Ethics of Photography in Public

I wanted to start off this post with a video I found that talks about one opinion about the appropriate ways to use your phone in public spaces.

I thought this video was interesting because how devices have changed how people interact with others and the world around them.

We all own more than one device. That’s just how things are now. That’s just how we are able to get things done. Especially as a university student, we need a laptop to access the internet and complete readings and assignments. But then whilst we are doing that, we use our phones to talk to friends and family, scroll through social media and read the latest Buzzfeed articles. The photo below encapsulates this:


Student of BCM240, Grace


This is Grace, who is also completing the same subject. The photograph was taken at The Lounge at university whilst we were both trying to write up blog posts for an assignment. Grace is pictured on her phone whilst on her laptop. There is a convergence of media use – educational use and social use. Not only that, the concept of the ‘ambient television’ can be applied to her laptop. Grace would switch to her phone if she was waiting for something to load for example. There is this notion that our mind needs to be occupied by something at all times or we get bored and move on to something else. Most of the rules of ambient television, whilst written in 1982, are still relevant now with the use of mobile phones.


Rule one states that people will adjust their behaviour to be in line with the social rules of the setting. I have observed this at uni whilst waiting outside of a classroom. Students will wait around the door, barely anyone talking, and everyone on their phones. The space became a non-interactive space.

Rule two stipulates that people will make sure not to interfere with others whilst they are using their devices. This was again shown by the silence and lack of eye contact in waiting room areas.

Rule three states that people will orient themselves to the screen even when not watching. This is true as people may look down at their phones just to avoid conversation and awkward silences. This relates much to rule four as well, as phones will be used to block out the distractions around them as they are emersed in the digital world.

Back to the photograph of Grace; it was taken with her permission. I asked her because I wouldn’t want someone to take a photo of me and post it on the net without my consent. We live in the age of selfies and instant uploads, so what are the ethics when it comes to taking photos in public? Joerg Colberg wrote an article which talked about whether or not a photographer could take a photo of anything or anyone they wanted in a public space, regardless of consent from the people who happen to be in the images. He says that whilst it is legal to photograph someone in a public space, it does not make it ethical. This excerpt is particularly important:

“The onus is on photographers and not on the public. Art photography occupies a tiny niche in this very large world, and we cannot expect the general public to have the same kind of knowledge and/or understanding of photography the members of this tiny niche have.”

It’s about respecting the feelings of others. With many other things in our world, nothing can be done without consent to ensure both parties know where each other stands. The same goes with photography in public. If someone does not wish to be photographed, their wish should be accepted. This is the concept of media use in public. Your use of you device shouldn’t affect others, and if it does, they have a right to decide whether or not they want to be involved.

Do you think photographers have a right to take photographs of anyone they want without asking for permission? Do you think there is harm in that? Let me know in the comments.



Colberg, J. (2013) The ethics of street photography. Available at: (Accessed: 1 October 2016).

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