Devices in the Public Sphere

Using personal devices in public is a topic of growing concern among many different groups. Not last week I read an article claiming that the public perhaps aren’t aware enough that texting while travelling on foot can be dangerous, it even goes as far as to compare the dangers of walking while on your device to driving. While the argument for ensuring the safety of the public is strong, especially when backed up by evidence and cases. However there is an argument for maintaining personal autonomy and everyone’s right to do whatever they want with their property while in public (within reason). I’d also be concerned with public backlash for over regulation. Australia in general already has a reputation for being a ‘nanny state’ and the risk of public outcry about ‘texting bans’ seems to me too much of a risk for government or even councils to take.


Take a look at the photograph below for example, every member of the group is carrying at least one device, and using it, in a public place. Being students in a university as well it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume at least 3/4 have mobile phones as well, does this mean that although the students have all these devices they shouldn’t be allowed to use them outside their own homes? I know personally the mere thought of regulating the use of such a personal device in such a broad way makes my skin crawl.


To take this idea further, what if councils/government were as stringent with regulation of devices as they are photography in public? The law attempts to adapt to changes in public opinion and societal values, although the law is a dynamic force, it should be taken to mean something. The argument put forward that “Street photography might be a type of photography with a rich history. But just because something was widely accepted in the past does not mean that it will always be widely accepted. I could list all kinds of previously widely accepted practices that we now reject.”

Personally I think the way people should deal with photography in public is the best method for dealing with the sensitive subject. Although there are no laws pertaining to how you should go about photographing people in public, there are guidelines laid out by The National Press Photographers Association that say you should do the following:

  1. Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
  2. Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.
  3. Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.
  4. Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.
  5. While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.
  6. Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.
  7. Do not pay sources or subjects or reward them materially for information or participation.
  8. Do not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.
  9. Do not intentionally sabotage the efforts of other journalists.

All of which seem like good ethical considerations to make when taking pictures, but none actually specify that the photographer should ask their subject if they mind their picture being taken. Personally, that is how I choose to deal with the ethical concerns of public photography, if I believe the image’s main focus is a person or group of people, then I ask their permission first. Of course if the group is too large to accurately identify the individual people (crowds at a concert for example) in which case the focus of the image is really the fact that there are so many people around that it stops being about individual people. This is exactly the process I went through when taking a picture of the group of students in the image above.





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