Photographing In Public Spaces – Are Ethics Essential?

Photographing In Public Spaces – Are Ethics Essential?


Last month, I attended the City2Surf to capture footage for one of my sporting journalism projects. I was a bit hesitant about this at first, as I wasn’t sure if it was legal to photograph strangers. However, after reading “Street Photographer’s Rights” by the Arts Law Centre of Australia, I discovered that it is legal to photograph strangers in public without their permission, as long as these photographs aren’t intended for commercial purposes. I was pleased to hear this, as filming strangers is already awkward enough without having to worry that you’re doing something illegal.

Although, according to “The Ethics of Street Photography” by Joerg Colberg, just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s ethical. It’s important to adopt an ethical approach when photographing people in public. Some people will not want you to take their photograph, and it’s recommended that you take their concerns into consideration. This will demonstrate that you are a professional who cares about your work, and the people you’re working with.

The NPAA Voice of Visual Journalists Code of Ethics also states that in order to practice good ethics, a photographer should not be invasive, their images should be originals and they must be taken in a public space. I believe that the images I captured in my project meet these standards, which is why I’m going to showcase them in this blog post.

As it turned out, I hardly needed to worry about the awkwardness of filming people in public. When I arrived at the starting area, I discovered that most of the City2Surf competitors didn’t even notice that I was filming them. They were so consumed with their mobile devices that they were oblivious to their surroundings, and to me. While this wasn’t an entirely shocking revelation, I was still a bit surprised by it. The aim of this project was to obtain unique images and videos of the competitors as they prepared for, and competed, in the 14-kilometre race from the city to Bondi Beach. And although I did accomplish this goal, I also managed to capture a lot of images in an ethnographic public space that prove just how dependent we have become on mobile technology.

As I stood with my mobile phone camera kit and microphone, I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible, but there’s only so much you can hide when you’re in a public space. I tried to set up my equipment in hidden areas, as I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself. My intent was to observe people in an ethnographic manner, so that they wouldn’t alter their actions to make themselves look good in front of the camera.

Perhaps it was because I was filming the City2Surf, which is a big event and always attracts a lot of media attention, but even when I was standing in clear view, nobody seemed to notice me. Nevertheless, I made sure to keep ethical standards in mind as I watched and filmed people warming up, talking to their friends, competing in the race and crossing the finish line – all while periodically utilising their mobile devices.

Below are some images that demonstrate just how oblivious most people were to my presence due to the use of mobile phones. I have blurred out people’s faces to hide their identities, as although it is legal to photograph them, I feel like I have a moral obligation to meet my own ethical standards. I wouldn’t want strangers photographing me without my permission, and then uploading my image to the Internet. Therefore, I will provide other people with the same curtesy.

Asian man on phone
Man on phone
Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.42.01 am
Men on phones

Girl on phone

This task forced me to be present in the moment, and to observe people in an ethnographic manner as they went about their lives. As I watched them standing with their friends, but not communicating with each other because they were on their phones, reality hit me hard. I’m often on my mobile phone in public, and this project was certainly a wake up call for me. Had I not been observing these people so thoroughly, I wouldn’t have learned this lesson.

Wheelchair guys

Asian man 2
Group blurred
Two selfie
Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.37.51 am
Groupie group
Sheridan lookalike

As part of my journalism project, I also had to conduct a number of interviews with City2Surf competitors. This meant that I had to consider the ethics of what I was doing, and determine the best way to approach my interviewees. I did some research on conducting interviews, and interview ethics, so that I would be prepared. The Oral History of Australia’s “Guidelines of Ethical Practice” stresses that interviewers should protect the rights of their interviewees. I did this by:

  1. Explaining the purpose of the interviews;
  2. Explaining that the interviews were going to be filmed on camera, and then uploaded to my website;
  3. Checking whether they approved of me disclosing their name and image to a public audience; and
  4. Asking them if they wanted me to send them a copy of the finalised interview piece.

Once I explained the above concepts, a number of people didn’t feel comfortable being interviewed. However, most were very accommodating. I did feel a bit awkward searching for interviewees, as many people were busy using their mobile phones, and I had to interrupt them.

During the interviews, I noticed that the younger generation tended to keep their mobile phones in their hands, while the older generation did not. To me, this demonstrated a huge generation gap. Mobile phone usage is only increasing as older generations die out and younger generations are born. Mobile phones are part of our everyday lives, and I don’t think we would be able to survive without them.

Again, I have blurred the below interviewees’ faces. Although they consented to interviews, they don’t know that I am using their image for this blog post.

Interview 1

Interview 2

Interview 3

Interview 4

Filming people in a public space is ethnography effective, as it allows you to observe them in an environment that is natural to them. One important safeguard is to maintain discretion when observing and filming people, as otherwise your research may become biassed if subjects alter their behaviour. By capturing footage at this year’s City2Surf, I was able to witness the natural patterns in people’s behaviour. I was worried about not being able to accomplish these goals, but because people were so emerged with their mobile technology, and didn’t notice me, I had very few issues.

At the end of the day, perhaps it’s better to just “keep your head up high”, as advised by the City2Surf. That way, you won’t miss out on anything.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.29.42 am

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.29.52 am

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.30.02 am

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.30.11 am

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.30.21 am


Arts Law Centre of Australia, ‘Street photographer’s rights’, Arts Law Centre of Australia website, viewed 29 September 2015,

Colberg, G 2013, ‘The ethics of street photography’, JM Colber website, viewed 29 September 2015,

NPPA Code of Ethics, ‘Preamble’, NPPA website, viewed 1 October 2015,

Oral History NSW, ‘Guidelines of ethical practice’, Oral History NSW website, viewed 1 October 2015,


3 thoughts on “Photographing In Public Spaces – Are Ethics Essential?

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