So after a series of failed attempts to take a decent, non-pixelated photograph of the inhabited public spaces I frequent, I thought I would take a look through my photo album instead to find patterns of technology usage. This meant sifting through a series of old baby photos, embarrassing tween selfies and really weird photos of the ground — why the ground? I don’t know.
It wasn’t until I got past all the photos of myself and friends, weird ground snaps and family portraits that I found what I was truly looking for — photographs of a public space occupied by others, many of them random individuals I didn’t actually know. The photos were taken on the 13th of April 2012 — for those not fluent in fan-girl, this was the moment One Direction played at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney for the very first time.
Looking at the photos that would be collecting dust in an album — if of course I didn’t have them saved to my hard-drive, — I found it quite intriguing to think that here I was, sitting in my lounge room looking at photos of people in a crowded space, many of whom I never knew, let alone will never get the chance to see again. Then I began to think about all the times my photograph was taken accidentally, all the times someone had captured my image without my knowledge. It kind of felt creepy, like someone had invaded my personal space while I was completely unaware of it. I don’t like having my picture taken at the best of times — unless I get to control the filter, and whether or not it is shared in the public domain — and despite this, my picture could be living in someone else’s photo library as I type.
I suddenly became ten times more aware of the importance of ethics and the value of care when capturing moments and sharing them with the world. So what makes public space ethnography acceptable? Where do we draw the line between being inquisitive versus being a down right stalker?
I strongly believe that context has a significant role in determining what is ethically sound when it comes to such ethnography. Say for example a street photographer captures an image without a subject’s knowledge, then uses the image for commercial purposes — maybe the photo is used on a public billboard. Is this okay? I personally don’t think so. Another point I want to make is that privacy is a key concern one should address when conducting public space ethnography. I think that if the image of an individual or a group of individuals is clearly identifiable, you should ask for the subject’s consent. I also believe that if a photograph is taken of someone and they later ask for the image to be deleted, this is a reasonable demand. Having empathy when carrying out such research is crucial, and one must consider the implications of their actions. Having discretion and following a moral code of conduct would make the research process far more effective.
Having said that, I share with you the images I unknowingly captured of strangers back in 2012. You will find that some of them are clutching their technological devices — iPhones, cameras and other means of communication — whilst others aren’t.
I think that these photographs meet the criteria I briefly mentioned, and thus capture public space ethnography and photo-taking in an ethical and morally just manner.
- Arts Law Centre of Australia, 2015, ‘Street Photographer’s Rights,’ Arts Law Information Sheets, Accessed 1 September 2015, <http://www.artslaw.com.au/info-sheets/info-sheet/street-photographers-rights/>
- Bowles, K. & Turnbull, S., 2015, ‘Lecture 6: Public Televisions and Personal Devices’, BCM240: Media Audience and Place, Lecture, 31 August 2015, University of Wollongong.
- Colberg, J., 2013, ‘The Ethics of Street Photograph,’ Conscientious Extend, April 3 2013, Accessed 1 September 2015, <http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/extended/archives/the_ethics_of_street_photography/>