A young woman on the barstool next to me is suddenly screaming at me, stabbing her finger at my phone, slicing through my recent photos.
“You have NO RIGHT to take my picture!”
I’m deleting the last few shots as fast as I can. “I’m an artist. I take pictures!”
My meek defense has no effect. A big man on the other side of me is bellowing in my face, his cigarette-tainted breath close enough to taste.
The bar’s manager is right behind me now, tossing me out. “You’d better get outta here, man, before somebody really messes you up!”
I grab my cap and mutter that I need to pay for my drink, but he’s not interested. It’s quite clearly time to leave, and I’m absolutely freaking terrified. I retreat into the poorly-lit driveway next to the bar, and constantly looking over my shoulder, I head for a nearby Target store. I fake-shop for a few minutes, and then hoping like hell no one is following me, I hurry back through the darkness unscathed to the safety of my hotel.
You’d think nothing like this would’ve happened. At least, that’s what I thought.
I was in Florida to attend the memorial service for an old friend. On that hot Friday night, some 600 miles from home, I ventured out on foot in search of dinner. After I ate, I settled onto a stool at an outdoor bar adjacent to a public parking lot for a nightcap. Ten minutes before all hell broke loose, I asked the young woman next to me about her recent achievement. She was telling her friend about it and I thought I’d make conversation. Her reply was chilly, so I turned away and did what I often do to pass time: I slid my iPhone out of my pocket, checked social media and snapped a couple of photos.
I took one of a father and daughter down the bar and texted it to a friend with the caption “Father-daughter bar Pokémon players.” Both were glued, like me, to their devices. The recipient of my text and I are both fathers of daughters. I took another shot of a man on my left who was wearing a tee shirt from the local university sports team, and, loyal to the university miles away in my hometown, I texted the image to my friend with a comment about not wanting to make the dude mad.
Looking for another shot to take, I stood my phone on its long edge and switched on the rear-facing camera, planning a selfie. The young woman on my right appeared in the frame, and without another thought, I tapped the shutter. She glanced over at my phone just then, caught me in the act, and her fuse burned quickly.
To be clear, this is not a story about taking photos of people with their permission.
It’s not really about photojournalism (the practice of combining photos – often of people – with news stories). If there is a field that I am talking about, it’s “street photography,” or, as Wikipedia defines it, “photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places.” That’s pretty formal, but you get the idea.
It can be said that Henri Cartier-Bresson (French, 1908 – 2004) was one of the earliest street photographers. He is renowned for seeking the “decisive moment,” and you can see how he succeeded with his “Boy Carrying a Wine Bottle” (Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954). Cartier-Bresson said “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”
Both with my Canon DSLR and my iPhone, I have sought that decisive moment, trying to capture something special, a story. That night in the bar, however, my photographic intent was much more ordinary.
As a casual or street photographer, the law is on your side.
According to many sources on the web, you have a lot of latitude when it comes to taking photos of people without their permission. Attorney Bert P. Krages II states in The Photographer’s Right – Your Rights and Remedies When Stopped or Confronted for Photography: “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 a statute or ordinance, you are legally entitled to take photographs. Examples of places that are traditionally considered public are streets, sidewalks, and public parks.
“Members of the public have a very limited scope of privacy rights when they are in public places. Basically, anyone can be photographed without their consent except when they have secluded themselves in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy such as dressing rooms, restrooms, medical facilities, and inside their homes.
“Despite misconceptions to the contrary, the following subjects can almost always be photographed lawfully from public places:
- accident and fire scenes
- bridges and other infrastructure
- residential and commercial buildings
- industrial facilities and public utilities
- transportation facilities (e.g., airports)
- criminal activities and arrests
- Superfund sites
- law enforcement officers”
A given property owner may legally prohibit photography if they choose. Common examples include military installations, museums and hospitals.
I boil it all down to this: you’re generally safe to shoot photos of anyone or anything in public places. You don’t need model releases unless you’re going to use the images commercially (and that gets complicated).* But, in general, don’t be an idiot.
I’m a content creator, and so are you.
In my professional persona, and in the parlance of the marketing world, I am a content creator. I design and build websites, create graphics and manage social media for a living. My fellow professionals are consultants, marketers, bloggers, social media strategists and community managers, and they all, directly or indirectly, create content. Many clients are in this game as well, shooting photos and writing posts for their own blogs as well as their Facebook,Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest platforms.
Compelling content – primarily photos, videos and text – is what sells these days. Content has been king since the early days of advertising, but the social media platforms available today have voracious appetites; maybe that’s why the word “feed” is so often associated with our modern communication channels.
Marketers – especially those in the social media marketing space – avidly promote telling clients’ stories by writing engaging copy about the lesser-known, more human, side of their brands. We augment posts with “behind-the-scenes” photos and videos. Think about this: would you rather watch a one minute how-to video of a bartender making a martini or look at a still shot of her establishment’s new tables and chairs? The former is clearly more compelling and brand-building.
Whether you’re a professional or not, you can consider yourself a content creator. If you have a smartphone or camera, you’re using it to take selfies and photos of your buddies and family when you’re out on the town, on vacation, or just goofing around. You may be practicing taking shots with new smartphone apps, or you may be in a photography workshop and need fresh photos for assignments. It’s fun, right? Snapchat lenses are a blast, and Instagram and Facebook offer “Stories,” places where we can show people what we’re up to throughout the day.
Here are three different shooting situations …
I didn’t need to ask Audrey for permission. I know her, and her smile let me know it was OK to take the shot.
These gentlemen created an interesting possibility for a photo. I took it without permission.
A Fiddler on the Roof actress signing autographs has a reasonable expectation that she will be photographed.
We’re all using photos to create and share stories.
As marketers, we use stories to elicit a reaction: we want customers to buy a product or service or attend an event. As individuals, we’re opening our lives to others by sharing our personal stories.
Long before I got my first iPhone in 2007, I used a point-and-shoot Canon and then moved up to a Canon DSLR. Going way back, I owned a Brownie, and even an old Argus handed down to me by my great aunt. Images have always fascinated me and taking them has always been fun. Today, it seems we all have devices with built-in cameras and, partly because it’s so easy, we take photos constantly.
In terms of technique, you can shoot street photos brazenly, openly, collaboratively or secretly. There’s a guy who just shoves his camera in your face and fires his flash; he’s pretty controversial and I’m guessing he’s gotten messed up a few times. Other photographers ask their subjects to get in on the design of the shot, while others sneak photos. I call these “hipshots,” because when I do it, I literally shoot from the hip.
Alison Zavos wrote an interesting piece for featureshoot.com called We Asked 18 Photographers: Do You Always Get Permission From People That You Photograph? Their answers are all over the lot. Some photographers always ask for permission, some never do, and many say it depends.
Peter Dench: “I rarely get permission from the people that I photograph. Most people I encounter don’t mind being photographed; it’s not the main concern or focus of their day.”
Bieke Depoorter: “Normally yes. I often feel uncomfortable with taking pictures in the streets, because it somehow feels like stealing.”
I don’t often put a whole lot of thought into a shot before I take it. Interesting people, something’s happening, grab my phone, not much time, check my angle and composition. Looks good. Click. Most images never get published on any of my social media channels. And until that Friday night in Florida, I had never gotten challenged when taking a photo of someone.
So what went wrong that night?
I’ve replayed the incident at the bar over and over. Did I actually have the right to take the young woman’s photo? Yes, maybe, according to the law. I could argue that an outdoor bar right on a public sidewalk next to a public parking lot next to a public street is indeed a public place. But, crucially, should I have taken the photo?
Maybe my barstool neighbor got upset because I took the shot without asking permission. She may have instantly taken me to be a stalker. Or perhaps she had told her life partner that she was going bowling and wasn’t supposed to be at the bar. Maybe she had been bullied in school with unflattering photos, or … fill in the blank. I have no idea, and I certainly meant no harm.
Another person – or the same person on a different night – might’ve thought the shot was cool and asked me for a copy. Hard to say.
That night and the chance for a do-over are gone anyway. All that remains is this story.
~ Chuck Moran
My thanks also go to my friend, Erin, who played the angry young woman in the photo above, and to the kind folks at The Bebedero in Charlottesville, VA for letting me use their establishment to recreate the bar scene.
Eric Kim has a comprehensive post about the field of street photography entitled The History of Street Photography: Timeless Insights You Can Learn. It’s long, so pace yourself.
Sarah Wilkerson has a good post called Street Photography and the Law: 7 things you need to know.
Street Photography Ethics and Respect by Nicholas Gooden is another good primer on the practice.
* Disclaimer: I am NOT a lawyer and this post is not intended to advise you on what’s okay to use in your digital and, more specifically, social media marketing. Please, if you’re unsure about whether something is okay to use or not, I strongly suggest erring on the side of caution and getting the advice of an attorney in these matters.