I usually look forward to receiving my copy of the online magazine Photography BB out of Vancouver. Usually the articles and photos are first class. This edition: Not so much.
Now most of the photos are okay but nothing really knocked my socks off. Could be just me today. The readers’ photo page had some pretty good stuff. The articles, especially the hands-on Photoshop how-to article, were excellent. But the big disappointment came in an article about street photography.
So go on over to Photography BB and have a look at the article called Know Your Photography Table Manners: Photography Etiquette by Kenneth Fagan. Now I don’t know Kenneth and this isn’t directed at him personally but his suggestions in the article about how to shoot in public places are just wrong. For example his statement that if someone in a public place objects to you taking a photograph where they may or may not appear you should delete it. Nuts. Worse is the next line: “If you are caught using someone’s photograph on the net without his or her permission you could get into serious trouble” is so wrong as to be frightening. And, I really object to the word “caught.” It suggests you’ve done something wrong and you’re trying to get away with it.
Remember I was a photojournalist for a long time. The law in most democratic countries is clear that you can take a photo of anything or anybody in public that you can see from a public place. Now you can’t stalk your subjects nor should your behaviour be so aggressive as to create an impression that you’re a public nuisance but you can take photos without permission for your personal, editorial or artistic use without permission. Period. (Note: Quebec which is governed under the Napoleonic Code is different. Don’t ask me how. It just is.)
Okay there are a couple of small exceptions in the rest of the free world. You can’t publish photos of juveniles under arrest but you photograph them as how can you know how old a kid is when you’re out in the street. You can’t publish images of people held under the mental health act. I’m not so clear on whether you can even take the photo and I would only if it was clearly in the public interest and the individual wasn’t readily identifiable. You can take photos of suicides but most of us don’t and just about nobody will publish them. Something about good taste. Finally you can’t interfere with a police officer in his or her duty. That doesn’t mean you have to stop taking photos just because some cop thinks you should. There’s nothing in the Canadian Criminal Code about not taking photos. Now some cops try to push the envelop by claiming you’re disregarded a lawful command. But that lawful command can not include not taking photos. It may lawful include telling you to disperse especially if your camera is inciting riotous behaviour in others but even that’s a stretch. It’s not lawful just because a cop says it’s lawful. Your best bet when confronted with an overly aggressive cop is back away. Get to higher ground and put on a longer lens and make certain you get a good identifiable image of the officer and file a complaint with his superior. Good police managers don’t want these kind of cop cowboys on the street. They give police services a bad rap. (I know this to be true as I worked for a very large police service for seven years in their media relations branch.)
Okay, let’s say you do snap a couple of shots of identifiable folks. No problem but you can’t use those photos for commercial (read you get paid for them) purposes. You’d be sued civilly and the plaintiffs would win. You can also be sued civilly if you go out of your way to take a photo that unnecessarily holds your subject up to ridicule or lessens their stature in the community. This is a tricky one and I’m not sure how you’d actually commit this kind of civil offense. Oh, BTW, anyone who has courted publicity such as a politician, musician or actor can’t suddenly turn off the publicity machinery to suit their whim. All of them are fair game for the paparazzi.
Now Kenneth is quite right that you should behave in public. That would make mum and dad proud but there’s no law that sets out standards of decorum. You get to be as big a jerk as you want so long as you don’t interfere with my rights in the process.
I’m afraid there’s a lot of this bad advice floating around the Internet. It’s as if we have to go, camera in hand, up to everyone we want to include in our image and ask “please sir.” Geez I’d feel like Oliver Twist with a camera.
And, as to the article in the magazine about cops in Britain stopping ordinary folks from taking images, it’s all too true. As amateurs it’s a lot easier to obey the nice policeman who was caught parking in a no parking spot in front of the deli at lunchtime but as a professional my answer was always forget it. Came to a head one day when a cop assaulted me (by pushing me hard) when I shot a photo of a suspect under arrest (a legal act in Canada). Funny thing was I got a shot off as the cop hit me (it was pretty out of focus but you could identify him) and I took it to his superintendent the next morning to lay a complaint. I had to as this was getting to be a regular occurrence. I’d show up at something and a cop would make his or her business to tell me to bugger off. Often these kind words were accompanied by a helpful hand directing me to my vehicle.
Anyway, the next day I told the superintendent we intended on publishing (I was stretching the truth as I didn’t have authority to okay anything at the newspaper at that time) it if we didn’t receive an apology from the on-scene sergeant who ordered his officer to grab me and an assurance by the superintendent that it would never happen again. The superintendent asked me to wait and five minutes later a very red faced and angry sergeant walked into the superintendent’s office, apologized and walked out. It wasn’t very gracious but it was good enough. The superintendent said this wasn’t force policy. On the way out I told the superintendent that this was the last time this would happen without me suing. From then on whenever I arrived at the scene of a police action I was either ignored or more often than not got a thumbs up from officers on the scene. I never got touched again.
Remember: Photography isn’t a crime.