Within five minutes of venturing out onto campus to stealthily capture people in the process of glueing their faces to their screens, I was amazed to discover that at-least every 1 in 5 person seen was distracted by either their phone, tablet or laptop.
This absolute emersion into their mobile devices significantly enabled the possibility to photograph the subject without their knowledge, nobody was aware that they were being photographed or watched.
Of course I was able to capture many people demonstrating the use of a private device in a public space, although the ethics of whether or not it was right to use these images were called into question. In the end I decided that even though these people were clearly in a very public space, what they were doing or were involved with was visibly very private . The ethics of street photography has been debated by many, one author, Joerg Colberg asks the question “If someone does not want their photograph taken do you, as a photographer, just go ahead and do so anyway, because you can?”. My answer to this question is no, you should not.
Consent is important when you’re involving other people, and although not technically illegal, the use of their image without this permission is promoting the idea that you do not value their private or personal space, even if it is in public.
A good example of this is perhaps filming a stranger whilst in the middle of a phone conversation, you have a right to be where you are, but what you are recording is personal information overheard by the filming of a public space, and even though this person is clearly in public the conversation that they are having is not intended to be, ethically we automatically know this, and the footage should not be used or broadcasted without permission.
Colberg goes on to argue that the most important question to ask is “whether the public is fine with it”. Just because you have no problem publishing them without their consent, it doesn’t mean that they don’t. Personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable if a photographer captured my image and broadcasted it all over the internet or on any form of media without me knowing, it puts in question the legitimacy of what they are doing and how trustworthy the information they are publishing is. If somebody is willing to ignore my consent in favour of a few dollars or seconds of glory, they are not somebody I would be open to trusting.
When comparing public and private space, you have to acknowledge that with growth and evolution comes change. Public spaces, in the growing age of mobile and compact technology have now become places where people do private things, and these people were always going to eventually integrate the use of these devices into their everyday lives.
This in my opinion does not make it any less personal.
Although I had fun observing the relationship between people and their devices, it’s a relationship reserved strictly between those people and their screens, unless of course, I get consent.