smile for the camera- visual ethnography

walking with mobile phone
Image source: walking with mobile phone via libreshot

Photography is so important to ethnography, a photograph is simply the most instant, effective way to present a visual idea or observation, especially with the ease of the camera quality in our mobile phones. It gives the researcher something to look back on when presenting findings which is clear and concise to their point.

However, there are laws to how and where we use this powerful tool. In some situations, not only is photography legal, but encouraged, an example of this is dashcam photography, in order to be used as evidence in court or insurance situations and disputes. Most instances it’s legal to take photos in public, rules and regulations start to come more into play in privately owned spaces. It’s strange to think that it’s legal to take a photo of someone sleeping, when they are completely unaware, but it’s illegal to take a photo of a product in a store.

The lines between legal and illegal in photography seem pretty lenient, to the point it can be immoral, but as researchers, it’s important to not only know these laws, but to be aware of what’s ethical. This means ensuring anyone being photographed is aware, and they know what you are doing with the image. Ethical considerations are one of the most important parts of conducting research as it is vital your actions are not hurting anymore, enabling you to do work with the least amount of problems and obstacles possible, and in order to be respectful in the impact you leave.

Similar to this public photography is the constant surveillance we are under, being surrounded by security cameras. This tracking extends further into our lives as our activity including location, private messages and internet browsing history is all being recorded, all from our own mobile phones. As Marsha Berry explains: “Details of our lives are out in the open through the entangled zones of smartphones, networks and geography” (2015). Even with that knowledge, we don’t stop using these devices, in fact, we become even more engrossed with our phones, to the point that we become less and less aware of our surroundings, to the point that public screens are completely ignored as people are engaged with their personal interests on their own devices.

Between surveillance and the internet tracking your every message and search, is there ever a time we aren’t being watched? And knowing how quickly technology is developing it’s scary to wonder what’s going to come next.


Berry, M 2015 ‘Out in the open: locating new vernacular practices with smartphone cameras’ in Studies in Australasian Cinema 

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