Privacy and Public Space

In public space it is, in a sense, legal, to capture anything you want. But beyond legality, there are ethics to photography and video that we must acknowledge and respectEthics are circumstantial and definitely in the eye of the beholder.

While it is impractical to always ask for a person’s consent, we should still respect peoples’ right to privacy, and be willing to delete content of them if need be.

For a current sociology assignment, I am making a documentary in regards to youth cultures. Interestingly, we only need to obtain consent when interviewing participants; other people can be filmed or photographed without permission. However ethics still played a role here, and many people in the class were uncomfortable with the the concept: “better to apologise later than ask permission first”. In addition, when I was conducting interviews, one participant did not want to be filmed or interviewed at all, and so I respected their decision.

When you enter a private building you inherently agree to their terms, which may allow them to take pictures or video of you. But what about on the street? It is a public space therefore you are in the public eye, but there is also something sacred about public space and the fact that it is shared. This is an issue particularly for street photographers, as their subjects are in public space.

The famous street photographer Bruce Gilden said: “I have no ethics”. This is unsurprising as his photographic style is intimate and unapologetic.

Gilden is well known for his use of close proximity, wide angle lens and flash. While many people are offended by his style and the nature of his photography, his ‘no ethics policy’ can also be understood and appreciated. Gilden doesn’t let ethics hinder his work; he captures the spirit and soul of strangers on the street. It is also important to note that Gilden never exploits his subjects and is sensitive to the context of the images.

Erik Kim proposes an open and considerate approach to street photography:

“I think the best way to approach someone is openly and honestly. This means if you take a photo of someone (without permission) you don’t pretend you didn’t take the shot. You then approach the person and tell them why you took the photo and what you found interesting about them. You then take a potentially negative experience and make it into a positive one in which people actually feel humbled to have gotten a photograph taken of them.” 

Street photographer Brandon, and founder of Humans of New York, uses this approach in his work. When Brandon posts a photograph, it comes with a story about the subject of the photograph: he paints a portrait with both images and words. Not only does this give the work more meaning, but it shows his respect for the people in his images.

I believe that with the extent of technology in society, it is inevitable that there will be pictures and videos that are often taken of us without our formal consent… Be it captured on CCTV, in a nightclub or through Snapchat by our friends. Nonetheless, the users of such technology should be mindful and respectful of other people and their right to privacy.


Arts Law Centre of Australia, 2015, Street photographer’s rights, viewed September 1 2015,

Colberg, J. 2013, ‘The Ethics of Street Photography’, Conscientious Extended, blog post, April 3, viewed September 1 2015,

Dunn, C. 2012, Everybody Street: Bruce Gilden, online video, All Day Everyday, viewed September 8 2015,

Kim, E. 2011, ‘Are There Any Ethics in Street Photography?’ Eric Kim Street Photography Blog, blog post, January 6, viewed September 1 2015,

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