You Can’t Shoot That!

If you've ever taken a photograph that looks anything like this image, then you've had to deal with photographic intimidation. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

If you've ever taken a photograph that looks anything like this image, then you've had to deal with photographic intimidation. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Have you been hassled by police or security guards while trying to photograph? Have you been told not to shoot while standing on a public street or sidewalk? Do you have to keep a weather eye out for any lurking goons while composing your next landscape masterpiece?

If you answered yes to any of these queries, you’re not alone. In this world we live in, now dominated by fears of past and future terrorist acts, police and security forces everywhere are getting more aggressive with photographers in the name of ‘national security’. Sometimes it can get a bit silly.

The Washington Post and New York Times have both done pieces in the last couple of months about this issue. And when photographers found the security forces in Great Britain getting overly zealous, they formed a protest organization, complete with its own web site, placards and business cards.

Photographers in Britain formed an organization to protest the heavy-handed tactics of the British police, clear examples of over-reaching in the name of national security.

Photographers in Britain formed an organization to protest the heavy-handed tactics of the British police, clear examples of over-reaching in the name of national security.

As someone who’s made his career in the news business, getting hassled while shooting is nothing new for me. But things have definitely ramped up in the last few years as the perceived threats have come closer to home.

Here’s my ‘Golden Rule’ to keep in mind, should you find your photographic meditation suddenly disturbed by a hot-and-bothered lawman or security guard.

The Golden Rule

Don’t ever argue with a cop on the street. You won’t win, and you won’t be shooting the pictures you wanted to shoot.

This is the biggest mistake young photographers make when dealing with cops. It doesn’t matter that you’re on a public street and have every right to be there, photographing. Pointing this out will only get the guy stirred up. Now he’s really paying attention to you. Now you’re a problem. Depending upon the situation, you could end up with your cameras (temporarily) confiscated and yourself in the back of a squad car. Of course they’ll let you out later and give you back your gear, saying the whole thing was just a big misunderstanding. But in the meantime, they win. You didn’t get the shots you wanted.

When told not to shoot, the most effective strategy is to agree. Be affable, act friendly, then walk away. Find another angle. Pretty soon they’ll forget about you, if it’s an ongoing news situation, and you’ll be able to get what you wanted in the first place.

Remember the Golden Rule: Don’t argue. You never win an argument with a cop on the street, regardless of how ‘right’ you may be.

I was taught this valuable lesson early in my career by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jack Thornell of the Associated Press, who cut his teeth shooting civil rights marches in Mississippi in the 1960s, dodging sheriff’s deputies and trying to document the amazing and awful stuff that was happening daily at that time. That was all in the past by the time I came along, but once while standing with Jack outside a jail, waiting for a guy to get released, a lowly jailer came out and confronted us. ‘You can’t shoot pictures here,’ he hollered. Jack immediately put on his best, most respectful ‘aw shucks’ act, becoming the friendliest and least confrontational person on the face of the planet. Within a few minutes, the guard decided maybe we weren’t something to worry about after all and left us in peace.

Will this work every time? No, of course not. But it points down the path that I’ve found is most likely to work in your favor the most number of times. Remember, your aim is to get the photos you want, not to win an argument with a cop.

It’s not about being ‘right.’ It’s about coming back with the photographs.

Below are some links to some of the recent and relevant stuff around this issue. Since the bombers and would-be bombers have started creating trouble in Western Europe and the U.S., a bit of this type of hassle has just become part of the gig. You, of course, just want to shoot your photos in peace. Keeping my ‘Golden Rule’ in mind will help you do just that.

Photographers celebrate outside New Scotland Yard after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Section 44 of Britain's anti-terror law went too far last summer.

Photographers celebrate outside New Scotland Yard after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Section 44 of Britain's anti-terror law went too far last summer.

http://photographernotaterrorist.org/

The organization formed in Britain to protest unwarranted searching and hassling of photographers. They had success last summer in getting some of this behavior stopped.

Miami photographer Carlos Miller’s blog, Photography is Not a Crime:  Miller seems proud of the fact that’s he’s gotten arrested twice by cops while legitimately shooting…

The Washington Post—10 local D.C. situations in which photographers were told to stop photographing:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/metro/caught-with-a-camera/

Big Brother rules in parts of Silver Spring, MD., a Washington suburb (another from the Post):

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/20/AR2007062002354.html

New York Times’ Lens blog:  Step Away from the Camera:

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/behind-47/

New York Times: Photograph an Amtrak train, get arrested:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/nyregion/28about.html

ProPublica photographer hassled by security cop over shooting BP facility:

http://www.propublica.org/article/watch-police-video-shows-propublica-photographer-detained-in-texas

Related articles on the web:

Scott Bourne at Photofocus has just posted something related to this story. Check it out!

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

6 Comments on "You Can’t Shoot That!"

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  1. Fer says:

    Very interesting read, thank you.

  2. Andy Haynes says:

    Very well presented point, that seems often ignored. Lots of online advice seems to focus on how you can be “in the right”, not on what to actually do when someone, correctly or otherwise, challenges you.

  3. Clint says:

    Good advice when confronted by police for *anything*.

  4. Paul Roberts says:

    The banner says it all. In one point, photographers are just making a living. Some people are just guilty that they don’t want to get exposed.

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