Saturday, September 1, 2007

Public Photography is free and legal

Non-commercial photography that is. It's free and legal almost anywhere in this country except where notices are posted restricting or prohibiting it, such as near and in some federal buildings and all courthouses. It seems more and more photographers are being questioned, detained, harrassed, and even treatened with arrest. By people who are public employees or contracted security guards, who are interpretating law in ways that's illegal and using their authority to impress this to photographers.

Ok, sounds like a rant on authority, and being a lifelong anti-authority person, this isn't new for me. But it's becoming a common circumstance with any street photographer's life and work. I thought about this after reading a recent post on Also, I've been stopped twice from disembarking a Washington State Ferry, noted in my recent incident. And while I was released with apologizes, the real people who the FBI was looking for when they were seen doing far more than just photographing on a ferry, including inspecting system, trying locked doors, asking workers, etc., are still at large without having been stopped after riding 4 ferries in a three days.

The rights of a photographer are clearly spelled out here. I carry several copies to provide people who question me. While it may be useful to people, I've discovered it's almost useless to people (legal) authority, public employees - like the one above who stopped me and got in my face, saying I didn't have his permission to take photos of me - and private security guards. Every street photographer has experienced this, and their responses are equalled as varied.

I have discovered if you're courteous with (legal) authorites, they'll likely be easier and courteous with you and let you go unless it's clear you've broken some law, in which case, they'll advise you very explicitly - as a policeman did one day crossing the street under construction with the light except the sign prohibiting crossing was facing another direction. Private security folks are different, and mostly the reason many photographers are harrassed these post 9/11 days. They're the ones who seem to excercise authority they don't have and enforce laws that don't exist.

I have also discovered almost all the cases of harrassment against photographers are against the serious to professional photographer, and the occasional photojournalists. I haven't figured out how and why newspapers and magazine photographers don't publically report harrassment unless they're arrested and/or injuried and the images lost. It's seems the freelance photographers are the target of people, which is what I don't understand. Why does pointing a (near-)professional camera at someone they become angry, but a lessor camera doesn't?

And while most employees I'm met in my wandering around and through life doing photography are really cool, and will often stop to pose for you or continue on letting you get as close as you want without interferring with them, occasionally one will be a pure and simple asshole, like the one in the photo above. What doesn't he understand, as I tried to explain, as a public employee in a public place, you're fair game for photographers. After all our tax dollars pays your salary and equipment. But he didn't and was angry.

I don't have answers to this problem, mostly because it's about human beings and human nature, people who assume more knowledge and authority that is real, and with public photographers, behaving unreasonably at best and illegally at worst. As the Washington State Patrol officer told me when he said I could go, "Some ferry workers haven't fully understood our training and have become over zealous." It's time for rational thinking and behavior, and respect for the freedom and laws that allow photographers to go about their work.

It's not that hard folks. It's just a camera. What could be wrong with just smiling and let the photographer get on with their life?

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