Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Photographer's Rights

As much as it's bandied about, we as American citizens have certain rights that the law guarantees us. Even us photographers.

To date I've never been harassed by the police for photographing trains or railway areas, or for taking any photographs, to be precise. I've greeted and been greeted by employees of railways and have had really engaging conversations with rail crews and with maintenance personnel. I've seen numerous patrolling police officers while in pursuit of photographic opportunity, and thus far I guess I've looked innocent enough to avoid any grief worse than a cold shoulder from anyone. Courtesy and being open with security officers and employees about what you're doing can go a long way, but if things get out of control or become uncomfortable for you, remember that you have very specific and legally binding rights.

I think of the chances of my encountering police or security people in the same way I think of my motorcycle riding. There are two kinds of motorcycle riders in the world:


  1. Those who have fallen
  2. Those who are going to fall


If you pursue trains for fun and photographs then you will, at some point, encounter security officers of some sort if you haven't already. The sad fact is that in our post-9/11 world things are a little darker, a little scarier than they used to be, and we as photographers can come under suspicion for our actions. The trick to keeping yourself and your equipment safe is knowledge of the laws.

Here's a link to an excellent article in USA Today by Andrew Kantor. It tells in very plain language the rights you have as a photographer.

A much more in-depth examination of your rights as well as the excellent Photographer's Bust Card and the more in-depth book on the same subject can be found at Mr. Burt Krages' website. It is a single-page brouchure produced by a lawyer that you can download in PDF format and print for your personal use. I HIGHLY reccomend it; print many copies and keep them in your gear bag, hand them to your photographer friends. It gives very specific guidance on what you can and cannot do as a photographer.

This sort of knowledge is tantamount if you don't want to be illegally bullied into surrending your film, memory card, or camera equipment. Don't smirk--it was done to a friend of mine who was photographing the local Proctor and Gamble factory in Pineville one night some years ago. She was standing on the street with a friend, the security guard detained them both inside the building and demanded and obtained her film, ALL ILLEGALLY. I wish I had known about this card then, and had given her a copy. She had the right to pursue legal action against this person and the company for kidnapping, illegal search and seizure and theft of personal property.

The last thing I want to offer is a PDF version of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) Bust Card. This is a much more wide-scope piece of information in a pocket-sized form (it prints two to a page) that gives you very specific information about your rights when detained by police officers and what you should and should not do when interacting with police officers.

Like the ACLU Bust Card says: EVERYONE, even minors, has the right to courteous and respectful police treatment. Know your rights.

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