According to ACMA, in May 2014, 12.07 million Australians owned a smartphone. So, it isn’t surprising that the majority of people I see alone, and sometimes in groups, at train stations, cafes, and other public places, are passing time plugged into their phones. I know I’m guilty of this anti-social behaviour, so I’m not one to judge, but it does make me wonder why and what are we’re all doing?
So many people in my generation have entered their lives as independent people with the comfort of a mobile phone, be it smart or ordinary. It has acted as a safety net for many – call if you’re in trouble or play on it if you’re feeling awkward/uncomfortable – I suppose this explains why many of us find it difficult to part with it when we’re alone or in an unfamiliar place. We feel vulnerable, so we turn to our little smartphone friend for comfort. It could be to avoid awkward conversations with strangers, small talk with people we don’t know all that well or just because we’re used to it and don’t really know how else to escape the silence or fill the time… or you know, you’re just really busy and sitting at a train station is the only time you have to respond to emails and messages.
I often sit in public spaces (if I’m having lunch by myself at the mall, for example) and look around, observe people, their behaviours and wonder what they’re doing. I know this sounds a little creepy, but it really can be fascinating. Something I always notice is the amount of people holding their phones and using their phones. I wonder if people feel obliged to use their phones in public because it’s just what everyone does now, and if you aren’t on your phone, then what are you doing? But that’s exactly what I’m curious about… What are you people doing on your phones? And all of you sly guys just holding it tightly in your little fists… why?
I’m concerned that these people are likeminded and that they’re doing exactly the same thing as me. You see if I am using my phone in public, generally I’m simultaneously on patrol for any unusual or humorous behaviour, interesting wardrobe choices, or just anything I deem comedic value. If I’m not using my phone, you can bet that it’s close by to ensure I don’t miss any quality video or photo opportunities. I’m sure that all the people I see just holding their phones when they’re sitting or walking around in public, are also preparing for the inevitable slip up.
I’ve never had much of an issue photographing or filming something I find funny in public. I suppose I feel like a bit of a creep at times and depending on the situation, sometimes mean, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought ‘I should ask this person’s permission’. If anything I’m thinking, ‘oh god, I hope this person can’t tell I’m taking a photo right now’, or wondering if I’ve forgotten to turn my flash and sound off to avoid being caught out. I think you can guess that when I challenged myself to confront my subjects and ask for their permission, I just couldn’t.
I’ve thought about positions being reversed, and how I would feel if I were the subject of some ones hilarious photo from a day out in public. I don’t think I would mind all that much, sure it’s embarrassing but if someone has taken my photo for the same reason I take photos of people – then I probably deserve it and wouldn’t mind seeing the photo myself.
I think the context is extremely important when photographing or commenting on things seen in the public sphere. When I consider my actions in pubic places, I actually think it is acceptable, because I would be comfortable with the roles being reversed. However, the fact that I don’t feel comfortable confronting people and asking their permission suggest that I know it is unethical and shouldn’t be doing it.
With all this in mind, I’m still going to continue my usual habits in public, guilt free. Tell me what you think about taking photos of people in public unknowingly. Do you think it is acceptable and how far is too far?
ACMA Editor 2014, m-Commerce: Mobile transactions in Australia, Research Snapshots, blog post, 24th June, viewed 8th September 2014, <http://www.acma.gov.au/theACMA/engage-blogs/engage-blogs/Research-snapshots/m-Commerce-Mobile-transactions-in-Australia>.