach of a duty, such as a duty to keep information confidential.
So in taking a photo of this man sitting alone on his phone in Melbourne’s busy Swanston Street, I am fully in my legal right to take the photo, and to upload it to my WordPress blog.
But is it ethical?
Well according to some academics, although it is legal to take and publish someone’s image in the public sphere, it is not ethical to do so unless you ask them for their permission first (Gross, Katz and Ruby, 1991)
It also recommended that the photographer informs the subject of the photograph of the purpose of the photography, but only to the most absolutely minimal amount required to gain permission by the individual.
When I took the photo of the unknown man sitting on his phone on Swanston street, I did not ask his permission, nor did I inform him of the purpose of my photography. In fact, I did not even tell him that his image would be uploaded to this website, where it shall sit in perpetuity.
So was I being unethical?
If there was no injury or deception to the individual in the image, is it really unethical to publish his image? If it is his image as was available to be seen by others in the public? Some academics argue that it is only in the context of issues such as deception or lying that ethics come into the question with public photography (Long, 1991).
Does the care or discretion of the man come into question with this image? If I have not damaged his reputation or lied through the image about him, is it still ethical to publish his image without his knowledge or consent?
Honestly that question still remains open to me.
It is to be left to each individual photographer or researcher what they do in the safety of the law. What they do, and how they perceive the ethics of their actions is entirely up to them.
But how does a group of researchers come to an understanding of the ethical issues presented in their work?
How does public space ethnography successfully resolve this conundrum?
The answer is ethnography itself. Due to the inherent nature of ethnography as a cohesive, mindful approach to wholesome cooperation along all moments of research (Schwartz, 1989). When executing ethnography each individual researcher has come together with their partners to discuss the ethical approach they will incorporate into their research.
It is an imperative that this cohesion occur, because to do anything otherwise would not count as ethnography.
Thus, with a wholesome approach to public space ethnography, the research itself becomes faster, easier, and more understandable (Hannerz, 2003).
This approach safeguards the work of all researchers, and streamlines the research itself, making it all the more effective.
In the case of the unknown man, public space ethnography would have been a much more ethical approach, as it would have been agreed that his permission, or at least knowledge, would have been sought before the photo was taken.
All it would have taken was the question:
“Can I take your photo?”
Gross, L., Katz, J. and Ruby, J. (1991). Image Ethics. New York: OUP USA.
Hannerz, U. (2003). Being there… and there… and there!: Reflections on Multi-Site Ethnography. Ethnography, 4(2), pp.201-216.
Long, J.(1999). Ethics in the age of digital photography: Csimmonds.pbworks.com
Schwartz, D. (1989). Visual ethnography: Using photography in qualitative research. Qual Sociol, 12(2), pp.119-154.
The Arts Law Centre of Australia, (2016). Street Photographer’s Rights. Australian Government.