There’s a fine line…

There’s a fine line between standing up for your rights and intentionally inciting controversy.  As you may know, I have been known to stand up for my rights. At the same time I can also respect the need to be cautious, given the nature of the time that we live in.  Since you probably are wanting to know where this is coming from, while going through my daily blog reads, and weekly reader posts, I was reading a post from friend-of-the-blog Becky Thomas.  She had a post up on her blog about someone who was detained (note – detained, not arrested) for “taking photos”.

Since I am all about standing up for your rights as a photographer – I followed her link to the video on YouTube.  While the video was interesting, there seemed to be some confusion on both the photographer’s perspective as well as the metro authority guy.  Yeah, the guy with the badge mis-quoted metro rules, and used some heavy-handed tactics to get information from the photographer.  But, all he was trying to do was get general information from a guy with a camera (who in my opinion was being as uncooperative as possible, all while video-recording it surreptitiously).

So, in the interests of hopefully offering some general guidance for photographers that like to go out and take pictures in public areas, here are a few tips to shooting in public, and how to conduct yourself:

  1. Know your rights.  Yes, you have the right to take pictures in public places, with a few exceptions.  A great starting point is a nice PDF that Bert Krages has put together. Keep in mind also, that just because you are outside, does not necessarily mean you are “in public”.  Malls, for instance, are privately owned, as are some metro and rapid transit systems.  While they are accessible to the general public, they can be privately owned, and as such, have guidelines for taking photos and filmography (and the guy in the video actually linked to the website for the metro, which clearly states that a form should be filled out and submitted in advance – that they generally will work with people, which he apparently was not interested in…because he produced no such form and did not indicate his awareness level to the authorities).  If you have any doubt about your area, check the locale’s website, and if there’s a phone number – call – it pays to be informed!
  2. Be open, honest, and friendly with authorities.  One of your greatest tactics in defusing possibly fractious and unpleasant situations is a willingness to cooperate.  Not having any identification, or an unwillingness to present that ID, is not a step in the right direction.  Neither is muted responses of “just taking photos”.  Usually, if you are open, honest, and friendly, any concerns over your activities are allayed.  Yes, officers should be the same way, but in the event that one isn’t – wouldn’t it be better if you were the one in control of your faculties?*
  3. Have your own ammo!  No, I don’t mean carry a weapon, that’s not going to help.  What I mean is to carry your ID with you.  Carry a copy of the Bert Krages PDF, and even better, carry a few business cards.  Make sure the card has your name, phone number, and web address (or blog).  Show that you take your profession (or hobby) seriously.  Heck, even carry a little 4×6 wallet of photos with you (it can never hurt to have a sample portfolio with you – you may land a gig!)  Finally, keep a notepad and pen or pencil with you.  If things really do deteriorate, and you feel you are being held illegally, make sure to note officer names and badge numbers.  Don’t resist anything though because that will accomplish nothing, and just exacerbate the situation, making things worse.
  4. Feed the cat!  Showing an interest (even if misguided) in you as a photographer should be a compliment.  Take it as such even if it was not intended that way.  Start showing anyone inquiring about what you are shooting some of your work.  Whether that work is from the back of your LCD, your small 4×6 wallet shots, or your business card, it can immediately defuse a situation because you are being open, honest, and forthright.  Trying to hide things only makes you look more suspicious.  Remain happy and excited about your craft, while also respecting the job that authorities have.  They see things that are potentially unsafe in their eyes, and whether the situation is unsafe, threatening or not, the best way to defuse that is to show them you are safe.  Show them you are after an artistic vision or a creative perspective, and not a confrontation.

*As a sidebar, I have had a few anecdotes with people in positions of authority, whether they be uniformed officers of the law, or hired security.  The first happened at Charleston Airport.  I had arrived a little early to pick up some relative a while back, and since the light was nice (and I had my camera).  I started walking around the parking garage, looking for interesting light and angles in the building.  After about 20 minutes an officer rode up to me on her bicycle, and asked if I was taking pictures.  I (excitedly) said something to the effect of “Yeah, I am here picking up my in-laws and arrived early.  It’s some great light and the angles in here are really cool!  Check it out!”  I then  offered her my camera, and showed a few shots from the LCD.  (And they were cool too! 🙂 )  She asked if I did work professionally, and I said, not yet, but if she knew of anyone that wanted some work done – I did just get some cards made up – do you want one?  She took it, smiled, nodded and rode off.  (A month or two later, a bank called me and asked if I had any landscapes that they could look at for putting on their walls…)

The other was here in Denver.  After work (when I was still working…*sigh*), I made my way down to the bus depot called Market Street Station.  I missed my bus, so had half an hour to kill…and, with my camera readily available, started walking around looking for interesting light, textures and scenes.  After about ten minutes an RTD guy walked up and asked if I had slipped or something.  No, why? Saw you taking pictures of the stairs.  “Oh, no…just an enthusiast photographer, and saw some cool scenes – here, check out the stuff I got”  I showed him the few shots, and he asked if I had a business card.  “You Bet!”  Turns out his daughter was getting married!  (She had already booked a photographer.)

The larger point of these two anecdotes is that when approached, I was friendly, open, willing to share, and defused any potentially volatile situations with pleasantries and willingness to accommodate curiosity.  After all I don’t want to spend time in jail, or in a detention facility for anything – I want to take pictures, and that is what it is supposed to be about, right?  Let me know – am I off base here?  Do you disagree?  Am I going overboard with pleasantries? Sound off in the comments or via e-mail!  This one could be interesting, so I’ll ask in advance to keep things family-friendly! 🙂

Happy shooting and we’ll see you back here again tomorrow!  (Oh yeah, and don’t forget the December Giveaway – $400 in prizes by merely posting a “Giveaway” themed photo to the Flickr thread!)

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7 comments for “There’s a fine line…

  1. December 14, 2009 at 8:52 am

    I had one incident that stood out in my mind. An event on the square here in town. I went down to get a few candid parade shots, and while walking the square a police officer approached me. Two other photographers were standing right next to me, but the officer came to me. I had the Canon 70-200mm L series on my camera.

    I was asked to come with the officer, and he told me I had to talk to the “official” photographer for the parade. I asked, “What about the 2 people standing next to me with DSLRs?” The answer. They didn’t have a “professional” lens.

    In the end I was allowed to shoot. Had to read a sheet telling me how to be a courteous photographer. Don’t jump in front of people, don’t block people, etc. Unfortunately, the several thousand people on the square with video cameras and “non-professional” cameras didn’t read the sheet, and kept walking right into the parade to photograph someone while blocking everyone else and the parade……

    Ah, the sense of it all……….
    .-= Rich C´s last blog ..Topaz vs HDR =-.

  2. Glen
    December 14, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Jason, I believe your approach is the correct one. In most cases the officers are just doing there jobs by asking what you are up to. By giving polite answers you are defusing any leverage an officer might think he has. IMHO.

  3. December 14, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Yes, your attitude is deffinately correct. That said, I was stopped in London taking photos of Trafalgar Square by a police man. He insisted I stop, even though there were thousands of tourists taking photos with their compact cameras, it was because I had a big white lens on I suppose (I wish Canon wouldn’t do that)…. good article Jason.
    .-= Kevin Mullins´s last blog ..Kings Road London Wedding Photography =-.

  4. Rob
    December 14, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    I agree with the previous comments. I’ve only had one instance where I was confronted while taking photos. I work on an old Army base, turned into a college campus, with lots of abandoned buildings still that copper scavengers have ransacked over the years. One morning I was taking some photos near one of the old buildings before work and two campus police officers approached me. Once I stood up from my crouch and they could see I was semi professionally dressed with a camera in hand they noticeably relaxed. I was still asked for ID and we chatted a few minutes and they were on their way. The cool thing is as they were leaving I mentioned that I’ll let them know if I’m going to be in the area photographing again and that I stay out of the buildings one of them told me that I can stop by the office and sign a liability waiver and they’ll give me all the access so I can go in and chronicle the military artwork on the walls. I doubt they would have let me in on that if I had been disrespectful towards them.

    A lot of the things I’ve read on the internet where the photographer has been harassed, especially the guy in Seattle who photographed the guys working on an ATM machine, deserved a little of what they got. Being aggressive back is only going to make it far worse then it probably could have been. Jason diffused his run ins perfectly and I will take his advice about having cards handy and to just show them what I’ve been doing…hell some of them may have an interest in photography themselves and maybe point you in the direction of other places to check out in the area.

    Thanks Jason…another well written thought provoking article.
    .-= Rob´s last blog ..Day 347 of 365 =-.

  5. December 14, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Rob I’m sorry but the guy in Seattle was not stopped by police, those were just security guards with no legal authority backing them, they do not have the right to stop and question people when they are not police in the first place.

    I agree that you should always be polite but I have also seen many police go way overboard. As I’m friends with some people in law enforcement they have explained to me why. Since 9-11 they’re training has focused heavily on every person is suspect and every person is a threat to them. The paranoia in the training has really got ridiculous. The only way we will keep our first amendment rights and not end up in a police state is if we stand up for them. I will not hand my camera over unless they got a warrant because in America I don’t have to; the Bill of Rights gives me protections from such behavior from our law enforcement.

    • December 14, 2009 at 11:44 pm

      My apologies Bec if these were just security guards (and I’ve noticed that typically the “hired security” are usually the ones who overstep their authority). For the record though, I thought I saw a Sheriff badge on one of them, and he referred to the person as an “LA Sheriff on the YouTube video title as well as within the text of his YouTube video. And the Sheriff department is not a security guard. Sheriff offices are county-based legal authorities where as police officers are usually city-based authorities. Generally Sheriff offices defer to city authorities except in cases where things cross city boundaries, like Metro lines.

      However, regardless of whether it’s official law enforcement or a “hired gun”, my policy is that you always catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. If all your pleasantries do not allay any overzealous folks though, by all means, stand up for your rights and use the reference card, and your notepad to take names and numbers. Then you have all you need to file a complaint and do what this guy did on YouTube. And here’s where the pleasantries can certainly aid you in court: “Officer, I was pleasant, courteous, and respectful, yet the security officer continued to harrass me beyond the means onf any reasonable action and I would ask the court to consider the following evidence.”

      As Benjamin Franklin is noted for writing: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”

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