Aspiring Street Photographers: Know Your Rights, Then Stand Your Ground

If you are an aspiring street photographer, you need to know your rights, and then you need to stand your ground. No, we aren’t talking about the ridiculous “Stand Your Ground” law in the state of Florida, but rather, stand your ground in this context means you as a photographer need to be courteous yet assertive when confronted on the street. Because the unfortunate reality is that if you are in the city taking photographs with a DSLR or similar “pro-looking” camera, you will eventually be approached by a security guard, or even sometimes the police — so know your rights!

The Photographer’s Right: The General Rule — The general rule in the United States is that anyone may take photographs of whatever they want when they are in a public place or places where they have permission to take photographs. Absent a specific legal prohibition such as statute or ordinance, you are legally entitled to take photographs. Examples of places that are traditionally considered public are streets, sidewalks, and public parks.

Property owners may legally prohibit photography on their premises but have no right to prohibit others from photographing their property from other locations.

And this right to photograph when in a public place is not limited to objects and buildings, as it also includes people. It’s your right to photograph anything, including people when you are in a public place, and yes, that even includes children. But that doesn’t mean you should be an ass about it. Obviously if you like candid street photography you aren’t going to ask for someone’s permission (although in the case of children, you might want to consider asking the parent’s permission first), but be mindful of how people react to you and your camera. If someone is not happy about it, move on to the next subject. While you are within your rights to continue to shoot in this scenario, common sense says you should avoid a possible confrontation, but more importantly, you should respect other’s feelings and emotions. Your task as a street photographer is to capture a slice of life, the human condition, and to tell a story, but you shouldn’t seek to upset people.

But when it comes to overzealous security guards or anyone else who questions your right to photograph, I think you should stand your ground. Be polite and explain why you have a right to photograph. I don’t think you should purposely escalate the situation by mocking the person who is challenging you, but you also should not immediately back down because it is up to all of us in the photography community to stick up for our rights. And so that brings me to a short documentary from 2011 where six photographers spread out across London with intention of capturing how private security reacts to their presence. I have to warn you, if you are well aware of your rights as a photographer, you might start yelling at the screen as I did.

Ugh, this is so frustrating! As I said, you can photograph whatever you want while in a public space, and that includes private buildings and people! And that is generally true in most advanced democracies. These private security guards, they are like singular human microcosms of the military industrial complex – continually inventing ways to justify their existence. They have no idea what they are talking about, but they think they are an authority on the matter. Okay, well leave this commentary at home and to yourself. Remember what I said, don’t escalate the situation. If you are approached, try to remember the way the photographers in this video behaved. There’s no reason to intensify the confrontation.

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