The Best Thing to Do as a Photographer is to Stick Up for Your Rights

Making The World A Little Worse Place

The above photo was taken by Jeremy Brooks, a friend of mine and very talented and prolific photographer. Like me, Jeremy shoots daily and his travels take him in many of the places in the City where I spend time as well.

So I was disappointed to see the photo above posted to Jeremy’s Zooomr Stream. The photo above is of a shopkeeper in the Tenderloin District who literally pushed Jeremy’s camera when he was trying to shoot the store. The thing is that the man has no legal authority to prohibit Jeremy from taking photographs from a public sidewalk and as such is imposing himself on Jeremy’s Constitutional rights of free speech.

I get told not to take photos of things in public constantly. Pretty much every single week. Sometimes it’s by guys like this. Other times its by security guards. Sometimes it’s just by random people on the street. Sometimes it’s by asshole cigar store owners named Anto Kamarian. I try to assess each situation individually, but where I can, I try to be polite but insist on my right to shoot. I do this because most people don’t. Most people cave. And I think it’s important that people like Jeremy and others stand up for their rights to shoot from public places.

It takes guts to take a photo of someone when they are pushing themselves on you and stepping all over your rights, but I’m glad Jeremy took the photo above. It helps to get the message out and make the guy above look like an ass. I’m not sure where this is but if I see the same store in my travels out walking I’ll be sure and stop by to shoot a bit there myself.

People like the guy above need to learn that they can’t hassle photographers for doing what is their right to do. And they don’t learn this lesson because 95% of the time people just acquiesce and give into authority that they assume but don’t actually hold.

Do you want to make the world a better place for others out there who are shooting with you? Then do like Jeremy did and stand up to bullys like the guy above.

You do have to be safe though too. If you are out there, especially all alone, and some crazy whacked out guy on drugs starts giving you crap, every so often you just need to cave and walk away. This photography thing of ours isn’t worth getting killed over. But when you can, I’m glad to see people like Jeremy sticking up for their rights.

22 Replies to “The Best Thing to Do as a Photographer is to Stick Up for Your Rights”

  1. While I agree with your sentiments Thomas, you sound somewhat militant. Yes, you have rights as a photographer, yes that guy shouldn’t be pushing anyones camera gear around. But perhaps he isn’t aware of the law, perhaps his reaction is symptomatic of the society we live in. The media is constantly shoving crap down our throats and conspiracy theories are rife. This guy obviously has never had anyone point a camera at his store before (and, when you think about it, THROUGH the window of his store — he doesn’t know the photographer was photographing the neon) and he reacted badly. Perhaps if someone pointed out that “hey, it’s OK. I just like your neon dude!” He might have been a bit different.

    Taking someone picture while they’re asking you not to would also serve to annoy someone too — regardless of your rights to do so.

  2. While I agree with your sentiments Thomas, you sound somewhat militant.

    Militant about insisting on Constitutionally guaranteed rights? You bet. The problem is that most people are not militant enough. If someone touches my gear I’m taking their photo and publishing it.

  3. I’m the photographer that took the shot. Let me add some details.
    While I do insist on my rights, I do it in a civil manner. When the owner (I am assuming he is the owner, he may have been an employee as well) asked what I was doing, I politely said “Oh I’m just taking a picture of the neon. I collect pictures of neon signs.” The vast majority of the time, people understand. They might think I’m a little weird, but sometimes they will even say “Hey we have some neon inside too, come shoot it.”

    In this case, a simple explaination of what I was doing didn’t work. This guy was extremely rude. He insisted that I could not take a picture of anything in the window, or through the window, without his permission. I told him that I would not go INSIDE his store, but I did have the right to shoot from a public place.

    Perhaps he doesn’t understand the law. Perhaps his reaction is symptomatic of the lousy neighborhood that I was in. Regardless, he does NOT have the right to push me or my gear, and his militant reaction was after I explained politely what I was doing.

    As far as taking his picture, if he would have been polite to me, there would have been no reason to take his picture. When this picture was taken, he was already annoyed, and he had already assaulted me. So you can bet I’m going to get a picture and put it on the net.

  4. damn. Jeremy should carry around a can of MASE just to freak fuckers like that out or to actually use it if things get out of control. If someone tried to start shit with me I would just punch the fucker right in the nose and then take a picture 🙂

  5. It never ceases to amaze me that there are people who will criticize you for defending the rights of photographers.

    I will say what the people who criticize you should be saying: Thank you.

    Just yesterday, in the forums for, I stumbled into a discussion begun by a guy who had a run-in with self-important park police. He was shooting photos of a friend of his in a public park — a park paid for, maintained and owned by “we the people” who pay taxes. The park ranger, as you’ll guess, insisted that he could not take photographs in the park.

    In the multi-page meandering debate that followed the initial post, it was just amazing and frustrating how many photographers were vocally taking sides against their own rights and their own livelihood.

    Few people stand up for the rights of photographers, and even photographers themselves will argue venomously against their own rights and their own best interest.

    I’m not sure why this is, except maybe that some are committed to political beliefs or social philosophies which hold respect for authority and obedience above all else. I don’t get it.

  6. I’ve been following your blog for a while, and I really appreciate your approach to and defense of the legality of photography — you’ve certainly raised awareness of the issue and are a bit of a rallying point for photographers who may have had their rights trampled on in the past.

    That said, sometimes it seems like exercising your rights can get in the way of being a nice person. I have the constitutional right to do all sorts of things that I refrain from due to common decency, politeness, or favors asked. The argument of “this is America, I can do whatever I want” that I so frequently employed as a child isn’t quite as cute in a grown adult. You’re totally right that nobody has the legal authority over you to stop you from taking pictures of their shop, and certainly nobody should put a hand on you or your equipment, but they do have the right to ask you not to take pictures, and you have the freedom to listen and do as they ask as a favor if the mood strikes.

    Just something to think about.

  7. anonymous above has a point about people having the right to ask that his place not be photographed. But that’s the whole thing…it’s ASK. from what Jeremy says happened, the owner was not asking him, he was telling him…I believe, and I may be wrong, but if the shopkeeper wasn’t so rude, and been more respectful of Jeremy’s rights as a photographer, Jeremy prolly would have put his camera away. No harm, no foul.

  8. While TH and Jeremy are in the right, there are so many nut buckets in the world that standing up for all our photographic freedoms may get someone hurt. TH mentions assessing the situation, but you’re trying to read a person you’ve never met before and have no idea what they are capable of or what’s stuffed into their wasteband under their shirt. Protect your rights, but also protect your ass and feel free to walk (and blog the details) away before someone gets hurt.

  9. PS For example, that one security guard incident a few months ago was very alarming and I’m glad it didn’t escalate even more – he was on some sort of power trip and felt justified in his actions.

  10. Thomas:

    I’m curious, you seem to see this issue in black and white. Who’s side would you be on if Jill Greenberg took her pictures from a public sidewalk?

  11. I like the idea of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. If this guy was rude and pushed and complained, I understand the desire to shoot him and his store. But what if he politely asked you not to take the photo. It’s his right to ask and yours to ignore his request, but why not “not” take it. It’s not like there is a shortage of signs out there.

    Yes you can shoot photos all you want, I do, and I love having the right to, but I DO believe that my right to take pictures does not mean I have to, or should always take the shot.

  12. It’s not the “militant” part that’s a problem. It’s the rudeness.

    Nobody should have to ask not to be photographed. It is an imposition on someone else, a violation of their privacy, to take their picture. It is up to you to ask permission.

    While you and other paparazzi and stalkers have a legal right to take photographs in public, decent, kind, civilized, polite people ASK permission FIRST, and respect that when someone doesn’t want a photo taken.

    You and your kind of militant photographers were never taught those basic principles of civility that the rest of us learned in kindergarten. That’s why you get hostile reactions from others: you are violating the social contract that allows us to all live together in close proximity, even if we don’t like each other.

    The best thing to do to a rude photographer is stick his camera up his ass so he can shoot his own head.

  13. Hi Thomas,

    I’m from the Netherlands,and we take a pretty liberal view on doing things you like to do, as you will probably know,…. but as always, these things are about common decency. I think one should ask for permission and, when permission is not granted, to assess the situation whether it is worth the trouble to stand on your civil rights. If not so, just don’t take the image. This view I take as a photographer

    By the way: being a Dutch sollictor/lawyer I also take this view.



  14. BTW, please take note that the law is not the same across the world. For example, I know that in the province of Quebec (Canada), it’s not legal for newspaper to publish “non-news” pictures of people without proper authorization (hence the “file photo” you see a lot).

  15. After reading all the comments, I would have to say that the posts describing ‘rudeness’ and ‘civility’ strike a chord in me. I would agree that since you have the ‘right’ to do something, doesn’t mean that you always ‘should’ do it. Sometimes civility and common courtesy are what is called for. As a Canadian, many people know (and we are often gently parodied for it) we are an extremely polite people. I do a lot of business and pleasure travel in the US and one thing that always sticks out is that Americans wear their ‘rights’ as chips on their shoulder. It is too bad, because it often seems to cause conflict where none is really necessary.

    When I read your stories (such as the one above and of the cigar owner), I am often reminded of the time my wife and I waited in line for a tour of your ‘Capital Building’ in Washington. As we and many other people waited in line, some very obese and grubby individual approached with a bullhorn. He started blaring at us that this building was inhabited by evil men. “Do you know there are fags inside there?” he blarted (at a very high volume though is bullhorn.) “Do you know that they have anal sex with each other in their offices? God has dammed these people to Hell and he will throw YOU in Hell too for going in there and condoning these Satanic acts”. He then proceeded to get even more crude. Several people motioned to the policeman standing there and asking if he could make the individual stop… for God’s sake there were children in the line. The policeman shrugged his shoulders and said, “Sorry, but it is his right of free speech to do so..”

    Please forgive me for saying this, but reading though your posts, I cannot escape the parallels drawn between you and that “bullhorn guy”. Some people may be scared and confused and perhaps not privy to all the ‘enlightenment’ that you and your colleagues have.

    But damn them eh, it is your ‘right’ to do as you wish! (insert very sad, somewhat sarcastic smiley face here)


  16. anonymous begins:

    It’s not the “militant” part that’s a problem. It’s the rudeness.

    And ends with:

    The best thing to do to a rude photographer is stick his camera up his ass so he can shoot his own head.

    Sometimes, the jokes just write themselves.

  17. i just think that in these days of paparazzi exploiting the first amendment, i think photogs should choose their battles. I don’t know why the guy didn’t want his picture taken, maybe it was a religious thing. I think that if he was an important political figure or there was a point to taking the picture in the first place it would be one thing, but just to take it to take it is silly. I know they need to fuzz out people who don’t give permission to being filmed, how is that so much different?

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