Ethics are in the View-Finder of the Beholder

man on train taku

We are so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we didn’t stop to think if we should.  A somewhat bastardised version of Jeff Goldblum’s famous quote from Jurassic Park, but one that I think holds great meaning in the debate surrounding public photography.

I absolutely love street photography, seeing images of people captured while doing menial/ everyday tasks.  There is just something intriguing and weird about seeing strangers complete these activities (crossing the street, running for a bus, etc.).  But when you’re capturing people’s images should you let them know?  Ask beforehand, and you may ruin the authenticity of the shot, try and ask after and you may not get the chance.  Surely it must be an unrealistic expectation.

man on stairs taku

As we have evolved from using big bulky cameras to smartphones, the way we approach photography has also evolved.  It’s safe to say that everyone now holds the power to take a photo, and regardless of skill anyone can now be a photographer.  But because the ability to photograph is now so widely accessible, have the ethics surrounding taken people’s photos changed?

Whether we like it or not in public we are constantly under ‘surveillance’ from CCTV cameras in the streets or photos being taken by others around us.  So if we can happily enter public spaces with the knowledge that we are being photographed should we care if someone ‘actively’ captures our image?  What I mean by this is, should we enter public space with the knowledge that we will inevitably be photographed, whether that’s by a professional or someone snapchatting their coffee.

street taku

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
That should be the greatest take-away from this, and a perspective which should be applied to many activities not just public photography.  The law may be on your side when it comes to taking these photos, but like… don’t be a dick.  If someone expresses their displeasure with you snapping them, respect this and just don’t do it.

For me, one of the most fun things about working in the city is trying to ‘photo-bomb’ tourist’s snaps.  I can only imagine what they think when they look through their cameras later and see a 6’2” white guy standing behind them.  But for as many images that I try to get into, I wonder how many have been taken without my knowledge?  In that moment, no matter how insignificant my presence is in that image, we have a common connection.  Two people who may otherwise have shared nothing, now have something.

While there is no law regarding taking pictures of people in public, you should always be wary of your subject and surroundings.  Personally, I think that unless you are actively engaging or having a specific person or group as the subject/ focus of that image, you shouldn’t need to seek their permission.  But I don’t think that this is an ethical dilemma that will be easily resolved soon.

hong kong flats

For some other perspectives on this ethical debate please go and check out these guys:

And for some more of the beautiful examples of public photography featured in this article have a look at the work of Australia music producer, photography and all-round good dude Ta-ku via Instagram or his website.

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