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Motivation is a photography blog that discusses the creative aspects of photography. The posts will include thoughts about images and their interpretation, photographers and their work, technique, workflow, my ongoing projects, and perhaps even the occasional off topic rant.

Photographers' Rights

There have been some extremely interesting posts and discussions going on over at Paul Butzi’s blog “Photo Musings” regarding certain ethical aspects of taking photographs. I think that reading them, or at least giving thought and consideration to the topic, is essential. The blog entries and comments can be seen here, here, and here.

The discussion revolves around whether it is acceptable to take photographs in the following types of situations:

i) when people don’t want you to photograph them,

ii) when you must trespass either overtly, or more subtly, by going onto clearly private land that is not so clearly marked as such, and

iii) when you are photographing private property from a public location and the owner specifically approaches and asks you not to do so.

First, let me state that I agree with Paul 99%. I personally feel that one should not photograph people who do not want to be photographed, that one should not trespass, that is to say violate the law, in order to photograph, and that one should not take photographs if there is a compelling reason not to, such as a home owner specifically requesting that you don’t.

However, I myself would insert a caveat regarding number iii. What if the photograph is something newsworthy and might be important for generations to come? While I certainly would not want anyone to violate the law to obtain the image, situation iii is not violating the law per se. It becomes a tough issue. Would I do it? No. Should it never be done? I am not so sure that is the case either. It is a very fine line. Certainly I would personally disagree, for example, with paparazzi type harassment, which if done from afar and when the subject is in public does not violate the law. But, to take the absurd, should an image of someone robbing a bank not be taken because the perpetrator doesn’t want his picture taken? Should, for example, photographers not have pushed to take images in the aftermath of 9/11, when they were initially told they could not?

On the other hand, as Paul pointed out, stretching photographic freedoms can also get very out of hand such as in this case, where it was deemed legal to take pictures ‘up women’s skirts’ without their knowledge if they are in a public place. It seems like common sense went out the window. So, I think that if one walks the edges of some of the moral issues involving photographing when there is no law being broken, things can get a bit dicey and difficult to cover with one sweeping declaration.

I had already been thinking about these issues because …….a funny thing happened to me on the way downtown. Several months back I was on an urban photography outing and had seen an interesting looking restaurant storefront situated on the ground floor of a large downtown ‘skyscraper’. The external walls of the restaurant were public and on street level. The restaurant was actually closed at the time, since it was only 9 am on a Sunday . There was nobody visible inside. I took a picture. As I was looking for other compositions, the building security guard came running out, having seen me from the building lobby, to tell me that I was not allowed to take pictures of any part of the building.

This was clearly preposterous, as I was standing on public property taking a picture of an openly visible storefront with no one in it. He was looking pretty serious about it though. Having already taken the shot and not wanting to have the rest of the outing ruined, I calmly left after telling him that he was wrong, though he pretty much stopped listening to me when it was apparent that I was going to do as he said. Now, images weren’t confiscated, the police weren’t called, nor was I threatened with bodily harm (though I don’t know what the guard would have done had I not complied) but nonetheless I did feel as if my rights were violated, albeit in a minor fashion. I think a situation such as this is, in some way, different from taking a photograph of a farmhouse from the road and having the owner come out and ask for you not to take pictures (which, again, I would comply with, though apparently not legally bound to do so). Interestingly, several minutes prior to the guard having seen me, a city police officer had walked right by me without saying so much as a word.

This led me to wonder exactly what my rights as a photographer are. I think it is important to understand them before deciding what moral limits I should impose that might go above and beyond the legal ones. They are spelled out clearly here, by following the page's link to a downloadable pdf file. I should mention that the specific description of the rights in the pdf is based on US law only. Well worth a look, as is Paul’s blog which is one of my favorites and listed in the blog sidebar.