There has been a lot of buzz lately about “Photographer’s Rights,” i.e. what am I allowed to shoot and who, if anyone, has a right to stop me or confiscate my equipment or photos?   If you are a photographer, especially since 9/11, with anything more than a point-and-shoot camera you could potentially find yourself in a situation where your right to photograph something is questioned.

Bank of America Building, Phoenix, AZNot too long ago I was in downtown Phoenix and was stopped twice in one day.   Once by a security guard and once by a Maricopa County Sheriff.  The security guard had undoubtedly seen me on a security camera as I was photographing the exterior of the Bank of America building on a Sunday.  She was very polite when she approached me and simply asked what I was doing and told me “They don’t like you taking pictures of the buildings.” I did not argue the point at the time but thought it was strange since it was a public plaza (Collier) and a skyscraper in downtown Phoenix that had certainly been photographed before.  A simple search on Google results in its own Wikipedia page and a street view of the building on Google maps.

Maricopa County Courthouse Horse Statue - Phoenix, AZFor the second incident later that day I was photographing some public art outside the Maricopa County Courthouse when a sheriff officer pulled over.  Again, he was very polite (and a little bothered because they made him stop on his way to lunch). He asked what I was doing, if it was for business or personal use and to see my identification.  Again, I was not taking pictures of anything secret or not meant for public view.  In fact, the new court house tower has a live web cam watching the construction process.

My encounters with the “law” were minor, but they have certainly made me cautious and think twice about what I am photographing.  So I did some research to get the facts straight.

There are two very good sources available that explain your rights as a photographer and what  you can and cannot do.  Print, read and carry one or both of these in your camera bag.

The Photographer’s Rights by Bert P. Krages (Attorney)

Legal Rights of Photographer’s  by Andrew Kantor

Here is a brief recap of your rights as a photographer in the US.

  • In general, if you can see it, you can photograph it.
  • Public places are fair game to photograph.
  • You are free to photograph private property as long as you are standing on public property.
  • You can photograph people, including children, without their permission as long as they are in a public place and do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
  • Private property used as public property such as malls, churches, and office lobbies are acceptable to photograph.
  • Public infrastructure (except where expressly prohibited by law) such as bridges, airports, public utilities and transportation are all fair game.  There are some exceptions when it comes to military bases adn nuclear power facilities.
  • Police and security guards cannot require you to delete your photos or confiscate your equipment (if you are being arrested there are exceptions).  This requires a court order.
  • The Patriot Act, Homeland Security rulings and anything related to “9/11” do not prohibit photography.
  • These rules apply to taking photographs, publishing and selling them after the fact gets a little more complicated.  But this is covered in the two documents above.

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