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CNET Editor

Lexy spent her formative years taking a lot of photos and dreaming in technicolour. Nothing much has changed now she's covering all things photography related for CNET.

Focal Point

The other side of surveillance: photography as truth

(ICU image by Chris Chidsey, royalty free)

Barely a day goes by when your likeness is not captured on some sort of camera or on CCTV.

Whether it's a video taken by any number of street cameras, or a snap of your visit to a favourite food court for lunch, encounters with surveillance are commonplace for anyone living in a big city.

In many cases, this image capture happens without our knowledge; it's an implied, silent acceptance of travelling through a public space. It's these situations that have given many privacy advocates cause for concern. You only need to take a cursory glance at the number of reported incidents from initiatives such as Google's Street View to see just how invasive some of this imagery can be. We live in a culture where we're fearful of our image being used to trace our movements, or for any number of nefarious purposes.

There is, as always, another side to the argument. Imagine that the roles were reversed, for a moment; where it is no longer a corporation or government entity that has the final say over what you did and where — instead, it's a fellow member of the public with their smartphone.

With such a large volume of us always carrying a recording device around, be it camera or phone, it can work to our advantage that there's another source available to possibly document our actions.

One such case where external footage has come to the aid of a member of the public is the story of Michael Lindsay. He was tasered and wrongly arrested by police, following an alleged altercation on public transport. The evidence given by the constables on duty at the time would have likely involved a prosecution against Lindsay, were it not for another passenger on the bus filming the event on their phone.

This is not an isolated incident. On the other side of the world, during the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, videos and photos were used to more accurately piece together the story behind events, such as the indiscriminate pepper spraying of the crowd.

Without these third-party observations, we wouldn't have as accurate a representation of these events. The camera, and the photographer behind it, has long been an important documentary source in such incidents. Given the accessibility of smartphones, any member of the public has the potential to be an advocate for citizens' rights.

The path to such freedoms has not come easily, though, given the culture of fear often surrounding taking photos and video in public places. It's all too easy for photographers or potential observers to be chastised and scared away from taking footage in such situations, even when they are completely within the bounds of the law.

An online survey conducted by researchers at Monash University in 2010-11 showed that many photographers — regardless of using a phone or an SLR — were victimised when taking photographs on public property. Of 261 respondents, 75 per cent had been asked to stop taking photos when in a public space, while 16 per cent of those had been threatened either by physical or legal action during this time.

Dr Melissa Miles, a photographic historian at the University of Monash, who was involved in the research highlighted above, commented that the potential loss of photographic records is an all-too-present issue in the current climate.

"The culture of individualism that underpins the fetishisation of privacy encourages us to conceive of ourselves as competitive individuals, perpetually vulnerable to perceived threats against our privacy," Miles said in her paper "Photography, Privacy and the Public", which appeared in the journal Law, Culture and the Humanities.

"At hand is not simply a matter of choice between right and wrong or good and evil, as those who attempt to couch photography restrictions in terms of child protection or terrorism prevention would have us believe. Instead, we are faced with conflicts between a series of rights or goods: a desire for self-definition, the need to maintain a healthy public life and the importance of leaving a historical record for future generations."

It is important to have a good working knowledge of what the law says is permissible for photography in your state or territory. Miles also points out that it's necessary to understand the difference between private and public spaces, and to not assume that a "space is public just because we have free access to it, such as a railway station and a shopping centre."

One excellent resource to further understand the complexities of private and public spaces in the law, as well as specifics for street photographers, is maintained by Andrew Nemeth, a former solicitor and the author behind NSW Photo Rights. It covers most questions in regards to NSW law and photography, but may also apply across the country.

By now, we should all be accustomed to the fact that our image is being recorded when in a public place. But it's still difficult for some to reconcile that a photographer pointing a mobile phone or SLR at us might just have our best interests at heart, rather than the surveillance camera above.

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