A Squiggly Line – on Taking Pictures in Public Spaces

Where do we draw the line to taking pictures of strangers in public spaces?


bcm241 PhotosInPublic
The squiggly line to picture-taking in public (artwork by me)


As suggested this week in BCM241, I did something I very usually do yet rarely put any thoughts into it. I took pictures of strangers using media in public spaces.

A public space refers to an area or place that is open and accessible to all peoples, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level. These are public gathering spaces such as plazas, squares and parks. Connecting spaces, such as sidewalks and streets, are also public spaces. In the 21st century, some even consider the virtual spaces available through the internet as a new type of public space that develops interaction and social mixing.” – UNESCO

But before we go any deeper into that, here is a shower-thought that might intrigue you:

In a lecture theatre, there are, very likely, more electronic devices (laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc.) than people.

That was mentioned by one of my lectures a year ago, and now that we’re on the topic of taking pictures in public, it popped into my head and appears extremely relevant. We are so used to being surrounded/accompanied by so many devices, we rarely think twice about using ours in public, even when it’s to take pictures or record videos.

But here is what happen when it gets ugly:

From PeopleOfWalmart.com

The website peopleofwalmart.com is dedicated entirely to pictures taken of shoppers in America’s prominent chain of hypermarkets, discount department stores, and grocery stores, decorated with captions shaming and humiliating them.










What’s worse is that they have an entire “Hate Letters” page on which messages of people who call them out are posted and labelled “funny/hate”.



So, where do we draw the line?

It is generally possible to take photographs in a public place without asking permission. This extends to taking photographs of buildings, sites and people. In a case involving street surveillance photography used as evidence in a criminal case, an Australian judge stated “a person, in our society, does not have a right not to be photographed.”Arts Law Australia

According to this list of regulations, except in the case of commercial purpose, there is almost no restriction to taking pictures of people in a public space in Australia. However, on finishing this week’s task, I’ve realised each of us should thoughtfully consider where to draw that line between the (ethically) acceptable and unacceptable, and that line is more squiggly than straight, given the “grey areas” that current law have yet to cover.

With the first two pictures, at first, I felt rather uneased raising my phone to take them, suddenly aware of how I can be perceived by anyone seeing me as weird, or worse, rude. Generally, there aren’t anything special about them, just the everyday sights on campus – students sitting together at the same table yet staring at phones and laptops, or engaged in whatever is going on in the PC screen in front of them.

The third picture (bottom) was the one I felt most comfortable taking, since the two people in there were too far for the camera to capture their faces in detail, and were both deeply engrossed in their own devices, despite the three large screens right next to them.

20170831_172318.jpgConsidering that these screens normally display only information from the uni’s website about library hours and PASS sessions, it’s understandable why the students are more likely to focus on their own devices instead.


Finally, I think it’s best to leave it here with this quote that perfectly captures the entire problematic issue:

“The idea of a single image commanding our attention has faded away. It seems as if we need to be distracted in order to concentrate, as if we – all of us living in this new kind of space, the space of information – could be diagnosed en masse with attention deficit disorder. ” (Colomina 2013, p. 41)

Mia (Minh-Anh)


Colomina, B 2013, ‘Multi-screen Architecture, in C Berry, J Harbord, & R Moore (eds.), Public Space, Media Space, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp. 41-60.


Author: Minh-Anh Mia Do

book-smart and sugar-addicted || the written word & all things linguistics || email: dmad920@uowmail.edu.au

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