Protecting Photographer’s Rights

I have noticed a disturbing trend in recent years of street photographers being harassed and even vilified, by individuals on the internet, in the media, by various police forces and governments around the world. I personally have been harassed, by the police, security guards, and even by just regular people on the street who thought I was photographing them just because my camera was pointed in their general direction. People have become more paranoid and aware of their surroundings in recent times, plus there have been many changes in society as the digital age progresses.

Every city has CCTV cameras monitoring public spaces as well as private, and commercial proprieties; smart phones are becoming more popular and it has become commonplace to see people using them to make photos and videos of their everyday lives. They then upload these images and videos with tags to different social media websites that are easily searched on Google. In some cases these images and video files are being automatically uploaded to file sharing sites as they are being created.

When did the Backlash Against Street Photography Begin?

So what has happened in the last generation that has made street photography something many people frown upon compared to generations past? Was it one thing, a tipping point of some kind or even a major event that changed society’s collective view of street photography? The answer is it was a series of events, changes politically, and of course the modern technologies that have shaped how the public views street photography. I believe it all started shortly after September 11, 2001 when the Bush government used the tragedy of 911 and the fear it caused to strip Americans of many freedoms and civil liberties that they had enjoyed before they created the ironically named “Patriot act”.

Riot police en masse, Paris, on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées

©Paul Kerins, All Rights Reserved

 

The police were given much more power than they ever had before, and the various governments started putting CCTV cameras ( Closed-circuit television ) everywhere. This fear was exploited and was used in a power and civil liberties grab, that spilled over into other western countries, but the reality is if you are a American citizen then your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million, and you will more likely drown in your own bathtub.

The Laws have Not Changed, just Some People’s Perception of the Law.

For the most part the laws regarding photography in public places has not changed, and in most western counties you are allowed to take pictures of public spaces and of the people in those public spaces, but sometimes it seems like somebody forgot to tell the police this. I had seen many videos of police harassing photographers who were not breaking any laws, in most cases the police believed the photographer was breaking some non-existent law and in some cases looked like they were making their own laws as they went along.

No Photography Allowed.

The only places you are not allowed to make photographs of are sensitive government sites, like military bases for example, and these places are usually enclosed and are well marked with signage stating photography is not allowed.

The other places you may not be allowed to make photographs are private properties and this includes private properties that allow public access, like shopping malls and concert halls but that depends on who is running these properties, and often depends on what kind of camera you are using, in other words if you are using your smart phone they may not care if you take a picture, but if you are using a high end DSLR mounted on a tripod you might have a security guard ask you to stop making photographs and to put your camera away.

Is it fair, no it is not but it is private property and they can ask you to leave if you do not comply to their request. I would suggest trying to get written permission before you start shooting on private property that way if a security guard ( who is only doing his job ) asks you to stop making photographs you can show them you have permission.

Paris police standing in front of motorcycles.

©Paul Kerins, All Rights Reserved

Leveling the Playing Field.

The police do not like still cameras and hate video even more, because the do not want the public to record them doing their job. The main reason for this is in the eyes of the court, a police officer’s testimony always garners more respect and gravitas than the testimony of a ordinary citizen, and the police know this. Unedited video in a courtroom levels the playing field and the police are only as credible as the evidence presented in the video. So their word no longer has power, for example in a case where there is obvious police brutality that has been recorded on video. It is no wonder street photographers feel like they are being unjustly harassed, in the eyes of most police officers photographers and people with video cameras are their enemy.

 The Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy of authorities and governments restricting or wanting to restrict photography, when police openly record citizens using video and still cameras; recording regular people who are peacefully and legally standing up for their rights to demonstrate, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

In the UK there’s one CCTV camera for every 32 people, yet when a true terrorist act happens, like the bombing at the Boston marathon, authorities are begging the public to send them their video files and photos, in order to help them with their job of creating a time line to see who was responsible for planting the bombs, so they can bring the criminals to justice. Could they have solved that case so easily and quickly without the help of the general public and their cameras?

 Privacy

If corporate entities like Facebook and Google and many others are able track your every move on the internet and build profiles on individuals to do direct targeted advertising to them based off of their browsing habits, and governments are able to develop face recognition software that the police can use to track a individual’s movement using CCTV cameras, or to track movement using GPS on our cell phones then it seems like a type of subterfuge to me that street photographers are targeted and are being scapegoated as the ones who are invading individual rights to privacy by photographing them when they are in a public place.

I am all for privacy and I consider myself a private person ( this is why I do not belong to any social networks ) but when I am in a public place I do not expect my right to privacy when I am surrounded by the general populace. I realize that the right to privacy is very important, but in a democratic society what do you consider more important, privacy in a public space or the right to express ideas?  If you want privacy stay in your home and don’t use the internet. With CCTV cameras everywhere and people using their smart-phones to record everything they do and constantly uploading image files to their social network of choice, privacy in public places is dead and does not exist at all, anymore; so blaming street photographers as evil doers that are taking away people’s right to privacy in public spaces seems kinda silly really, ridiculous even.

What Do We Lose?

So what do we lose if we allow our local and federal governments to restrict photography in public spaces or we allow police forces to harass photographers with non-existent laws? In the short term we lose our civil liberties which in itself is already too much to ask us for, but we also lose our creative and artistic freedom. For me though the long term affect is the truly sad thing, that right now future generations are being robbed of being able to see how we live in our time. Photographers like the brilliant Henri Cartier-Bresson not only gifted us with their vision, they also left us a doorway to the past to see how people looked and lived in a different times and places, without the likes of Bresson and other photographer’s artistic documentation of their world, time and cultures, our lives would less full.

 Conclusion

Making photographs in public places is not illegal in most Western countries, just the same it is always a good idea to research the laws of the land that you are making photographs in and if all possible to print out a hard copy of those laws to carry with you in your camera bag in case you are confronted by someone who does not know the law or thinks they do but are wrong. Below are a few links to sites that have some information on photographer’s rights in public places. For my readers in other non-English speaking countries I would highly recommend you do your own research into the laws of your land regarding photography in public places in your country.

If someone does try and stop you from making photographs in a public space be polite and friendly, but assert your rights and show them that paper you printed out with the laws. Try and stay calm even if the person is harassing you is not, and be mindful of your personal safety, if you feel like your well being is in danger just leave, call the police or both.  If it is a police officer that is harassing you, be polite and tell him/her that you have a copy of the law pertaining to your rights as a photographer in your camera bag and ask if it okay to show it to them. If the police continue to harass, you continue being polite while asking for their badge number and to speak to the supervisor. Know your rights, asset your rights, but be smart about it and be safe.

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