Public screens and the ethics of Street Photography

How often do you take out your phone if you are in an awkward situation or are waiting around for someone or something, just so it looks like you are busy or shouldn’t be disturbed. Does taking out your phone in a public space then create your own private space?. I know I’m guilty of doing this, its undeniable that phones and screens are a great way to pass the time, but they are also a great way to waste a lot of your time. Many public places use screens for this exact purpose, in waiting rooms, in city centres, shopping malls, even universities. Is it acceptable in our modern world, to instead of turning to the person next to you and saying hello, to stare at a public screen in silence?. Yes, in my experience, I think it has become an acceptable norm. However this is not always the case and public screens can also create positive interaction. An initiative that is trying to encourage this is called The International Urban Screens Society who want to create:

“Screens that support with their content the idea of public space as space for creation and exchange of culture, strengthening a local economy and the formation of public sphere”.

The organisation feels it is a new way to integrate art into urban public spaces using its relationship with architecture.

Another large issue that comes to mind when talking about public spaces, screens and personal devices is street photography. Many people, including myself, see street photography as an art form for expressing important issues in space and time and documenting life in a particular setting. For example, the photo below of a sailor kissing a nurse in the middle of times square became iconic for depicting real life World War II victory celebrations, and this in fact is street photography.

 – V-J Day in Times Square, a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, was published in Life in 1945 with the caption “In New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers”

However, it is important to ask whether street photography is a violation of peoples privacy in modern society as so many people feel that it is. Although there are no laws against street photography and no presumed privacy in a public space, many believe it is a violation of ethics to photograph a stranger, particularly in any way they might find embarrassing or inappropriate. This I can agree with to an extent, I think posting a photo online that that person may find distressing or they just generally don’t like should be respected and taken down, as I know I wouldn’t be happy about it. An even larger issue is photographing children in public spaces as there are no laws that say it is illegal, however it is hard to know how parents would feel about it unless you were to ask. This debate may never draw to a conclusion as there are so many national security and surveillance issues in modern society. I do think there is purpose in instead of questioning artists about why they are photographing people in public spaces for artistic purposes, to question the government about their need to survey every second of public space and public life and whether the material that they capture and keep is ethical.

It is sad to think that if, back in 1945, people had been worried about the ethics of street photography this photo may have never been published and people may have never been able to see this symbolic photo which so powerfully conveys the feelings bestowed by every day people at the end of the war and helps us to better understand this historic moment in time.

References

About the Urban Screens Initiative, 2008. Available from: <http://www.urbanscreens.org/about.html&gt;. (30/09/2015).

Sutton, D 2014, David K Sutton Photography Blog, April 21st 2014. Available from: <http://blog.davidksutton.com/594/is-street-photography-a-violation-of-privacy-or-ethics/&gt;. (30/09/2015).

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