Your daughter or son is looking through the photos you took during their schooling years.  The photos are all close-ups – no friends or classmates, no teachers, no silly group shots, no happy hugs, no action shots during sport while competing for the ball.

The vexed issue of taking photos of students at school events arose again recently when a Melbourne primary school was reported to have banned parents from photographing or filming their children if other students were in the shot.  The ban was apparently contained in the school's image policy.  During the school parade, it is reported that there was a public announcement that photographing other students was prohibited.  One parent reportedly led the outrage.

Concerns about taking photographs of students, without their consent, have increased over recent times.  These concerns have increased because of the capability of digital technology, including mobile phone cameras and mobile phone videos, and the ability to publish photos or videos quickly on the internet and social media sites.  There are ample instances where photos of young persons have appeared on public websites without their knowledge or consent, including questionable websites.

Schools' obligations

Schools are required to comply with the Privacy Act in relation to information that is collected, used and held by them in a record.

A "record" includes a photograph or other pictorial representation of a person and therefore also includes videos.  Schools are required to ensure that their privacy policy notifies its community whether it will be collecting personal information in the form of photos or videos of students and how it intends to use the images collected.

Schools will often also seek express written consent from parents and students for specific photos to be used in public documents such as brochures or on their website.

The task for a school is to balance the legitimate and lawful desire of parents, family and friends to record school events against the concern of some parents about breaches of privacy and about persons who may have more sinister intentions.

Parents and friends

The position of individuals, such as parents, family and friends, differs from that of the school.

Individuals who are taking photos for personal use are not subject to the Privacy Act and are therefore generally free to take photos and videos of their child and friends.  There are some notable exceptions where the photo or video is taken and used for an offensive or unlawful purpose, such as for indecent reasons or to commit a child pornography offence.

Photography protocol

Much of the angst and argument around taking photos and videos at school activities and events arises because parents expect to be able to record their child's participation but are not informed of the school's protocol or because no such protocol exists.  This can leave parents feeling exposed and at the whim of other parents with different views.

It is recommended that schools have a photography protocol to assist them to manage the expectations of parents and to assist in avoiding disputes with, and between, parents.

In developing its protocol, I suggest that a school reflect on a number of considerations:  

  • First, the desirability of permitting parents and guests to take images of their children and their friends during school events or activities.    
  • Secondly, balancing the concerns of those who do not wish their children to be photographed.     
  • Thirdly, providing the school with the option of imposing conditions of entry or participation for certain events where it is reasonable and legitimate to do so.

Schools should also consider whether it would be provocative and counterproductive, and indeed undesirable, to base any photography protocol on the underlying premise that taking photos or videos at school events and activities is prohibited unless express permission is given.