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:
- 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!
- 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?*
- 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.
- 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!)