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Street photography, the art of shooting photos in public spaces, is an exciting and varied genre that captures unique, unexpected scenes of daily life that make great images full of authentic pathos and points of interest. Realistic and candid photos of people in public make fantastic photos which audiences are always interested in. Nonetheless, you do need to have a clear idea of what your rights are while you are practicing your street photography. This article is regarding the street photography laws in the United States.
When you’re working in a public space, which includes most streets, then you’re bound to encounter pedestrians, security guards, business owners and, occasionally, the police. Therefore, knowing your rights and the law that surrounds street photography is extremely important to keep yourself safe and protect your own rights while ensuring that you don’t accidentally infringe on other people’s rights.
The Basics – Is It Legal To Take Photos In Public?
Street photography is a broad genre that includes shooting images in the streets, in parks, on the sidewalks and anywhere else that is in the public domain. However, there’s a lot of confusion, particularly in the general public, as to whether you can include other people in your street photos and what your rights as a photographer really are under the law.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to be accosted by members of the public who feel that you don’t have the right to shoot photos that include them in public. In other cases, security guards will claim that you cannot shoot photos outside their stores or the buildings they work in and sometimes even the police aren’t clear about what the actual law is.
Following a US Supreme Court ruling which judged that nobody who is in a public place has any reasonable right to privacy, including police officers and other government employees; the law is clear that you have the right to shoot photos in any public space.
This is why you can be recorded and filmed by surveillance cameras when you are out in public, whereas it would be illegal for someone to set up a surveillance camera in your private house!
In short, you can take photos of anything you want in public as long as there are no specific prohibitions in place. That means anything you can see from a public place, including stores and other private businesses can legally be photographed. Business and property owners are allowed to prohibit photography if you are inside their premises but they cannot stop you from shooting pictures from the outside, provided you are on public land, such as a sidewalk.
Of course, there are some limitations that you should be aware of. For instance, even if you can see a military base from a public place it’s not usually going to be a good idea to start shooting photos of it! In other cases, it may be illegal to photograph certain nuclear power facilities or other energy installations which are deemed to be essential for national security. Don’t worry though, because there should be signs that prohibit photography where it is illegal to do so.
Misconceptions About What Is Permissible To Photograph In Public.
There are many misconceptions about what it is legal to photo in public. Despite these misconceptions it is perfectly legal to take photos of these subjects in any public place:
- Commercial buildings.
- Residential buildings.
- Publicly funded or private infrastructure such as dams or power stations.
- Police and law enforcement officers.
- Fires and other emergency situations.
- Transport infrastructure including airports, railway stations and bus stops.
Who Might Violate Your Right To Shoot Photos In Public?
In most cases you might find that you are confronted by a security guard who may claim that you aren’t allowed to take photos due to ‘security’. However, this is false and as long as you are taking photos of a building or location from a public space they have no authority to tell you not to.
In other cases, members of the public might approach you and inform you that you do not have permission to take their photo. Unfortunately, they are incorrect and as long as they are in a public space, as the Supreme Court ruled, they have no right to privacy.
However, it might be easier to accept their request rather than debate the legal technicalities with them; just to save yourself a headache!
Does Anyone Have The Right To Look At Your Photos?
If you’ve taken photographs in a public space nobody has the right to demand that you either show them your photos or delete them from your device. Even if a police officer demands to see what you’ve been taking photos of, they have no right to force you to show them the contents of your phone or camera unless they have previously obtained a warrant.
For example, even if you were arrested and your phone or camera was confiscated by the police, something which they are allowed to do, the police would still need to get a separate warrant to review the contents of your device. However, once again, it might be easier to allow the police officer to see your photos although you are not obliged to do so.
Sometimes security guards will demand to see your photos or delete them but once again there is no legal obligation for you to do so. If you find yourself being accosted or threatened by a security guard it’s always better to remain calm and diplomatically explain to them that as a photographer you are fully aware of your rights and obligations while working in a public space.
Nonetheless, if a security guard or other employee of an establishment continues to demand to see your photos they may be committing the crime of harassment, something which you can politely point out to them.
If the situation escalates, and they try to take your camera, or other photographic gear, you should inform them that they may be charged with theft if they take your property without your consent.
All states in the US have laws which protect you from being harassed, coerced or intimidated in public so you should have nothing to fear while taking photos in a public space.
Legal Remedies Available For Photographers
The law provides excellent protection for photographers working in public spaces. If someone is persistently harassing you they can be charged with a crime. For instance, if a security guard detains you they can be charged with kidnapping and if someone takes your camera or other equipment they can be criminally charged with theft.
If you are fearful, or concerned, about someone who is harassing you or trying to take your equipment then you should immediately call the police. You may also be entitled to claim civil remedies with the employer of a security guard in order to receive compensation. You may be entitled to compensation if you have been falsely detained, assaulted or if your Constitutional Rights have been violated.
However, the law surrounding compensation is fairly complicated and so you should always seek professional legal advice to find out exactly what you can do if you aren’t sure if your rights were violated.
What If You Don’t Want To Take Legal Action?
If you’ve been detained, assaulted, harassed or had your rights violated but you don’t want to take legal action then there are still other avenues open to you. Action taken outside of the legal system still helps to protect the rights of all photographers who are working in the public square and will still give you the satisfaction of having taken reasonable action to remedy the situation.
- Contact Local Newspapers And Media: One thing that you can do is to write to the local media with your story. They may well be interested in filing a report on it and spreading the word for you. This can often shame the business involved in the violation into improving their policies and making sure that their staff are aware of the rights of photographers.
- Contact Their Supervisor: A very effective way of making sure that a security guard or other member of staff stops violating the rights of photographers is to call or contact their supervisor. Explain that you are considering contacting the media, or even the police, unless they guarantee that they will speak to the perpetrator to explain your rights as a photographer.
- Tell Your Story On Social Media Or Online Forums: Another approach you can take is to publicize the incident yourself. You can post your story on forums that focus on photography or civil rights where you may get other good advice. Lastly, you can post the story on your social media as well as the social media profile of the business that has been violating your rights.
How To Deal With Harassment, Intimidation And Confrontations.
Let’s face it, the vast majority of people prefer to avoid confrontation and when it happens it can be scary and intimidating. In all situations, when you are being confronted by someone for taking photos in public try to remain as calm as you can. Also keep the tone of your voice neutral and speak in a polite way because this will make sure that they don’t have any excuse to escalate things further.
Secondly, if you have your smartphone on you then it’s often a good idea to film the incident. This will give you indisputable evidence in the case that you need to contact the police and will also help to temper the behavior of your aggressor.
Next, you should ask the person who is confronting you a series of questions:
- What is your name?
- Who is your employer?
- Are you attempting to detain me or breach my Constitutional Rights?
- If the aggressor demands that you hand over your phone or camera, ask them what legal right they have to make the request.
As A Street Photographer You Have Good Civil And Legal Protections.
While you are taking photos in a public space you are well protected by the US Constitution, the Supreme Court, the law and several civil remedies. This means that you should never be worried about shooting photos in a public space because you are well within your rights to do so.
It’s crucial that you know your rights when you’re doing street photography so you are confident enough to stand up to anyone who challenges or confronts you.
Generally speaking, it’s always going to work out better if you are confronted to be polite while still being firm about your rights. Don’t allow yourself to get worked up because this will only escalate the confrontation and so maintaining a calm and diplomatic demeanor is the ideal way to approach the situation.
However, in the vast majority of cases you shouldn’t face any harassment, intimidation or other actions which violate your rights; and so as long as you employ a bit of common sense your street photography should be enjoyable and hassle free.