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Taking Pictures in Public (or: "Sorry sir, you can’t do that")

Posted by Matt on October 2nd, 2007 filed in Taking Photos

In the current political climate there will most likely come a time when you, as a photographer trying to create beautiful images, will be stopped by someone in a position of authority and challenged. Whether it’s being detained for 20 minutes by the police as they check your ID, or just being told by a security guard that you can’t take a photo of their building, it’s an unsettling experience the first time it happens – and doesn’t get much easier the second. So what are our rights to take photos in public spaces, and what should we do when challenged?

First up, my most recent encounter: This weekend on a sunny day in New York I was wandering down to meet a friend for lunch. On the way I had my Canon 20D out as usual and was snapping away at anything interesting that caught my eye. Halfway down Broadway I saw the Art Deco doorway to the Western Union Telegraph building, shining in the sun so I took a shot then moved to a different position for another angle. Suddenly a short guy in a blue suit, who had been chatting on his cellphone but I assume was a security guard, came up and said: “Sorry sir, you can’t do that”. I was a bit thrown by this and just mumbled “Sorry” and continued my walk, fuming slightly at this interruption that had fouled my mood.

WU Telegraph Door on W Broadway
The offending door – photo by Matt Hobbs.

Now by all accounts this wasn’t much of an disturbance to my day, I had my shots and he didn’t ask me to delete them. But events such as these start to make you feel nervous about taking photos, and being comfortable with your shooting is the best way to get good shots. Plus I found myself sitting wondering what right he actually had to say this, and whether he could have called the police – which is never something you want, although in general New York police are pretty easy going why I couldn’t take the photo, but most likely in was that the sidewalk I was standing on was private property – their private property – so they get to make the rules and that’s that.

Photos in Public Spaces

In general in most countries you are allowed to take photos in public spaces. These are spaces maintained by the government for public use and you have right of access. In these situations you just have to be careful of local laws regarding what you’re taking photos of – for example in Germany & France you can’t take photos of strangers without their permission first, and in the US pictures of Government buildings or potential terrorist targets are now ‘protected’ under anti-terrorist laws. When it comes to ‘terror’ laws just be aware of the prevailing mood, the Guardian has a great article on how this affected London right after the bus bombings.

In general, private spaces such as museums are obvious and explicit with their rules on photography, some are fine with it, others aren’t, and in these situations it’s obviously private land. Where complications arise is in the intersection of private & public. Where the pavement/sidewalk you’re standing on is owned by the building you’re taking a photo of – in which case just cross the road. The New York Subway is an interesting example of this, for a while they were going to ban photography in the whole subway but then the Mayor relented to the relief of 1000s of photo-bloggers and tourists.

Tom Otterness Phone Sculpture @ 8th Ave
Tom Otterness Sculpture on the NYC Subway – photo by Matt Hobbs

What to do When Challenged

Remember, Security Guards and the Police are just doing their job, the question is how they interpret the law and whether they get aggravated by you! In most cases, if the image is not too important it’s not worth the hassle of challenging the guard on your rights – just walk away, normally with your photos, and take some more. For some of us these demonstrations of unnecessary power are like a red flag to a bull – every time a photographer doesn’t stand up for their rights these rights get eroded, and the next photographer has a harder time. So if you feel up to it, ask the guard in a polite, respectful manner, what laws you’re breaking – and ‘You just can’t take photos of this building’ is not an answer!

Some people carry around a ‘photographers rights’ card that they construct, and hand these out as appropriate. Check on the Internet for one that applies best to your town, as rules do vary. There are also discussion groups on the net that can offer helpful advice on your rights. In general though, you should always have some form of ID on you just in case – especially in the US.

The Main Laws That Apply to Photographers

As an overview, here are the main areas of law that might apply to you taking photos in public spaces:

  • Privacy Laws: People have a right to privacy, and although candid photos of strangers are often wonderful the ‘strangers’ are people too. Understand your local privacy laws and even if they allow you to take such photos be respectful of others – ask permission where appropriate, and if they complain apologise, explain what you were doing and delete the photo if they want.
  • Trespass/Private Property: Land owners have the right to say what you can and can’t do on their land – and that includes not taking photos even i the land is apparently public. In the case of trespass you might have broken into private land to take photos, say of derelict buildings, and that can lead to a whole world of legal trouble.
  • Anti-Terrorism/’Freedom’ Laws: We all know about the threat of terrorism – it is real, but the truth is if we act scared all the time then terrorists have won. Is it worth creating a police state to ‘protect’ our freedom? Some of these laws now forbid you from taking photos of potental terrorist targets, from transport centers to government buildings and beyond. These rules are the ones that get guards and police most zealous, so be very courteous in such situations – and if you ‘fit the profile of a terrorist’ – ie, ‘you’re not white’ – then be especially courteous. These are strange times right now!
  • Filming/Photography Permits: In most locations filming permits are needed before you start making any movie, and although these rules are designed for commercial film makers they often ‘accidentally’ infringe on amateurs’ rights. Some of these film permit requirements are now being extended to still photography as well.

Taking photos in a public space is a right, so enjoy it and use it to improve your creative eye. Keep your cool if things go wrong. Feel free to share your experiences with us in the comments.

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and what I write cannot be taken as legal advice. You are responsible for your own actions and choices, so stay informed.

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