Hand it Over, Buddy…
Ok, so you’re out in the city wandering around with your precious and expensive camera, snapping away, when you are suddenly confronted by a cop or security guard who tells you you’re breaking the law taking photos of a building, person, object, or whatever. He then demands either your memory card or camera. He’s big. With a deep, authoritarian voice. His hand is out, waiting impatiently for you to meekly hand it over.
Can he do that? In a very short word: no.
Anyone who photographs in public should acquaint herself with the law. In the US photography is normally protected by the first amendment. The government cannot just willy nilly prohibit you from taking photos. The Powers that Be must have a compelling reason to prevent you from taking photos.
As a general rule you may take a photo of anything you can see from a public space and that includes people. It is perfectly legal to photograph anyone who is in public, whether he is a celebrity or not and includes police officers. Your subject can certainly express her annoyance with you (she has first amendment rights, too), but she cannot call the law and have the cops confiscate you photos. Paparazzi make a decent living, after all, annoying the shit out of celebrities. Of course, the news media never asks permission before taking a photo of some poor soul unlucky enough to be caught up in a disaster of one kind or another. Despite the clarity of the law, amateur and professional photographers still get hassled on a regular basis. And see this… And this…
Lately some misguided security guards have been trying to prevent photographers from taking pictures of buildings. The same rule applies. Anything I can see from a public space is fair game. Just because a building, or statue, mural or anything else in public is copyrighted does not make it illegal to take its photo (the fair use doctrine allows republication of copyrighted works, or parts thereof in certain limited circumstances)
Even if you have violated the law it does not follow that someone – whether a cop or private guard – may confiscate you card or camera. There’s this thing called the fourth amendment and while it may not mean much anymore if your name is Mohammed, it still applies in most of the country. Your property cannot be searched or siezed without a warrant or the existence of exigent circumstances.
If you have had any problems with harassment, you should get a copy of the Photographer’s Bill of Rightsand carry it around with you. It is an excellent and concise statement of the law and might even give a thick skulled cop pause before he violates your rights.
Two caveats: the above is only about your right to take a photograph; it does not speak to your right to publish it or how you may use it. By way of example, I have the right to photograph a celebrity, but I do not have the right to put his photo on a million hats and peddle them to the public. I may not use a photo of a celebrity, or anyone else, in a commercial manner (Lady Gaga loves my tacos…).
Second, what may be legal may not be wise. I never photograph a small child without asking her parent’s permission. I don’t want a confrontation with some angry mother convinced I’m some kind of pedophile. In fact, as a general rule, I ask permission from anyone I’ m shooting up close. Most folks, particularly participants in public events, are happy to photographed.
Finally, here’s a rather intimidating woman dressed in an outfit she probably wouldn’t wear in public…
Enjoy Paul’s scrumptious set Emma!
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