Photography In a Public Space

Hugh Holland's iconic skate photos from 1975
One of Hugh Holland’s iconic skate photos from 1975

“The mundane is elevated to a photographic object; the everyday is now the site of potential news and visual archiving”

Daisuke Okabe, 2003

This quote perfectly captures the lives we live today. The ease of camera phones turns capturing a memory or moment into capturing the mundane. Pre-camera phones, it was film. Film was on the expensive side of things so every image counted whereas nowadays, digital photos make it easy to take as many photos as you want with no cost, no matter how terrible or important the photo or memory is. With this new found ease comes responsibilities. Whole new rules and guidelines of ethics were introduced no matter if the photo is public or private.

The ethics of photography can divide some people but for me, I find there is a difference between public space photography as an art and just taking a photo of something completely stupid. If someone were to be taking a photo of Circular Quay and I just so happened to be in their photo I wouldn’t ask them to delete it. Some public photos just have an audience too large for people to check the image. But, for example, taking a photo of someone on the train sleeping I think is an invasion of privacy particularly if it is to be posted on Facebook. If someone’s intentions are harmful or mean, then it shouldn’t be taken but it is also to be remembered that it is not illegal.

I think the best way to use ethnography in studying photograph ethics is to not be aware of who or what you’re taking photos of. The purpose is not to stand there and take photos of people intentionally to get a reaction or to be searching for people taking photos of you, but to do unknowingly. By doing this, personally, you feel as though you have an understanding of what your own beliefs and restraints are. Do you turn away if you notice someone’s taking a photo? Do you intentionally ask people if you mind taking a photo? To me, this is true ethnography.

I have seemed to have had my own lesson in ethics in photography without realizing it or needing conduct and ethnographic study to write this post. In 2011 I created an album on Facebook called “Outstanding Mullets” (yes, I was in year 10 OK). I endeavored to find the best mullets in Sydney and made an album for all of my finds. The hardest part for me was being sneaky enough to get a photo of the person without them or their parents noticing. Looking back at this now I realise how ethically wrong this is. I did not ask consent to take the photos nor to add them to a public album online and the intention was for a bit of a laugh. Now that’s the negative side of public photography. With the introduction of social media, it is now even more difficult to remove photos permanently, particularly of celebrities.

Now back to the art side of things. If there were strict legal rules about photos in public space, some of the most iconic and historic photos may not have ever been taken or released. Classic images from cinemas of couples, war photos, skate pictures from the 70s or fashion street style photos may never exist, which unknowingly shape our cultures. One of those in particular that I feel strongly about is street style photos. In the 70s, noted street style photographer Bill Cunningham, famously took photos of people on the streets of Manhattan. After doing this for decades, it wasn’t until 2005 when Scott Shuman started a blog to feature street style. Street style has undeniably become extremely important in magazines and influencing trends. Thousands of images are posted every fashion week season where I’m sure models and bloggers don’t mind getting their photo taken, posted online or in a magazine. One of my friend’s street style photos actually made it into British Vogue and she wasn’t complaining it. I did however watch a documentary on Bill Cunningham and did notice a few things about the subjects of the photos. Some of the people were reluctant to be photographed so they either turned away or asked him not to take a photo (probably unknowing of who and how influential he is). Bill was still persistent in getting the shot but I have now wondered whether he publishes those, which people ask not to be taken.


I think when it comes to photography in public or even private places, it can be tricky to define what should and shouldn’t be used. I guess as the photographer, you have to have common sense when it comes to identity and purpose in ethics and as a participant you have to voice how you feel about the image being taken.

This weeks post of the week is by Kate Scott. The personal research she took on really makes this post relatable as a student. Give it a read. Social Taboo Or Art? The Ethics Behind Street Photography