Photography Is Not A Crime

…though the way some police officers and building security guards act, you’d think it was.

Just last week, a Buzzfeed reporter was in Washington DC photographing some rather strong examples of really terrible architecture. While the greatest example of terrible architecture infests Turtle Bay in New York, Washington DC does have several great examples to warn architectural students of what not to do in designs and reporter/photographer Benny Johnson set out to capture some of the worst ones for his readers.

However, in all but one case, whenever he approached a public building and began photographing it from the sidewalk or other place accessible to the public, police or security began to harass him about taking photos of the buildings. This is not unusual — photographers who are trying to capture specific buildings or specific parts of buildings with their cameras are often harassed. Photographers who have been filming or photographing police in public are also generally subject to harassment, illegal seizure of their equipment, and illegal destruction of their property.

So, what is one to do if one is out and about photographing subjects and security or the police start causing problems? First things first, be certain you checked with the public relations or media relations contact for the building (or agency in the building) ahead of time and got their permission (or at least their “sure though you don’t need permission”) and try to get it in writing (such as an email). Showing that to security guards can sometimes get them to cool it or give them something to tell whatever manager has gotten feathers ruffled over someone standing outside taking photos. If that doesn’t work and you’re asked to move along, just move along and make plans to post about it online later. That’s generally much more effective than trying to stick around and argue your point.

If, however, you’re ordered to hand over your camera or delete certain photos, politely but firmly refuse and ask them what probable cause they have to believe that your camera captured illegal actions in flagrante (one of the few exceptions that allows police to seize a camera and inspect its footage). Generally, if you know your rights and are confident in them, this will get your harasser to leave you alone. However, if security or the police begin forcibly grabbing your equipment from your hands or wrestling you to the ground over it, don’t fight them. Don’t touch them at all if you can avoid it — touching a police officer even if it’s just to shake his hand can be considered “assaulting an officer.”

Once the incident is over, post about it online. There are several websites dedicated to photography rights and to documenting official abuse of them. Find the one you feel most comfortable at and join in the discussion there. If you were seriously injured or if you suffered a loss of very valuable property due to official misconduct, you may want to consider hiring a lawyer to sue for damages. The Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment right to photograph public spaces and officials in public — even police officers — is so well-established that officers cannot claim “good faith” qualified immunity for harassing photographers. What that means is that your lawsuit can and will go ahead and the police officer will not be able to just say “I thought I was correct on the law” to protect himself.

Over all, when out photographing, if someone asks you to stop what you’re doing, politely ask why. Private spaces and private buildings can and often do have reasons to stop photography unless it’s done in a way to ensure that no trade secrets or individuals are visible. However, public and governmental building exteriors enjoy no such protection and can be photographed with impunity. Just be polite, be smart, and pick your battles with officials carefully.

— da Bird