The Street Photographers Rights

Know Your Rights: A Street Photographer’s Guide

Have you ever missed that decisive moment because, just as you were going to snap the shutter, you wondered, “Should I really be taking this photo?” As a street photographer, knowledge of the law can be one of the most empowering tools you can have in your kit. Here, we will break down some of the laws to help you know your rights as a photographer.

Public Vs. Private

Public space is where most street photographers will be taking pictures--luckily! As a photographer, you have a huge amount of freedom in such places. “Public space” is basically any space that is readily accessible to the public--think streets, sidewalks, benches on those sidewalks, parks, etc. In New York City, it’s beneficial to know that even the subway is considered a public space (although, unless you’re a member of the press, you are restricted from using tripods, reflectors, lights, and other additional equipment). Not only is it legal to photograph in such locations, but you can also photograph people or objects that are in public view, even if they are actually situated on private property. For example, you may snap a photo of people sitting on the front stoop of a brownstone, or people eating lunch at an outdoor cafe. Keep in mind, you are not going to be protected if you go to great extremes to get that view--for instance, you shouldn’t haul a ladder with you to peer over a fence on the side of a street. Note that you are free to photograph anyone in a public space--adults, including officials like police officers, and children, alike. That said, don’t be a creepy stalker. Especially when photographing kids, take a couple of shots and move on--don’t linger too long and make anyone nervous. Remember, treat others as you’d like to be treated--especially children.

Private property--can sometimes be tricky to recognize and negotiate. Remember that some spaces that seem public are in fact private, like museums, shopping malls, and government buildings. If you’re not sure of the public vs. private status of a specific location, you should do some research before you photograph there to find out if it will be allowed or not. You may also consider asking a security guard or other employee while on the scene. If you are approached and asked to stop photographing, you are legally required to comply, as long as you are on their private property. If you are asked to leave, it’s a good idea to do so.

Distributing Your Photograph

If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get the opportunity to sell your photographs in an art gallery or to a news agency. If that happens, as long as the image was taken in a public space, you have the right to distribute your photograph--to a certain extent. You are free to sell your work in a gallery or to a news outlet, to show it in your personal portfolio, and even post it online on a blog or Instagram account. However, as soon as you start considering using your image for “commercial purposes”--think advertisements, stock photography, and promotional materials--you will need to use model release forms.

Release Forms

So when do you need a release form? Only when you plan to use your image for commercial purposes, as mentioned above. Even if you’re only vaguely considering using an image for such a purpose, it’s a good idea to get a waiver signed on the spot. They say lightning never strikes twice, and catching a total stranger in the same place twice is much harder than it sounds. 

If You’re Approached

If you are approached by a subject or a bystander while photographing, there are several ways to handle the situation. No matter what approach you take, you should do the following:

  • Stay calm. If you act agitated, you may implicate yourself as guilty when, in fact, you are not. If you’ve been following the law, you’re not doing anything wrong, and you should be prepared to calmly and rationally explain that to your subject.
  • Act confident. Confidence goes a long way. It will put people at ease if you act like you know exactly what you’re doing (and better yet, actually know what you’re doing!).
  • Explain that you are a professional photographer, a photography student working on a class assignment, or a participant in a photography workshop or class, as the case may be.
  • Know your rights.  (Hey, that’s why you’re reading this article!)  If you know your legal rights and can explain them to your subject, you will come off as confident and professional, and remain on solid legal ground when or if you continue to photograph.
  • You don't have to delete your picturesPeople love to ask you to delete your image, but no one can legally force you to delete a photograph, or confiscate your memory card.
  • Consider offering your contact information. If the person who approaches you is amenable and is just curious about what you’re doing, you may consider offering to e-mail them a copy of your photo, or you may offer your contact information if you feel comfortable doing so. This usually puts people’s minds at ease, and they will often allow you to continue on your way undisturbed. This is totally up to you, though--you’re not in any way obligated to do this.

There are two other strategies you can use to diffuse the situation. Decide which technique seems like it will work best, depending on the individual who is confronting you.

  • Use flattery. Compliment your subject’s style, their hair, makeup, whatever. People are usually both thrilled to hear you noticed, and so surprised by this response that they are happy to let the matter pass.
  • Use diversion. If flattery doesn’t seem like it will work, you can try diverting attention from that subject.  Claim you were trying to photograph the scene or some object behind the person confronting you, even going so far as to say something like, “...You just got in my frame!”

Use Common Sense

Use your common sense. Trust your own judgment. In any given situation, consider any potential risks.  Ask yourself if a photograph is worth a potentially physical confrontation. Treat others as you’d like to be treated. 

Finally, keep in mind that these tips are based on laws in the United States, and specifically in New York City--if you’re travelling abroad, try to find out ahead of time what kinds of rights you’ll have as a photographer.

Hopefully, you’re now feeling more confident in your knowledge of the law regarding street photography. Remember, these are guidelines based on both the law and personal experiences. If you’re ever in doubt, it’s a good idea to do some further research of your own, or consult a legal representative.

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