Did you ever look at a picture of yourself and see a stranger in the background? It makes you wonder how many strangers have pictures of you. How many moments of other people’s lives have we been in? Were we a part of someone’s life when their dream came true? Or were we there when their dreams died? Just think, you’d be a big part of someone else’s life… and not even know it.
– Lucas Scott (One Tree Hill)
It’s funny to think that through many of the captured moments in our lives, we have shared the same space with a complete stranger. We can be looking at these strangers for many years to come as we take our trips down memory lane, yet know absolutely nothing about them except what they looked like at that specific moment in time. But have you ever stopped to consider the potential ethical issues of taking someone’s photo without their consent?
Public photography is a right of passage and can by no means be avoided in this day and age with the continual evolution of handheld, mobile devices. Strangers will always play a minor part of our lives, until one day, they become something more. For instance, the photo below was taken at Disneyland 35 years ago, capturing a husband and wife years before they even met (Taylor, 2010). The wife being the little girl in the foreground and the husband being the boy in the stroller in the background. Despite living in different countries, the stranger in the background became a permanent part of her life, casting aside any futile opinions of ‘privacy’ or criticism.
Granted, when we take a photo it is usually with an intention in mind, whether it be a group of friends, a building, concert or stadium. The point is, most photos are not taken with the intent to capture a particular stranger. It is my mere co-incidence that any person is captured in the background of a photo. However, can we still be held accountable for ‘invading the privacy’ of individuals despite being in public space?
While it it unrealistic to seek the approval of every individual that walks in and out of a frame, it is of the utmost importance to respect the decision of others if they wish for you to delete it. By law, it is acceptable for individuals to take photos in a public space without asking for permission (Arts Law Center of Australia, 2015).
When people talk about respecting the privacy of others, it is important to consider the parameters in which we define the term ‘privacy’. It is fair game to take a photo of a stranger if they per chance happen to be in the public space in which you want to take the picture. The real invasions of privacy can be drawn when taking photos within change-rooms and public toilets whether individual privacy is expected. Children playing in the park? Fine. Someone entering their pin at an ATM? No. (Nemeth, 2014)
Street photographer, David Sutton, knows all too well about the stigmas surrounding public photography. While he knows that it is perfectly legal to candidly capture the public (including children), he can also appreciate the viewpoint of others who believe ‘just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should’. Despite his legal freedom, he has, at times, issued self-imposed limits as to what he captures including avoiding: photos that subject someone to embarrassment and photos of children as the main subject (Sutton, 2014) This opinion strongly correlates with that of Eric Kim who strongly believes that personal definitions of ethics vary from person to person as it is shaped by individual culture, upbringing and values (Kim, 2011)
Ethics is in the eye of the beholder. If you take images which you feel are exploiting of other people, it is. – Eric Kim
For further reading on the subject, I highly recommend the work of Isabel Napier whose excellent writing draws on her own personal experiences as a tourist, including her reflection on the issues of capturing strangers in public.