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Friday, 21 March 2008


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"Photographers getting hassled is nothing new; what's new is that the recent, allegedly "anti-terrorism" laws and attitudes are giving license to people with badges and in uniforms to engage in the same sort of hassling and confrontation that we've always been subject to—but that we used to not have to worry about from that particular sector."

For the most part I agree with your sentiments. I find the irrational hysteria so many people have these days that anybody with a "serious" camera is either a terrorist or a pedophile is absurd. However I find this particular statement puzzling because to my knowledge there have been no such laws passed in the US. This appears to be another one of those misperceptions that "seems reasonable" but has not basis in fact.

I suggest you read the so-called "USA PATRIOT" act, a.k.a. the Patriot Act.


Mike J.

Unfortunately, as with so many other points of contention in the past (racism, corruption), I think it's going to take a pivotal, highly-publicized event to bring this issue to the forefront of the national psyche. Rosa Parks, Watergate etc. At any rate, it's important for us all to not back down. It's hard to feel creative when surrounded by fear.

I have been harassed multiple times here in the U.S. in the last few months. In one case it was by a security guard at a local college (I was photographing a beautiful empty grassy dell on campus from an off-campus location - I actually chose to leave rather than fight it out). In the second, it was by a young lady that had no policing authority (she demanded an answer as to whether I had permission to photograph a city building I was photographing - her male companion eventually pulled her away telling her to leave me alone).

I believe this camera-phobia hysteria will eventually go away. However, it will take a long time via "natural" means. I propose a notion that might resolve this issue much quicker.

The first problem, I believe, is that the camera-phobia enforcement is discriminatory. People who have more involved equipment or look like non-tourists (or middle eastern) are being singled out. The average American is not aware of the problem.

My proposal is that we make this a problem for EVERYONE! We force the issue!

The idea is...
Everyone you see with a camera visible in public, ask them if they have permission to take pictures (you have the right to ask that question of anyone you like - free speech - just don't go any further into harassment). Make EVERYONE uncomfortable.

Eventually enough suburban moms and dads will be bothered and start to make a stink. The government will have to step up and re-affirm everyone's right to photograph and the issue will go away again for a little while.

"the news media in its initial flurry of alarm"

Oh, Mike, you've made me start on media...

As I've already said here, I'm a journalist. An IT journalist. When I read articles on computers and cameras in the so called mainstream so called newspapers, I'm often one small step from hurling. It can be such a horrible pile of misinformation and disinformation, it's incredible.

Everybody's running after sensations. They are so busy with the run, they don't bother learning the first thing about the matter they write about. Or they simply don't care.

They can't be bothered to keep their facts straight. They sell propaganda as straight reporting. They don't dare ask uncomfortable questions. They invade other people's privacy in the name of "public wants to know". They do tons of stupid and dishonorable and dishonest things.

Okay, time to end the rant.

A guy I work with has been taking pictures of clouds recently as reference material for his paintings. Last week he was at an intersection, noticed the light coming through the clouds, took a picture and drove on. He noticed some woman in a large SUV following him and when he drove into the parking lot, she followed him in and stopped behind his car. She demanded to know why he was taking pictures of her and when he explained what he was doing she apparently refused to believe him and copied down his tag and threatened to notify authorities. He is here from Mexico on permanent residence status and is applying for citizenship. He was somewhat confused and alarmed by this woman's behavior and wanted to know if he had done something wrong. I referred him to this link for US photographers rights - http://www.krages.com/phoright.htm - and told him he had done nothing wrong. I think there is a similar page out there somewhere with UK photographers rights, which I believe are fairly similar. Another event happened to at least one of my three middle Eastern photo students a while back where an FBI agent actually stopped him and demanded to see his ID while he was taking photos on the street. I think he said he was later contacted by them and had to explain he was producing photos for an assignment. What is this world coming to?

When I was at Dartmouth, many moons ago, I was privvy to an inside situation. A friend of mine was called out of bed on a Sunday morning by a phone call from a person claiming to be a reporter from TIME magazine. My friend (who was hung over and groggy with sleep) assumed it was a joke, and fed the "reporter" some information about our Winter Carnival he thought was obviously absurd. He had us laughing when he recounted the conversation after he got back to the room.

That week's issue of TIME magazine had an article about the Dartmouth Winter Carnival and quoted my friend by name giving the false information. It was one of numerous errors in the story.

My friend never learned how the reporter got his name and phone number and never knew why he had been singled out to comment.

Ever since then I've had a healthy skepticism about printed stories, even in reputable and high-profile publications.

Oh, and by the way-the NEWSWEEK story about Winter Carnival that same week was MUCH more accurate. It's possible that the story might just have fallen to a better reporter arbitrarily; maybe NEWSWEEK makes as many mistakes as TIME overall. Still, the memory biased me in favor of NEWSWEEK for many years afterwards.

Mike J.

I currently live near DC, and have never been hassled taking photos around town - including in metro stations. Although I tend to be there when there aren't many people around, and I like to keep moving.

Oddly enough, I've only been "hassled" in two places : downtown Pittsburgh at PPG place, and Dulles airport outside DC. In both cases, I was asked to stop taking photos after having taken several already (with other people also taking more). The illogical thing to me is that they have no way to confiscate what you have already taken.

So I had to stop (well, chose to avoid conflict I guess), but if there was something suspicious about what I was doing, I was allowed to keep my "ill-gotten" gains. Seems very pointless and completely arbitrary to me.

(Oh...just remembered that I got told not to take pictures at a South Africa/Swaziland border crossing. I don't know why, but that seemed to make more sense to me - I guess since it's foreign government buildings? Looking back, my picture of the turnstiles and stop signs is totally innocent.)

As a few commenters have pointed out, the "bias against photography" doesn't always come from people in uniform.

Shortly after the Iraq war started, I photographed a local veterans' rally with my Dad, a PJ professor and my constant photo-mentor. As we moved through the crowd and clicked away, one particularly burly participant barked at me, "NOT THE PROTESTERS!"

Lacking confidence and a good knowledge of my rights (we were in a public park), I immediately backed down ... and bumped squarely into Dad as he politely but firmly replied, "He'll photograph whatever he wants, sir."

I mentally replay the experience frequently when I pick up my camera; it was a valuable lesson learned. Persistence (with due respect to safety) shouldn't be shelved on account of someone else's bias. And it doesn't hurt to shoot with someone who'll watch your back, either! (Thanks Dad!)

Just to be fair, law enforcement people are mostly quite reasonable. About three years ago I wanted a series of shots showing the effect of motion vs shutter speed. I went down the street to a highway overpass, set up a tripod and took a series of shots of the traffic below. A couple of days later I was in the backyard doing some macro shooting when my wife called out "Honey, there's a police officer here to see you."

It seems some idiot had phoned in a report of my "suspicious" (gasp!) PHOTOGRAPHING. Now, the authorities are obligated to take such reports, but they aren't obligated to do anything about them, and that's not what the officer wanted to talk to me about. Rather, there had been a break-in at a nearby house at about the time I was doing the shooting. Having a report that I was in the area at the time, they simply wanted to know if I had witnessed anything suspicious. I hadn't, I said so, and that was the end of it.

Which only illustrates that it's usually not the real cops who are the problem, it's the rent-a-cops and the cop wannabes.

Hey Mike-

at the top and bottom of the page above I have an audio link to my encounter a few years back with secret service. Taking a picture from lafayette Park towards the White House.
Happened to have a tape machine running.
It was a rude awakening for me.

Here is a link to the Photographer's rights in the UK:


My only comment is that I am disgusted by all this scaremongering, on both sides of the Atlantic!

Yes, good points all, but here you are preaching to the choir. This article needs to be published in a more widely read venue.

We should just be patient: time is on photographers' side.

Whether one looks forward to the prospect or dreads it, I think it's just a matter of a few years until tiny eyeglasses- and sunglasses-mounted digital cameras will be as ubiquitous as iPods and cellphones are now. At that point, every citizen will be able to take photos (and, soon enough, videos) anywhere, anytime, without others' knowledge, and save the images to a pocket (or belt or ear)-mounted storage device.

While initially at least the quality of these tiny cameras won't equal that of an SLR, it will suddenly be impossible for authorities (whether public or private) to enforce a "No photos" rule in most locations. Any limits to the kind of camera being used will be completely arbitrary and thus very difficult to enforce -- and if spanked, "serious camera" users can just put away the big gun and resort to the specs-cam to get the shot.

I'm an occasional reader of TOP and have been following the "You Can't Picture This" video and commentary with some interest. My initial reaction to the video was not outrage or anger, but disappointment. I know from my own youth that if you roam the streets looking for a fight, you can find one very quickly. I had the distinct impression that the videographer was trying too hard to provoke an incident which for me at least, invalidates his story.
To contort a well-known line from Robert DeNiro in "The Untouchables", you can get a lot further with a camera and a kind word than you can with just a camera. That has always worked for me, especially with authorities asking what I was photographing. I just respond politely, helpfully and with a smile. When they move on, I discretely resume what I was doing.

Most people would not agree with me, but I think we self-righteously make too much of this harassment of photographers by law enforcement (and sometimes by civilians). It's really nothing new in our society. The targets just shift with the zeitgeist. Lest we think photographers are being singled out here, I know an artist who was hassled and briefly detained by police for sketching an old wooden bridge in the countryside. They accused her of being a suspected arsonist.
Xenophobia and prejudice stirred up by fear have a long and ugly history in this country. The Patriot Act has really given them a large dose of adrenaline which has to work its way out of the body politic. Once police learn that people with cameras (and painters!) are not terrorists after all, they will move on to other targets and these misguided laws will be relegated to the junkheap of history's mistakes, where they belong. In the meantime, just chill. It won't take long.

It's not always the Federal Government's Law making public shooting difficult for Photographer. The State of Texas for six years had on the books that it was illegal to take photography of a person with out their consent for the purpose to "arouse or gratify." It was changed this past year to in a bathroom or dressing after a case with a great deal of media coverage was throw out by the DA. Here is a summary of it.


Which particular parts of the "Patriot Act" deal with our rights to photograph?

What's the pay rate for a terrorist photographer anyway?
Do they do it for the love of photography or do they just like the gear?
Do they print the stuff they photograph or is it viewed onscreen at 100%?
Do their bosses school people in the art of photography or would they just hire ex-paparazzo?
Do the better ones end up videoing Osama with the special jerky, handheld video camera?

My wife takes the 3 year old to swimming lessons. Everywhere around the public pool there are signs up saying No photography. It would have been nice if we got shots of her learning in the big pool but what can you do?
Apparently if you're not a photographer - just a parent - you don't bother reading the signs, you just pull out the mobile phone or junior digital camera and snap away. It's laughable!
If I pulled out the D2X they'd all be jumping up and down and I'd be a paedophile (it's happened to me earlier this year in a different location!) and marched off.

The terrorism and paedophile issues are related. I think you are a target if you look professional but if you're a hick with a toy or small camera it's "access all areas"!

I think that it's important for photographers to understand their rights, which are large in the US. There are a number of web sites that have information concerning this issue. In almost every case what we can reasonably see we can legally photograph. Comportment constraints, such as not being considered rude or threatening always come into play as does your statement about giving those who are belligerent an excuse to be so. There is always a danger of confrontation when photographing regardless of the laws... unfortunately.

It is very easy to create a "Straw dog" around this issue but as in most cases that accomplishes nothing good. The public's apprehension about terrorist actions and their suspicions around photographers is a sign of the times, and I guess we have to find ways to deal with it.
don't believe that media reports are being fed by the government to aid in their war on terror, but such is the stuff that straw dogs are made of. The government, in most cases is folks a lot like me and you trying to do their job. In any case it's easy to imagine many in the media dreaming of the chance to make their bones by exposing some government action and hard to imagine them in collusion with it.

Not sure it adds anything to the story but I've been hassled numerous times since 9/11 for truly innocuous taking picture taking. The worst was probably one day at a rest stop on the NJ Turnpike. My family had all gone in to use the facilities and I was alone with my camera in the parking lot. At the edge of the parking lot was a field of bulrushes or cattails bordering nearby houses. It was a hazy gray day - the colors were perfect. I started snapping. Then the car rolled up on me and a tin-starred petty official of the NJ Turnpike asked me what I was doing. The artistic sensitivities of such people being what they are, my answer didn't really endear me to him. He told me "filming's not allowed." I protested that I wan't filming. He pulled out a clipboard with a long list of offences he was there to protect the people of NJ from and found photographing of the Turnpike is not allowed. Again I protested that I wasn't photographing the Turnpike, but the plants beyond the edge of the parking lot of the rest stop off the Turnpike. To him it was all part of th Turnpike and not allowed. I backed down. The shots I got weren't that good after all - I have subsequently learned that there are no laws banning the photographing of public infrastructure (let alone nature near the infrastructure).

Well...the authorities can't do much about real terrorists. So, if you can't solve, or even comprehend real problems, you "discover" (or invent) "problems" you can do something about. Then you solve these problems thus justifying your position and salary. This holds true for organizations other than law enforcement. The business world, from CEOs on down often mistake the practice of this stupidity for real accomplishment.

"Which particular parts of the 'Patriot Act' deal with our rights to photograph?"

Follow along...What I said was that anti-terrorism laws and attitudes are giving people who want to hassle us an excuse to do so. I didn't imply, and didn't mean to imply, that such people are following the letter of the law. Rather the opposite.

Mike J.

Street photography is a balancing act between getting a good shot and letting ones' actions become intrusive. But getting ensnared in questions of whether the videographer in the last piece did or not make himself intrusive are red herrings.

And there most certainly are regulations in force to prohibit photography on land that is to all intents and purposes public. For Trafalgar Square in London certainly seems to be public land, for it is usually swarming with people. But it is private land and permits are required to film there. See:


And the issue is not even whether there should be a law to prohibit shooting on public land or land that is quasi public.

The issue is what is lost when such a law is in place. What is lost is one more reason to question the status quo. What is lost is one more reason to say why not?

Because once there is a law in place, the tendency of all good citizens is to say 'Well, it's the law."

The lesson of history is that once there is a law in place, it takes a brave man to stand against it. Once there is a law in place it is that much easier to introduce another law similar to it.

And of course, the government in power at the moment is good. I mean, who would say otherwise? But once the law is on the statute books, it can be used by the next government, or the one after that. And that government might not be such a 'good' government. And that is the start of the descent into dictatorship.

And after 'photography', what else is going to be banned? Will it be forbidden to look?

Further to David Bennett's comment, the Trafalgar Square bylaws require a permit specifically for "photography conducted in support of some organized activity, such as tak[ing] photographs or any other recordings of visual images for the purpose of or in connection with a business, trade, profession or employment or any activity carried on by a person or body of persons, whether corporate or unincorporate". That can reasonably be read as not restricting photography for personal, non-commercial, "unorganized" purposes; it seems a stretch to construe it as imposing a permit requirement on, for example, casual tourist snapshooting. And indeed, the page linked in David's comment is in a section of the website devoted to "bookings", that is, reserving the Square for organized events.

It is common for major public facilities to require a permit for commercial or "organized" uses.

John Robison said "Well...the authorities can't do much about real terrorists. So, if you can't solve, or even comprehend real problems, you "discover" (or invent) "problems" you can do something about".

Ain't it the truth. Well put John.

Yes, this is distressing. I have been hassled twice, once by a police officer in Madison last year photographing the courthouse down by the library. I think it was the hood that few his attention (it was -5 F). He was very professional, though, so I can't complain.

The second time was by a construction worker in Germany. He berated me for a good fifteen minutes about not taking people's pictures in the EU, etc. The irony is that I never actually shot it--he saw me before I was close enough, and he stopped jackhammering to jump down and harangue me.

I think my German friend had another agenda, though. I had a little trouble convincing him that I didn't work for "some organization" or for the police. He seemed concerned that I didn't photograph his work crew, which leads me to believe that they weren't entirely legal. But I may be reading too much into it.

Don't these people in power, be they police, security guard or even a "well meaning patriot" realise that if a terrorist wanted to take photos of an area they would just do it with a decent cell phone camera while pretending to make a call rather than use a proper camera.

"I think my German friend had another agenda, though. I had a little trouble convincing him that I didn't work for "some organization" or for the police. He seemed concerned that I didn't photograph his work crew, which leads me to believe that they weren't entirely legal."

This is a big problem. The story I always tell is that I was ambling around in the Brandywine River Valley idly snapping this and that--very navel-gazing, not purposeful at all--and a guy came barreling out of a house (I think it was a trailer actually) demanding to know why I was taking pictures of his truck. I hadn't even been AWARE of his truck, and the truck he was talking about turned out to be quite some distance away. I simply assured him that I was an art student and my assignment was to shoot shadows, or some such. But his action, of course, made me shoot a couple of pictures of his truck. Carefully. [g]

What I really uncovered was a guilty conscience of some sort. Did he fear the repo man, or had he stolen the truck, or committed some sort of crime in it, or what--? I have no idea. But I wouldn't have had the slightest interest in his truck if he hadn't drawn my attention to it.

Mike J.

Here's a good link for photographers in Canada:


I'm going to print up and laminate a few of the quotes from the Charter Of Freedoms and keep them with me when I get back to Canada just in case.

Let's get a little bit of perspective not our own. Sure, the 'terrorist' so-called argument is nonsense, it's just a soundbite without any meaning anymore, thrown around to incur fear into the heart of people. We all know that fear is a very, very bad advisor.

OTOH, it is not that normal people do not have a right to fear humans with cameras. And I do not mean some basic civil right but a very concrete one: America's Funniest Home Video and related shows all over the world. Add to that blogs [including one of my own] publishing "funny" moments and ridiculous mistakes.

I guess most of us - pros, semi-pros and amateurs [in the original sense of the word] - try to balance smiles with ethics, and most of the most idiotic 'no underwear' photos come from braindeads. For sure, aping in public shouldn't be too concerned when people start feeding him peanuts. Nevertheless, I have a lot of sympathy for those not wanting to get their idiocies documented - and as long as they do not fulfill some kind of public function I am on their side.

It is quite different for functionaries, official or self-proclaimed; a [private] guard using his uniform and probably physical force to intimidate harmless people has no right to privacy for this specific action [see the aping argument]. Obviously the same holds true for anybody in an official position, made possibly by the public, i.e. paid for. Which does not mean that, say, a governour or country leader does not have a right to privacy.

It all comes down to decency. We and they have to walk a thin line. Currently politicians, and thus the public, is stepping over - majorly. But too often photographers and videographers have stepped over, too.

I've been hassled by a cop once for taking a photograph. I was photographing a building in Tarkwa in Southern Ghana, when a local cop came and started shouting at me. I explained that I was taking a picture because the building had caught my eye, to which he replied that I was planning on making a postcard to sell outside Ghana and that none of the revenue would come back to his country. At this point my local driver came back and shouted louder than the cop, who left. I just found this quite an interesting encounter.

You read the rules as anyone might sensibly interpret them - in the spirit of what they say and not the letter of what they say. But, in fact, erecting a tripod has been enough to trigger a requirement for a permit.

I came across this:


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