Monday, June 09, 2008

Photographers rights, a look from the other side.

In the past several months, I have had the opportunity to read a large number of comments, and reported incidents, where photographers were stopped, or questioned by local authorities about their taking photographs in a public place. Further I have watched one short video involving two officers, and one photographer who does appear to be centrally located in a fairly crowded public place.

Each time I read about alleged encounters, or alleged incidents, it makes me think about my career in public police services, and “what would I do.” In the last 7 years of my police career, I had photographic responsibilities at crime scenes, and fatal collisions. In some incidents I also had photographic responsibilities for intelligence gathering, and in the main, I had fun anytime I could get a camera in my hands.

Yet, the issues of photographer’s rights are “what I care most deeply about.” I think about this a lot when I shoot for my ongoing night project at Spokane Night Scenes. I think about the safety issues more than most other things when I shoot after dark, but that also might be a time when a photographer somewhere reports on being questioned about their activities by “some local authority, in some place.”

So, “when would I have ever stopped a photographer who was shooting/taking pictures in an obvious public place?” Is it possible that I would have? Well, it isn’t likely, absent some other reason which represents a physical danger to some other person. In 31 years of law enforcement, I have been around cameras in the hands of adults, children, and even members of the former KGB. My photo is probably still sitting on the desk somewhere of me in uniform standing next two KGB officials at the worlds fair in Spokane when the Soviets would have two KGB members always follow me around whenever I entered the Soviet Unions Pavilion at the Worlds Fair.

It just makes no sense to me, about why I would ever tell a photographer not to take a photo in a public place. If there is some other reason, other than just the motions of taking a photo that might be an exception. If the photog is endangering themselves or others, or creating a traffic problem, or is drunk or disorderly, than I would contact that person for those reasons, but not for simply taking a photo. It just makes no sense to interfere with members of the public doing what they legally have a right to do. Not only is it a waste of my time, but it isn’t what I was sworn to do in the first place. If anything I find myself siding with legitimate photogs who are simply doing what is in their rights to do. It is why we are in democratic societies, and why we actually benefit from the artistic abilities of the same photogs who are legally in a public place.

Look, and please understand, not all photographers do things the right ways. Yep, I have had some bad experiences with photographers who would wind up in and on private property without permission, and that always made things tougher on the remaining photogs who did things right by asking for and receiving permission to take their photos. But as most of you know, there are those kinds of people in virtually all professions. Some photographers pride themselves on never having to ask permission. I still hear that all the time, and I then think of all the other photographers who will have troubles getting permission to shoot photos on the private property based on what the “other photographer did.”

This commentary however, is largely based on my observations of reported incidents which relate to photographers who are legally in a public place, doing a legally permissible act of “taking photos.” Lets assume they are not disruptive etc (most are not), and just wanting to take a photo. Would I tell them “not to take that photo?” Nope, I can think of few reasons that would cause me to do something to interfere with the rights of the photographer since they are not creating havoc or disorderly activities. The simple act of taking a picture in a public place is not disorderly or disruptive.

In looking at my past in public policing, I may have approached a photographer however. I can see myself starting up a conversation about their equipment, or techniques, if the photographer had time to speak with me. Not only would I have left a good feeling with a photographer, but maybe I would have made a friend in the months and years ahead. In approaching the photographer and introducing myself, if the photographer did not have time (or had a desire) to speak with me, then I would go on about my business, someplace else. Telling anyone, who is legally in a public place, that they had to stop what they were legally doing are absolute nuts, unless there is something else occurring at the same time.

So, for those of you, who think that all of them (the police) are like those who are reported, then think again. If anything, members of your local police friends will likely find themselves on your side of an issue defending your right to take a photo in a public place. Happened to me at least a dozen times in my career, that someone who took a picture was definitely okay in doing so, and those who had accosted the photographer were in the wrong. Two of the people who accosted one photographer were taken into custody, and the photographer continued on his way, doing what they were legally entitled to do.

So, in my view, keep having fun out there in your public places. I’ll be out there with you, although mostly at night.

John D. Moore, CPP

Spokane Night Scenes