Photographing Public Spaces: The Ethics of Tourist Snaps

11121396_10207525915456280_2054341606_n(note: all photos posted in this are my own, or otherwise specified.)

I went to California for 3 weeks, and came back with over a thousands photos spanning from Disneyland to Venice Beach to the Golden Gate Bridge. My visit was fleeting and jammed with so many activities and attractions that my photography skills consisted of pointing, clicking and running to catch with the group hoping my photos were in focus.

I was so focused on the strange, exciting new sights I was seeing, I wasn’t even seeing everything that was in the shot, or everyone who was in the shot.
In Venice Beach, I caught sight of a fantastic Van Gough mural, took a photo and continued on. I didn’t even notice the people in the foreground, or stop to consider if I should have taken the shot. Their identities are clear to see, masked only by their sunglasses.

I’m sure every tourist is guilty of it, snapping before you think. I was given strange looks when I photographed a side-walk pavement in San Diego, and have scoffed at Sydney tourists doing the same thing. In the moment, you want to photograph and document everything when you are a tourist, you get excited, and curious, and it gets the better of your judgement. Because who stops to think about the ethical implications of the shot they are taking, when you are in the heart of Disneyland and Peter Pan just waved at you.


This is where the ethical dilemma rears its head. You are the tourist, you take the photo, and go back to your own country. The people in your photographs, who you are not aware are there, are more than likely also oblivious to the fact they are the background characters in someone else’s lives. They give no consent, and where does this cause a problem? Tourist locations, like Disneyland, and filled with people doing the same things as I was, and more that probable, I am one of the background character’s in someone else’s photos that I will never see. Did I consent to my face being in someone else’s tourist shot? Does the issue of consent become rendered moot when you step into a public space like a tourist location?

What’s even more interesting, is when you look back and realise that the background characters you don’t even see, can in fact see you and are aware that they are present in someone’s photo. The man in that shot, knew he was in the photograph and clearly visible, and had the opportunity to ask not to be in it, or the photo to be deleted. Yet he didn’t, so does that constitute consent?


What about shots where gaining consent is almost next to impossible? Where thousands upon thousands of individuals in one shot exist, was I obligated to ask for their permission, or is their identity shrouded in the sheer mass of individuals? In an interesting blog post I found by street photographer David Sutton, he claims that “there is no presumed privacy” in public spaces, that it is not a breach of privacy and is legal to snap so (Sutter, D 2014) It may not be illegal, but unethical stretches the debate further.


I photographed the entrance to Disneyland when we first arrived, and also captured two separate private moments occurring in the frame. The smiling family, would likely not consent to me intruding, nor the couple hugging on the opposite side, but my intent was to photograph the entrance, not them. Does intent behind the photo make it ethically allowed? Is my intent showed with what i’m photographing, but the oblivious bystanders don’t know that.

It’s a perplexing notion, that should rather be examined case by case-or photo by photo- rather the broad generalisation that it is an invasion of privacy or naively harmless. It’s the duty of the person holding the camera, the same as the driver behind the wheel, to direct and judge for themselves what is right and what is respectful to others. Because tourist photos have a more permanency to them than if it is in your local area, cemented by the distance. Posting the photos on social media expands their presence and reach, and perhaps one day the family in the photo I accidentally captured will request I take it down. And I will do so.

Think before you snap, be aware of your surroundings and who is in them, rather than just faceless figures that scatter around the foreground or background of your selfie at Santa Monica.



3 thoughts on “Photographing Public Spaces: The Ethics of Tourist Snaps

  1. Hi Isabel,

    This is a fantastic blog post. I love how you have used your own personal experience as a tourist to reflect on the ethics of public space photography.

    The photo of you at Disneyland with the bystander looking directly at the camera is brilliant! The man looks very intrigued and curious yet also appears quite casual knowing that he will feature in your holiday photo. I think this emphasises an important aspect of tourist photography that people on holidays expect to be photographed. As a result, tourists are less likely to feel uncomfortable at being photographed without their consent than people in a shopping mall or at the gym where photography is not expected.

    I also love the photo of the entrance to Disneyland that captures another family’s private moment. This photo really brings to light the idea that public space is inherently shared. As David Sutton mentions, a fundamental part of sharing this space is to recognise that you can never achieve complete privacy. If I was one of the people captured in this photo, I would not have an issue with being photographed because I am sharing this space with you. After all, in these situations, being photographed is expected. In fact, it is unavoidable!

    It is also great that you have considered the issue of consent from the perspective of tourist photography. Given the intent is to capture the location, not other people, photographing people without consent is ethically acceptable. This is very different to street photography, for example, where the intent is to capture people when they are unaware of the presence of the photographer. Yet back again to the idea I raised above about expectations, is street photography also ethical given that people are in shared public places where notions of privacy are non-existent?

    It is indeed a perplexing issue, and I think you are right in arguing that different rules apply to different situations. Well-done on a great post, Isabel. I have found your post very thought-provoking!

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