Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online

Should Photography be Illegal?

In Seattle, police ban a photography student from a public park. He was taking photographs of a bridge for a homework assignment. The officers who ban him from the park do so without the knowledge of park officials and have no authority to do so.

In Texas a man is first threatened by neighbors and then reportedly accosted and sprayed with pepper spray by police. He was walking around his neighborhood, filming with his new video camera.

In New York, National Press Photographers Association members stage a protest in the New York subway system to bring attention to a proposed law to ban photography in the subway system.

In Philadelphia a magazine photographer (me) is detained and questioned after a parade for taking architectural shots while waiting for a subway train.

Increasingly each month I receive email from readers recounting brushes with law enforcement while out shooting and I hear tales from working pros about being harassed by police while they're working. They tell wild tales about "made up" laws that cops pull out of the air to justify their actions.

Is photography becoming illegal in the United States?

Should this shot be illegal?

Overzealous Cops? 
The justification is that when evaluating potential targets, al Qaeda makes videotapes and takes still photographs to determine possible attack strategies. But there are numerous stories among photographers about overzealous cops who exceed the bounds of their authority; who are intimidating, unreasonable, even threatening. Police often approach photographers in pairs, in some cases in groups.

Aren't these kinds of intimidation tactics over the top when applied to innocent citizens? After all we're shooting with cameras not guns right?

Does anyone in law enforcement have the right to forbid you from doing something that is perfectly legal? Should they have that right?

And if you're approached by a cop who's seen one to many Mel Gibson movies what should you do?

The People's Republic of America? 
When I hear these stories I think back to a slide presentation I attended while at NECCC a few years ago. The photographer had had the opportunity to travel extensively in China and he spent a good bit of time discussing the challenges such an assignment presented - one of which was being accosted by police and soldiers any time one of his shots included a bridge. It was only after he presented special papers from the government that he was allowed to take a shot that included a bridge. Is this where we're heading?

Similarly readers talk about the discomfort they've felt when asked to produce identification while shooting. They make comparisons to Russia and to old movies where Nazi soldiers demand "let me see your papers!"

On the other side of the equation is the fact that the majority of law enforcement are trying to do a tough job in difficult circumstances. 9-11 showed just how willing these men and women are to sacrifice themselves for us. And the threat IS real. In early August a Pakistani man was seen video taping buildings in downtown Charlotte North Carolina. Police questioning him said his answers were "all over the place", and he was taken in for further questioning. It was found that Kamran Shaikh, also known as Kamran Akhtar, was carrying videos of the Mansfield Dam in Austin, Texas, the MARTA transit system in Atlanta, the Downtown Transit Center and Downtown Metro Trolley in Houston, and trolley cars in Dallas and New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1998 Shaikh had been asked to leave the country and subsequent investigation showed that he had reentered the country illegally, most likely through Mexico. Though he claimed to be an innocent "video enthusiast", his tapes bore an eerie resemblance to captured al Qaeda tapes used to scout targets.

Police approach suspects in pairs or groups because it is intimidating. That increases their safety and their odds. A terrorist suspect after all, is a dangerous person.

What Are My Rights? 
That will vary depending on whether we're talking about your rights under Federal law, under state and local law, or under the law that some Dirty Harry wannabe just made up. It will also vary depending on whether you are a working press photographer or a private citizen. Under some circumstances special privileges and access are extended to press photographers and are not granted to the public.

Presently it is NOT illegal to take photos of public buildings, of public transit, bridges or of airplanes flying overhead. But in the current climate of terrorist threats doing so may attract the attention of law enforcement.

If you are approached there is no reason to be afraid. You are not committing a criminal act. The officer will be trying to get a read on you based on how you act and will most likely ask you for some form of ID. Show them your driver's license and understand that they're doing their job. Being friendly goes a long way.

Yelling at a cop that they are infringing on your rights isn't going to do any good. Do you really think the cop will say, "Yup. Ya know you're right! How silly of me. Can I hold your camera bag while you get that shot?"

Getting in their face can only make the process longer and more painful. Let the officer go through their standard operating procedure and see what happens next. Don't be surprised if they call in your name to see if you are on a watch list. If they do so, they're doing their job.

I'm assuming none of you are actually terrorists. So when your name comes back clear is when things get interesting. You're doing nothing illegal. What if the cop makes up some excuse to say that you are or that you can't take pictures?

I don't know anyone who's won an argument with a cop out on the street. Discretion is the better part of valor here. Ask for specifics on what you are "doing wrong" so that you can avoid doing it again. Make a mental note of their name. Then contact the precinct and ask to speak with the watch commander. Do they know that they have a cop who is making laws up as they go?

You need to bear in mind that laws can vary from place to place and there are often overlapping law enforcement agencies who may be turf conscious. Take for example the historic districts in my home city of Philadelphia. There may be Philadelphia police, park police who oversee historic sites, state police, transit police, and federal law enforcement who oversee federal buildings. And there are areas within the city where officers from all of these agencies can be present on the same block.

In New York there has been much discussion and complaint about photographers being stopped from taking photos on, in, or around the subway system. Take out a camera down in the subway and you'll be approached in a hurry and told that it is a no-no. But is it?

In his brief to the working press before the Republican National Convention, Paul Browne, Deputy Commissioner for Public Information for the NYPD emphasized that 

"...there are no photography restrictions on members of the media in any area under their (the NYPD's) jurisdiction. Some shooters have been prevented from taking photos in the subway, but there are no laws on the books that prevent photographers from taking photos at this point. In fact, it is legal for civilians to take photos on subways."

"Officials say anyone taking photos of sensitive sites on mass transit -- i.e., train tunnels, surveillance equipment, power supplies, etc .-- could expect to be questioned by police. However, Browne said NYPD policy is to facilitate photography."

He also cautioned "There are laws against taking photos at Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority bridges and tunnels."

The fact is, local, state and federal laws are vague on the subject of photographing public buildings and transportation subjects, neither granting nor restricting specific rights. Where laws do exist, they often conflict. This confusion no doubt is the source of some of the "made up" laws and "wild stories" that have been conveyed to me.

While researching this article I tried contact numerous law enforcement and government agencies to find out just what the law is and what rights we as photographers have. No one returned my calls or was willing to speak on the record.

Use Common Sense 
There is a delicate balance to be struck between diligence and harassment. Law enforcement would be horribly irresponsible if they didn't take notice of photographers and videographers around potential terrorist targets. If an attack occurs and it was found that terrorists had scouted the location unmolested there would be an outcry at law enforcement's lack of diligence. Given the current, real threat from terrorists, an officer approaching you and asking a few questions or asking for ID is not harassment - provided they are professional and courteous in their approach.

Cops who make up laws as they go, exceed their authority, or otherwise harass people who are breaking no law dishonor those who are working so hard to protect us. In my opinion the very fact that we have gone so long without another attack on U.S. soil is proof that the vast majority of law enforcement and government officials are working hard, and working effectively, to protect us.

I should also recognize that there are some photographers who would deliberately bait police by taking photos in areas where they are sure to draw attention and then refuse to provide ID and dare police to do something about it. This type of asinine, self absorbed behavior benefits no one and serves only to distract police from their job.

So if you are approached while shooting here are some common sense tips:

Carry some form of recognized ID when you're out shooting. Working pros already know to carry their credentials.
Don't shoot in areas posted "no photography", walk past barriers, or otherwise trespass in order to get a shot.
If approached by police act normally. You're doing nothing wrong. Provide ID if asked. A smile and a friendly attitude go a long way.
If told you're not allowed to photograph a specific site or building, politely ask why. You want to know what law you're violating so you can avoid doing it again.
If the explanation sounds fishy, politely ask for clarification or more details.
If the officer is threatening, unprofessional or pulling laws out of thin air don't confront them on the street, don't yell and scream, and don't explain that they "work for you". You will never win a confrontation with a cop on the street and you may find yourself in the back of a police car.
If the officer fits the preceding description take note of their name, badge number, and what law enforcement organization they work for. When you are safely away from that individual call the agency or go there directly to file a complaint. Supervisors can't reign in rogue officers unless they know what those officers are doing out on the street.
If the officers are professional and do their job well don't be afraid to ask them some questions once they give you the all clear. They're not ogres and they may even be able to point out some photo locations you'd not have found otherwise. You might even think about thanking cops who are doing it right.

In Conclusion 
Right now the actions of law enforcement do infringe on our rights. They and our government have made a short term pragmatic decision that doing so is a necessity in what is a very different kind of war than any we have fought in the past. And make no mistake, al Qaeda has declared war on us.

The greater question is what effect this has on our country in the long run? It is an overused phrase, but thousands of men have sacrificed their lives for the ideals our country is built on. And those ideals protect our way of life just as surely as our military does. 

The current administration has enacted laws and procedures that raise serious Constitutional questions. Our legal system is based on precedent. If these short-term solutions are allowed to become part of our body of law we will have done more harm to ourselves, and our freedoms, than anything terrorists did on September 11th 2001.



Below is a sample of reader's replies:

  • Name: Stan Petersen


As BOTH a photographer and a cop, I can tell you that most cops are reasonable and try to do their job courteously and reasonably, but there are also a few officers that revel in the power of the badge, just as there are photographers that are jerks. Most states have laws against "resisting, obstructing or delaying" an officer, so take the authors advice and don't argue if you come across one of the very few cops out there who are badge heavy. Be polite and save the debate for later. And remember, if you are breaking a law, even the best cops probably won't give you a break if you are being difficult.

  • Name: Frank Page


Good advice for dealing with the police. Taking photos in DC, I have twice been approached by police - on both occasions the issue was where I could use a tripod. In all cases they were polite and so was I and we clarified the places I could use a tripod.

On the other hand you could have been a bit tougher on defending our rights to take photos. This war with Al Quaeda is about defending our rights. If we give them away, even in the name of self defense, we loose.

I have lived in a number of overseas dictatorships - Marcos, Said Bahr, and Suharto. In all cases the ultimate excuse for ignoring human/civil rights was "defense" of the nation from either external or internal enemies. National defense is the ultimate rational of the dictator. Thus, if we truly believe in freedom; if we truly believe that a free society is a strong society, we will protect those freedoms even if, in the short term, they increase some risks. If we back of that and take the position that freedoms are luxuries only in times of peace, then we have started down the road to loosing those freedoms permanently.

So, I agree, be polite with the police, but report any abuse of authority. And maybe in a future article, we could discuss what is a reasonable approach to public photography from the side of both the photographer and law enforcement.

  • Name: Jill B. Gounder


Living in Manhattan these days has become a challenge. With terrorists, blackouts, and who knows what to come, I can understand the need for extra security. I am a five-foot-two, female, blonde haired, blue eyed, amateur photographer who enjoys documenting the ever-changing marquees of Broadway. While standing on the South side of 44th St. with my Canon Elan 7E and 300mm lens poised precariously at the lighted marquee of the soon-to-be-closed NEVER GONNA DANCE, I was approached by an officer who asked the infamous question, "What are you doing?" Now I don't claim to be a rocket scientist, but WHAT DID IT LOOK LIKE I WAS DOING? I had framed the marquee, focused on it, metered it and was just shy of releasing the shutter when he brushed up against me and fired off questions like that. There are criminals blanketing that city and I get picked out? Please. What are you doing? Why? Where are you from? What are you going to do with the photos? Are you a professional? Maybe I have no right to be insulted in this day and age...but I was. Go get the bad guys there Officer Tuffy Pants...I just want to capture Broadway history.



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