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.