Know Thy Rights

Categories: Feature Tips Original Posts

If you consider yourself a street photographer, you probably get looks. Depending on the area, many of those looks will be sour. Sure, you're a stranger with an intrusive recording device, but who are they to use those judgmental eyes on you? It's all fair game when you're in public, right?... Of course there are those that are prone to venturing onto places where they are not legally welcome. They know very well where they shouldn't be and when caught, act surprised that they're not allowed to take photographs in a heavily guarded port authority container terminal. Taking pictures on private property is a good way to gain unwanted attention, but cameras are automatic attention magnets even in public spaces.

When I use different cameras in public I try to imagine how the non-photographer would perceive me: Camera Phone - He's probably going to simultaneously post that on  facebook/twitter/tumblr/instagram/cat blog, Point and Shoot - He's  most likely a tourist taking a picture of large building/tree/dog/cat, SLR - He's definitely a pro, Twin lens or Hasselblad - He's probably an artist/I could probably get the same effect with instagram, 4x5 - He's definitely a terrorist or magician.

The ongoing problem is that photography is considered a suspicious activity. To some it's even worse - a precursor of terroristic threat. When you are deemed suspicious, the authority gets involved and we all know they are not very keen on the rights we have...Nor are they very friendly to our folk, even when we are well within our rights to take pictures. That's why it is INTEGRAL as a photographer to know your rights.

What you are allowed to take pictures of

- As a citizen, the first amendment allows you to take a picture of anything you want as long as you are in a public space. These public places include streets, sidewalks, parks, and any other shady place you probably shouldn't be at night.

-If you happen to be on private property, you can assume that you are allowed to take photographs unless you are asked not to. In that case you have to oblige, or else you can answer to Johnny Law. However, you can take a picture of private property from a sidewalk or any other public place without getting their permission.

-There are exceptions in taking pictures of "sensitive government buildings" such as military bases or nuclear plants...basically any place where officials can deem a risk to national security.

-Unfortunately, national security can be subjective, but the following places are photographer friendly so long as you are in a public place: accident and fire scenes, bridges and other infrastructure, residential and commercial buildings, Superfund sites, industrial facilities, public utilities, and transportation facilities (e.g., airports).

-Anyone can be photographed in a public place without their consent unless they have secluded themselves and expect privacy restrooms, dressing rooms, medical facilities, and inside their homes. This means that celebrities, children, people performing criminal activities, and even law enforcement officers can be photographed in a public space...although we've seen the last of the bunch cause some trouble. "Police officers may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations. Professional officers, however, realize that such operations are subject to public scrutiny, including by citizens photographing them." Take that as you will.

What to expect if you're expecting trouble

- "Security" is rarely a valid reason to stop someone from taking a photograph. If it's in public, It's not terrorism and nor is it infringing on a companies trade "secrets".

- Just as you have the right to photograph anything from a public place, the man has the right to question you. However, you're not required to tell them why your taking a picture of some building or anything for that matter. Unless they're a police officer, you don't have to give them your identity. -Persistent questioning and unwanted conduct is considered harassment.

- Private parties have limited rights to detain you against your will. That's what we call kidnapping and is generally frowned upon.

- Cop or not, they cannot confiscate your camera, memory card or film without a warrant. Taking your property by threat of force or calling the law enforcement is considered theft and/or coercion.

  What to do if you are stopped

- Go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200...ok not yet.

- Breath. Be respectful despite how unreasonable your goonish naysayer has become. The last thing you want to do is escalate the situation.

- If security is becoming abrasive and hostile, consider calling the police. Violence is not the answer.

- Should a security guard or private party try to detain you or your belongings: ask for the detainee's name, employer, and the legal grounds which they claim for their actions.

- If it's a police officer, the golden question is "Am I free to go" or something similar.  If the answer is a resounding, "No." then you are being detained and you should ask what crime you are suspected of committing. NOTE: Under the first amendment - taking a photograph does not constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Raising Hell

- If you don't want to get the authority involved, you can always contact a supervisor and make a formal complaint. Give them a headache they won't forget.

- Call a local newspaper, TV or radio station. They love to run stories about civil liberties being breached.

- Get the internet army on your side. Posting your story of injustice is good way to raise awareness quickly.  Hell hath no fury like an angry internets.

There is a great amount of literature that I've attempted to compile into this modest blog post. If you've ever been scrutinized for taking a picture in a public place, one thing you should always have on you is THIS piece of paper. The Photographer's Right is basically everything I've stated above, but in a more concise manner and it's nice and portable so you can better educate the angry rent-a-cop demanding you to hand over your memory card. In any case, being well read on your rights is your best defense against the ignorant tirade of people who think you are a threat. Remember:  Knowledge is power.