On Photography, Shooting Architecture and the Security Guard Problem

Ok, so instead of being known as the blogger that shuts down sleazy camera stores in New York, I’m quickly becoming known as the blogger that picks fights with building security guards and then blogs about them. I’ve had a few, well a lot more than a few, run ins with security guards over the past year and when the situation becomes especially egregious I’ve tended to shoot it, blog it, and then promote it on the internet where I feel it might get the most attention.

The reason why I do/have done this is because I feel that it’s important that security guards receive the message that public photography is not a crime. I also think it’s important that the general public be educated about the rights of photographers. I shoot every single day. Generally 100 to 200 photos. I’ve got a fairly popular photostream at Flickr and I’ve sold work professionally (you can check out a shot of mine in the current issue of San Francisco Magazine).

One of the problems I have with overbearing security guards is that 99% of people just comply when asked not to shoot a building. They comply for a lot of reasons. Because they don’t know that they have a right to shoot the building. Because they just don’t like conflict in general. Because security guards can be intimidating. Etc. I’d like to see more people not comply. I think forcing the issue will make security guards less likely to harass photographers in the future.

The ability to photograph in public is important. Without this right we would never have had the Rodney King video. Recently a flickr member posted a photo of a guy who was publicly exposing himself on the subway to her on Flickr and the guy ended up turning himself in. Photography can be journalism, photography can be art. I consider most of my work in this vein. I document my world as a citizen journalist and I shoot mostly urban photography to create art.

Shooting a building posses little threat to either the building or the occupants. It is super easy to get any shot you want covertly if you are only trying to get details and not structured art shots and most of the work that I do provides no relevant information that could be of use for terrorism. Yes, a building has windows. Yes, it has doors, Guess what? It even has elevators. Seeing photos of a building like this in no way gives terrorists an advantage.

But as much as I’ve been hassled I think that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. I get hassled at the vast majority of buildings that I shoot when I am noticed by security guards. I typically don’t blog it unless it’s especially egregious (as in the recent post I did on 45 Fremont or one I did last year on One Bush St.).

Last night, for instance, I was harassed again. This time at the JP Morgan Building on Mission Street. But it wasn’t as big of a deal as 45 Fremont St. because the guard was less of a prick. At 45 Fremont the guard came out middle finger blazin’ before we even said two words. I’m sure he probably regrets this decision now because a media relations representative for the Shorenstein Group agreed with me yesterday on the phone that his actions were inappropriate. I’m sure he’s been talked to, reprimanded, disciplined, etc. And the story has changed things for 45 Fremont. In addition to shooting the JP Morgan Building last night, I also stopped back by 45 Fremont to take some more night shots of it. Security saw me, and you know what? They left me alone. I appreciate that and I appreciate that the Shorenstein Group has obviously had a conversation with their security guards about how better to handle photographers.

But back the JP Morgan Building. The first thing that happened as I was shooting the building is that a female security guard came out and told me that I couldn’t shoot the building. I said I was going to continue to shoot it. She went back inside and then got a male security guard. He also told me that I couldn’t shoot the building and seemed to be the superior of the two. I explained to him that I was a professional (I kind of consider myself professional in a sense as I’ve sold several photos and have been published in major magazines and on TV) and that I was going to keep shooting the building.

His response to me was that I wasn’t going to shoot the building while he was on watch and that if I wanted to come back after he got off at 11:00 pm he could be sure to deal with me. This sounded like a veiled threat to me. Like he was suggesting that he would “deal with me” with violence. I asked him if he was threatening me. He said no, that he wouldn’t be that stupid but that I wasn’t taking photos on his watch and that we could come back after he got off at 11:00 pm to settle it.

He then asked me if I wanted him to call the cops. I said yes, of course. He said I’ll dial 911 right now. I said, great, go for it. The female guard then came back out and said, do you want me to call the supervisor? To which he answered no and which I answered, no don’t call the supervisor call 911. Let’s call the cops right now.

This first line of “let’s call the cops defense” wasn’t working. So he abandoned that. They never call the cops by the way. And even if they did you’re not doing anything wrong. A cop should know this.

Then I said well then how are you going to stop me from taking pictures (and I was kind of shooting as I was talking) and he said I’m going to get in all the photos you’re taking. So I took a few shots of him. I’ve actually got a pretty good one that I might post later. He was posing and all. It looks great close up with a wide angled lens and he’s doing some great hand motions. I told him that two days ago the security guard over at 45 Fremont flipped me the bird and I took pictures of him and his response was “Oh, I’d never be that stupid.”

He then went into questioning me about being a “professional” photographer. If you’re a professional then let me see your license. I explained that professional photographers didn’t need licenses, that it wasn’t like being a truck driver or something. We argued about this for a while with him trying to convince me that I needed a license.

He then tried to argue with me that the little plaques on the ground were proof that I couldn’t shoot the building from the public space around the building. I explained to him that the California code on the matter actually dealt with ownership issues and that the code specifically said that owners could not detain the public in this public space. To which (surprisingly) he said, “you know what, he’s right,” to the female guard.

So after about 10 minutes of this he turned to me and said, “you know what?” “I’m going to let you shoot the building.” “Do you know why?” “Why,” I said. “Because you’re a nice guy, he said. You’re being a nice guy about it.”

With that he went back inside and I continued to shoot the building.

Red in the City
This was one of the shots I was able to get at the JP Morgan building after the security guard left me alone.

Now stuff like this happens to me all the time and I never blog it. It’s inconvenient, it’s unfortunate, but it’s not the end
of the world. I’m blogging it now mostly to show how the situation contrasted with my experience at 45 Fremont.

Personally, I don’t mind talking to security guards. A little banter back and forth even is a little fun. But rights are rights and they need to in the end let me do my thing and it’s nice if they are polite about it. The guy at the JP Morgan Building on Mission Street was polite about it. He was doing his job but in the end I was still able to shoot the building trouble free. And he could always say if ever questioned that he tried to stop me but that I wouldn’t comply.

I hope that these issues with photographers vs. security guards will get easier in the years ahead. I hope that as more and more people get digital cameras that there is more peace between photographers and the public and security. And I hope that more photographers feel comfortable shooting buildings and knowing that they can stand their ground. I know I would appreciate it if more of them did because I think when we take time to educate guards that it’s better for all of us.

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  1. Jim Webb says:

    Asking you to come back when he got off work to “settle it” isn’t at all professional or polite. You should shoot video or have someone else tape you having one of these discussions.

    I still don’t know why security guards don’t want people taking photos of buildings. Like another person wrote, they have cameras focused on us nearly everywhere we go. And that’s not a problem for anyone? I don’t get it.

    Keep shooting.

  2. Eddy Joaquim says:

    I had a similar run in at 24th Street BART a few days ago. I too always hear the “we’ll call the cops” phrase and respond very calmy “ok”. Not once have they shown up, even after I continued taking photos for another 30 minutes.

    As long as you’re on public ground you are fine, and I have found that by being firm and confident I get similar reactions to what you have described in this posting.

  3. JeffH says:

    Thomas, I appreciate your persistence on this issue. Please keep this topic in the news. It may take a while, but maybe your postings will help to educate those ignorant of the law. I am a photographer and shoot primarily landscape in mostly unpopulated areas, so I have never been hassled, but it still makes my blood boil every time I read about people being hassled for photographing in public.

    Have you considered escalating this to the S.F. police, the Mayor’s office, or local TV media? Is there a building owners association in S.F. that you might address this issue to? It seems that the building owners and security companies need a little education. It would be interesting to hear what Gavin Newsom’s comments on this issue are, given his very liberal opinions of civil rights in general.

    Jeff H.

  4. Shawn Oster says:

    What you are dealing with is the unknown; that the security guards and a large part of the public don’t know photographer’s rights.

    If someone says you can’t do something and you explain in a calm, non-confrontational manner that you can and here is why then it usually goes well. It’s a guards job to be overly cautious so letting yourself be goaded by their hulking attitude is the first step in proving their point instead of making yours. Educate them, let them do their job, answer their questions, stay firm. Give them a chance to save face when they finally come around. How many men do you know that are good at admitting they are wrong?

    That being said there will always be jerks on both sides; guards AND photographers. I’ve smacked around my share of people with cameras when I used to work as a bouncer. After I politely explained that, no, inside this bar they didn’t have the right to photograph and they still did… well, let’s say I had a lot more leeway in dealing with them 🙂

  5. Morven says:

    In some cases, it’s made harder because private security guards ARE cops, badge and gun and all. Two examples: campus police and railroad police.

    In both circumstances, you are dealing with sworn peace officers who are armed and have the extra arrest on suspicion rights cops have. Unlike regular police, though, they are in the employ of a private organisation and have the desires of that organisation’s management upmost in their minds.

    The good point, at least, is that these people have to graduate from police academy and at least have had SOME training.

    Two examples that I’ve run into are the USC Department of Public Safety’s officers and the BNSF Police. Both of these organisations, by the way, can be proud of their officers; they were incredibly polite and professional, even when telling me I couldn’t do things.

    On the other hand, railroad police in particular have very nasty reputations in certain areas.

  6. Be careful about claiming professional status, that can be used against you in the unlikely event the cops ever show up–most major cities have film permit laws requiring a permit and insurance for ANY commercial photography.

    Now, these generally don’t get enforced unless there’s serious public inconvenience going on (think entourage or lots of equipment), but it might give a cop looking to side with security something to work with.

    And some cops do know this stuff, twice I’ve had San Diego police ask me leading questions that could have no other purpose than to coerce me into admitting commercial intent. Both times it was that the cops drove by and were curious, rather than responding to a call (O.K., shooting at 3 a.m. in an industrial area is a little odd).

    To their credit, after a few questions established I wasn’t a threat, they moved on. 100% polite and done in 5 minutes.

  7. Norby says:

    I really enjoy reading your write-ups of some of your more involved interactions with the security folk in and around SF. Mostly because it helps the rest of us get a good first-hand look at how to calmly and rationally deal with many of the common tactics that they tend to throw at people with cameras. I live in the middle of nowhere and mostly shoot people, but it’s good info to have at the back of your mind and also at your fingertips.


  8. ryran says:

    Yay! Feel-good story, Thomas. The security guard seems like a pretty cool guy.

    I totally second the stuff Shawn said about interacting with security guards in a respectful way. Also agree with norby–it’s good to get these first-hand examples of exchanges between you and security guards.. good to know.

  9. I was recently hassled by a security guard in a similar manner. In the end I decided that I wasn’t getting what I wanted anyways so I moved on but before I left I asked the security guard, tell me, do you know why I’m not allowed to photograph this building? He replied that he didn’t and motioned back inside to someone who was clearly watching the altercation. I said, “look, if you’re going to be a security guard here, I suggest you learn the law about this because I have every right to photograph this building. I think you should go ask your supervisor why she says you can’t.”

  10. Duke says:

    I usually carry a copy of Bert Krages handy little flyer Photographers Bill of Rights. Very handy to have.

    I have had similiar experiences as well where the tension ramps up rather quickly and then slowly disipates. Calm but firm usually prevails. Thanks for keeping up the good fight Thomas!

  11. Keith79 says:

    I own the IowaPix photo website and just went through the same problem with a utility company in Iowa while photographing birds at the edge of a road. The story was on the front page of a local newspaper.


    My own position is that I do not ask permission for photography on public roads or public lands.

  12. tanguero says:

    good stuff here. i often try to relate to them as real people, and it often works. “hey, how is it going tonight, tough to be up so late, the weather, etc” sometimes their just power freaks though. i actually had a great experience, after climbing into a famous private research lab, getting caught immediately, then talking the guard into letting my companion and model into the place. he was just a lonely, bored guy. wish the results had been better, but better then jail! —>

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