Can I take a photo of you?


As a pretty open and sharing person, the topic of ethics in photography is something I don’t put a lot of thought into. In my opinion, and after chatting to a close photography friend, most of the time the best photos are the candid ones where strangers don’t know that a photo is being taken – honestly, stop and think about how weird it is that we all stop what we are doing, smile and pose to capture a moment when really the best way to remember a moment is to have a photo of exactly what that is. Out of every photo I have ever been in or taken, my favourites are by far those when no one is looking at the camera. And so for this post, even though it is a struggle, I’m going to try to adopt an open mind and try to see both sides of the ethical dilemma of public space photography.

When public space photography is okay:

For Art’s sake: I am forever in awe of art, and so I am definitely in support of this argument. There are times that public space photography is incredibly powerful in telling a story or evoking emotions, times where a staged or posed photo just will not send the same message. And it is not just artists who are in support of this; the law seems to agree with the use of public space photography for art. An example of this is the case of Arne Svenson and his exhibition, ‘The Neighbors’. Svenson took photos of New York residents inside their Manhattan apartments without their consent and after stumbling across the photos, two subjects filed a complaint against Svenson since the photos featured their children half-naked and were used to promote the exhibition where they would be put up for sale, thus constituting advertising and trade. However, the court ruled in favour of Svenson since the photos were works of art.

Journalism: It is clear that citizen journalism has had a huge impact on the way we connect with, and the insight we gain about stories around the world. Public space photography in terms of citizen journalism is in my eyes the most acceptable form of public space photography. Without smartphones we wouldn’t have on-the-ground evidence of events that occur around the world, evidence that if not for public space photography and citizen journalism might not ever be seen by the public due to mainstream media control and also the safety of standard journalists being in certain locations. And so, when it comes to journalism, public space photography should be acceptable, however, there are definitely instances where blurring of faces or caution may need to be implemented.

Others: Through personal experience, there are other circumstances where public space photography is acceptable. Such as people taking photos to showcase people doing the wrong thing, like damaging or stealing people’s property or behaving inexcusably in public.

When public space photography is not okay:

Consent: There are too many instances where people have been left feeling embarrassed or violated after a photo or footage of themselves is viewed by many in the public domain without their consent. One example that comes to my mind is when mainstream news outlets far too often take footage of overweight people walking in a public space and use that footage in a story. Now I’m no channel 7 cameraman but I can almost guarantee that consent is not received to film them for a fat shaming story. Building on that, footage of people looking at their phones too often, listening to music when crossing the road, being too drunk at a festival, etc. all depict the people in a negative light and consent would never be given – and so the subject could be watching the news at home and suddenly see themselves on a million-viewer program looking awful. To me, this is where unconsented public space photography becomes an issue. However, according to this article, when taking images of groups of people in public spaces or at events, “it is [sometimes] not practical, or indeed necessary, to obtain consent from people present.” The critical factor, according to the article, is whether or not a person is identifiable.

Getting in the way of the moment: Admittedly, this argument has less to do with public space photography and more to do with public space media use, but I think the two go hand-in-hand. We all know what I’m talking about – the habit of pulling out an iPhone and putting it in between the moment and ourselves. We are a technologically immersed culture that feels the need to document everything we do and share it with the world – I’m not saying that I’m not thoroughly guilty of this too – but when the public space media use gets in the way of the real world and the real moment, this is when it becomes an issue. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been brave enough to do this, but not taking your phone to something – for me, it’s when I hike – makes the moment all the more special. Sure, take a camera to capture the memory, but there is something about being alone at the top of a mountain looking at an incredible view and only keeping that moment to yourself for a while that makes you feel so ridiculously insignificant, in the best kind of way.

So that’s where I stand in terms of public space photography and media use and the ethics of it all. Whilst my indecisiveness didn’t really achieve anything, I think we are all capable of knowing right and wrong to an extent anyway. Eric Kim and Bruce Gilden hold a similar view, they say that ethical feels right. Exploitative doesn’t. We are capable of deciphering this.


Thick Ethic Confusion: what is right and what is wrong?

image sourced from:
image sourced from:

Ethics can be thought of as being common moral guidelines which are intended to help us differentiate between right and wrong (Tinkler, 2013). The BBC defines ethics as ‘a system of moral principles, affecting how people make their decision and lead their lives’. Ethics are important to ensure that people worldwide understand what is acceptable—to guarantee people adhere to standards that promote understanding and justice. But it is rarely that simple. With no fixed answers as to what is exactly right or wrong, ethics can be highly subjective. This is due to the fact that standards of ethics depend on various different factors such as ‘discipline, political system, legal system, religious/social system, research content, setting/institution and time in history’ (McCutcheon, 2015).

Social media websites are increasingly being used as vast tools for research, opening up new opportunities for researchers. However, this new and rapidly expanding form of research tool has raised several challenges and concerns in regards to ethics. Social media websites have the ability to collect personal information from users when they set up an account – personal information including name, gender, age, location etc. As well as this, statistical information can also be collected through a person’s use of social media, such as their time of use, frequency of use, types of people and activities engaged with, which external links are clicked on, etc. etc.: pretty much anything a person does on social media can be seen, stored, analysed and utilised by social media analysts. But with this ability to track users come several ethical issues. One recent example where these ethical issues are clear is the experiment conducted by Kramer (Core Data Science Team, Facebook, Inc.), Guillory and Hancock (both from the Departments of Communication and Information Science, Cornell University). Facebook examined the experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks with the intention to find out whether ‘emotional contagions’ affect the emotions of social media users – that is, whether the emotions of social media users and their content was contagious to other users. But, in order to conduct this experiment, the research team used filtering software which allowed the researchers to filter through user’s newsfeeds. Even though the filtering system was backed by Facebook’s Data Use Policy which every user had to agree to on creating an account (yeah, because everyone reads the 100000 page policy book and doesn’t just click ‘I agree’), it is the fact that the 689, 003 participants, chosen at random, had no idea that they were being a part of the study which raises ethical issues. There was absolutely no level of informed consent. This experiment has led to many concerns amongst the recent media research which features social media statistics. I definitely believe that any social media user should be directly informed if their activities are being watched and recorded for media research; even though I would be totally fine with my data being used, and I’m sure most people would also be, it is just the fact of knowing that I am being watched which would make the report much more ethical.

Ethics are pretty much just a big subjective ball of confusion, with every person having a slightly different perspective on what is right or wrong. But regardless, it is clear that codes of ethics are definitely necessary in research in order to protect the rights and emotions of every human being.



Kramer, A. D. I., Guillory, J. E. & Hancock, J. T. 2014, ‘Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 24, pp. 8788-8790.

McCutcheon, M. 2015 Research Ethics, BCM210, University of Wollongong, accessed 29 March 2015

Tinkler, P 2013, ‘Ethical issues and legalities,’ Using photos in social and historical research, SAGE, London, pp. 195-208, viewed 29 March 2015, <>.