Public photography – where do we draw the line?


So here’s Jake in a public space using his phone. Obviously I know him and this is no photo of a stranger, but he does not know that I have taken this photo of him. He will also be surprised that I have too, not for the sake of taking a spontaneous off guard photo, but for more so wearing thongs and trackies in Woolworths. And now having it online too.

This photo provides an ethnographic summary of how one interacts with private devices (mobile phone) in a public space (Woolworths). This photo depicts the individual adjusting social rules for their own ease. At the swipe of a screen Jake was able to mark off his shopping list and keep on track with other items to buy. The grocery store is not a place where you would usually associate excessive phone usage. The grocery store as a public space is a location where one goes in, browses and heads out in a reasonable time. But as for Jake, ‘screw the socially set rules’ and whip out your phone in every aisle anyway.

In this photo we see that Jake has no regard of being implicit, but rather places himself almost mid aisle to gaze between his phone and the shelves. Anyone could have walked past him and I don’t think that he would have noticed at all. Geez, even a full trolley with several squirming kids around it would not even disrupt Jake. And rudely enough, I do not think that he would move either until it’s nearly barged into him. When looking at the screen he is almost transfixed. Although give him a second, once his eyes are not locked on it, he is alertly more aware of his surroundings.

There’s something about the ability mobile screens have to transfix an individual, regardless of space and location. The amount of times I’ve just dodged a beam because I’ve been glued to my phone is beyond ridiculous! This similar notion is seen clearly in the image I have provided. However, where do we draw the line of people capturing photos (in this case, for the sake of ethnographic research) of us using personal devices in public spaces?

Let me start off by disclaiming that there are no publicity or personality rights in Australia. Despite this, what else makes this unknown and off guard photo of Jake okay for me to take, especially without his permission?  Well, let me break this down according to everything this photo is not. 

  • This photo is not an indecent offence. In other words, this photo was not taken to purposely target, slander or embarrass Jake, it is for the purpose of an informational blog post.
  • This photo is not a breach, as it is not an act of harassment, stalking or of an offensive nature.
  • This photo is not used for “commercial purposes”.
  • This photo contains no traces of copyright.
  • This photo is not a breach of any sorts of duty, in particular, the duty to keep information and an individual confidential. As you can see, it is a hindered profile view revealing very minimal physical attributes.
  • This photo does not lower the public’s estimation of the person portrayed, expose the person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or cause him or her to be shunned or avoided. 

Plus, in a worst case scenario, in New South Wales you are under no legal obligation to explain or justify your photographic activities. This applies to even if I were to be arrested by police.

Overall, the safeguards of my rights about photography in a public space make this ethnographic image totally okay. Considering that my intentions were none of the above list, this photo as a research tool is acceptable.


Arts Law Centre 2015, Street Photographer’s Rights Information Sheet, Arts Law Centre of Australia, viewed 1 September 2016, < >

ERIA Project 2016, What is Ethnography?, ERIA Project, viewed 1 September 2016, < >



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