Photographers, Know Your Rights

Photographers, Know Your Rights

There has been a few flareups in the news over the past six months or so where people have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to their rights as photographers. In most cases, it seems that the photographers actually knew their rights, however the law enforcement who wrongfully acted upon the photographers did not. Ironic? You bet. Us photographers are breeding like rabbits, we’re everywhere, all the time. Anyone with a phone now has a camera in their pocket, ready for snapping at any time. This is all fine and dandy and everyone is happy, that is, until some kind of unexpected or uncontrolled event takes place. Photographers snap into action, doing what they do, taking photographs. Ignorant law enforcement wrongfully impede on the photographers rights in a multitude of wrongs – threatening, seizing photo gear, and in extreme cases, the damaging of gear or the abuse of the photographer. It seems that photographers are welcome until someone decides it’s not ok and act unlawfully (most likely the offended/concerned person is in the wrong and doesn’t want to be caught with their hand in the cookie jar). Photography and it’s lawful boundaries seem to be a hot and reoccurring topic these days, ya know… since one out of every three people claim to be a photographer. Knowing your rights as a photographer is very important, and so important that I cover the topic in my beginner workshop, whether a student asks about it or not.

There is a lot of grey area when it comes to the topic of rights, who has them,who doesn’t, why, and when. To keep things simple, I’ll just be talking about where you do and do not have rights to be taking photographs. It can easily be broken down into two sections – public and private property.

Public Property

Standing from any public location, anything you can see from that spot is fair game.

As a photographer, you have every right to point your camera at anything you want and take a picture of it while standing in a public location. What is defined as a “public location” may take some research for some particular places, so know your environment. Chances are if you pay taxes on the property, it’s most likely public, and you have every right to be there and taking photos. I should not have to go into detail here about the obvious things you’ll want to avoid, like going to a school and pointing your telephoto lens and kids on a playground. That’s just creepy, so expect to get hassled. Still, even then, if you are standing at a public place, you own those photos, and there is nothing the police can do about it, aside from asking you what your intentions are, and maybe asking you to leave for being a creeper. There is being a photographer and then there is acting indecent, so please don’t confuse topics in regards to proper actions as a citizen. There will be some exceptions to this very general rule, like airports, military bases, etc, that have been declared as places where photography is not welcome for security reasons.

Standing from any public location, anything you can see from that spot is fair game. If you are standing in public space and take a picture of a private property, it is fair game. If you can see over someone’s fence from a public location and they don’t like it, they need to build a taller fence. This seems obvious when we only consider the idea of walking around and looking at things with our eyes, people seem to understand that there is nothing they can do to stop you from looking at their private property as we stroll by. It’s also probably the reason we have blinds on our windows, we are preventing public space viewpoints into our private space. However, the moment people hold a camera up and take a picture of what they are seeing with their eyes, people will quickly start getting defensive.

This brings up a personal story I would like to share. I will often go out for a walk around shoot, just to clear my head and get some fresh air. A couple years ago, I was walking along a sidewalk in an industrial part of town (public space). Walking along snapping random pictures of things that caught my eye, I came across a metal scrap yard. The twisted heaps of metal looked interesting and I start taking photos. Before you know it, a very large, dirty, pirate-like guy comes charging straight at me from the nearest building from inside the scrap yard property. He carried the typical angry dude posture – arms flared, chest puffed out, stern look on the face. I naturally look behind me, as to see what is back there, ’cause he surely isn’t upset about me standing on concrete the city specifically placed there for my two feet to walk on. Yet he was, and marches right up to me, asking me what he thinks are all kind of rhetorical questions, along with a peppering of threats, including the seizing and/or damaging of the $6000 camera setup I was holding. Not only did this guy not understand my rights, he also probably had no idea he was threatening the unlawful seizing of my personal property which is most likely worth more than the car he drove to his job. Luckily I stand at 6’2″, 200 lbs, and workout, ’cause he may have just taken it upon himself to get physical with a smaller gent. He proceeds to yell at me (not inform) that this scrap yard recycles “secret and classified metal” and that I could get is big trouble for photographing said scrap heap. Granted he was totally in the wrong, I told him that I was unaware of this “secret” operation and that I’d move along, so he didn’t need to further worry himself over my espionage. If what he said was true about their activities there, they don’t do a good job of keeping it classified. All of the large gates to the property were wide open, the fences only 8 feet tall, and the heaps of metal were easily 50 feet tall. Just driving a car by the place, you could clearly see EVERYTHING. I was perfectly fine standing right where I was taking photographs, but it really, really wasn’t worth the time so I just kept walking. I could have stood there and taken pictures of the guy’s face while he was yelling at me and been perfectly within my rights. As comical as that thought might be, I’m afraid that action would have raised the guy’s temperature to a level where he would have gotten himself into some heavy legal trouble, and I didn’t want to go through the trouble of forcing the guy to fund me new equipment for the gear he would have surely broken.

If you are in a public space and someone has an issue with it, you have to make the call whether it’s worth standing up for your rights or not. Clearly, the recent highlights in the news where a photographer has been the target of wrongful actions upon them are occasions where they decided to put a foot down. These photographers eventually get justice through the court system and the ill-acted get their hand slapped one way or another. If it’s public it’s good, and it’s our jobs as photographers to document life, and in sense, keep people honest. When people are acting ill-mannered they often get upset when someone is there to capture it all, so you can’t blame for not liking it, but there is absolutely nothing they can do about it.

Private Property

All gloves are off when it comes to private property. You can assume that you do not have any rights on any private property, and it will always, always be a “permission required” situation. That’s, of course, playing it on the save side of assumption. Without prior consent, you do not own or have the rights to take photographs in a private space. Some venues are obvious, as far as it being ok to take photographs. Disneyland for example, the magical kingdom is cool with you taking pictures all day long in their property. Venues like museums will stipulate when and if it’s ok to take photos. It will always vary. Look for any signage that stipulates photo/video rules, and if someone asks you to stop making images on their property, respect their wishes. It will start to get especially hairy when you are not only taking pictures of places and objects, but people inside a private space.

Myself, being a portrait photographer, I pay close attention to taking photos of people while on private property. I’m often hired to take photos at private events, therefore, I’m privy to take photos of the event and people for the company holding the event, they are paying me to do so. People attending a company’s event are voluntarily acknowledging to that company’s wishes and activities which take place. If people do not like it they can leave or bring up issues with event directors, who will then direct me if needed. People attending the event also know I’m there on the company’s behalf, so it’s not a big issue. When it comes to events or property where you have not been invited by the management or company occupying the space, you need to be careful, especially if you plan to retain rights to photographs taken and even make money of said photographs.

When I’m planning a portrait shoot at a private property location, I speak directly with management, and well ahead of the day you plan on shooting. Discussing your intentions with management is good, but the ownership is best. Do not ever try to get an ok for permission to shoot in any private location from a standard employee. This has disaster written all over it. Discuss when and why you are shooting, and what you are planning on doing with the photography. That way there are no surprises. Not to get into another subject, but this is where rights to the physical photographs come into play, therefore, saving your ass from any unforeseen fallout down the road. Some kind of written agreement is always best, so nothing is left to hearsay. What if you talked to one manager and got the ok, only to show up two days later for the shoot and another manager is on duty and has not been informed of the situation? Having some kind of agreement on paper is always preferred if there is any sliver of a doubt something can get mixed up.

More often than not, simply asking management or the owner of the property will create a relationship that lets you right in. If you come into a place with cameras blazing, expecting everyone to be cool with you walking into their property without prior consent, expect to get met with restrictive attitudes. It’s been my experience that just asking gets you in 90% of the time. If I’ve ever been turned down it’s been for very reasonable concerns, and they take the time to tell you why.

Regardless of a public or private location, no one, under any circumstance, has the right to delete photographs from your camera. If you happen to do something that is unlawful enough to have your gear seized, police still do not have any right to delete anything. At that point, seized gear would be considered evidence, so deleting files would be considered tampering of evidence.

I hope that helps some of you along your photographic journeys.