I’d heard about this kind of thing happening to street photographers in England. But now the cops are hassling photographers on the streets of New York. Here is my story.
Yesterday was a sunny, unseasonably warm late November day in New York City, and I was out in Times Square testing a couple of Leica cameras (the X1 and D-Lux 5) for an upcoming Street Photography Stress Test. I like Times Square—there’s always something visually interesting going on.
Suddenly, I felt a firm tug on my camera bag strap. I turned around, expecting that someone was trying to rob my cameras (that would have been a first) but instead was almost as shocked to see it was a police officer (that was a first).
Was taking this photograph a crime? I shot this moments before I almost got arrested. Was the officer who interrogated me out of line? Should I have handled the situation differently? Photo ©Mason Resnick
“What are you doing?” he asked, sternly.
I explained that I was doing street photography, which is candid photography of people in public places.
“I got several complaints. I was following you for several blocks. There are a lot of school groups here today, lots of children.”
Oh. That inference was pretty clear. I was being not so subtly being accused of being a pedophile. I immediately and sincerely explained that this was not my intention, that I would never do such a thing, and I’d be glad to show him the photos I’d just shot and if he saw anything inappropriate, I’d be happy to delete it. He agreed, and we went through the previous 20 or so shots on my LCD monitor (thank goodness for digital cameras!). That seemed to satisfy him that I was not up to anything slimy.
“I have a feeling you want me to put the camera away now, right?”
And so I did: I bagged the camera, thanked the officer, walked down to 6th Avenue (a business area where it was less likely there’d be kids around), took a deep breath, and resumed shooting.
No crime here: I took this picture moments before one of New York’s Finest stopped me for questioning. Photo ©Mason Resnick
In over 30 years of doing street photography, mostly in New York and often in Times Square, that’s the first time I’ve been stopped by a cop. I did what my gut, in the moment, told me to do: Faced with such an accusation, be completely open, honest and cooperative...and not confrontational. The incident ended quietly.
Even though I know I have the legal right to take pictures in public places (this has been challenged many times in U.S., Canadian, and UK courts and in every case, the photographer’s rights have been affirmed), I feel that when an officer tells you to stop taking pictures, you stop, and don’t argue. Why? Because he is armed, and has the power to arrest you—and he may not be well-versed in the rights of photographers.
So, what’s going on here? Well, the world is changing. We live in a surveillance-aware world. It is possible to surreptitiously photograph someone on the street and upload it directly to some web site for all the world to see. Parents, especially, are getting the message from TV and schools that this technology can be easily misused for inappropriate purposes, and so they are on the lookout for creeps. Unfortunately, with increasing frequency, street photographers (who are looking at life from a more artistic, creative, dare I say, innocent, viewpoint) are being subject to unfounded accusations of photographing with unsavory intentions.
A few minutes later and several blocks away from Times Square, I was in a less touristy area. I resumed shooting, and got this shot. Photo ©Mason Resnick
And then there’s that whole terrorism thing, which has law enforcement generally on edge. But I don’t think today’s incident was about that.
I’ve read stories in recent years of photographers being hassled by passersby and security forces in England, especially in London but also in other cities. Photographers have been accused of being “pervs” or predators. It has gotten to the point over there where there have been rallies in front of Scotland Yard by photographers who feel these threats are preventing from their legally protected right to take pictures in public places.
Imagine a world without street photography
And now, it looks like that mentality may be jumping the pond. And that’s too bad. Imagine if Henri Cartier-Bresson had been hassled by the cops and decided taking a shot like this one wasn’t worth the hassle (even though it is a classic photo that is hanging in many museums). Or if Garry Winogrand had similar second thoughts before shooting this one (ditto).
In this era where it's apparently OK for five-year-olds to be strip-searched, cancer survivors are subject to humiliating pat-downs, and X-ray machines now display full-body scans at airports by homeland security personnel in the interest of "national security", I refuse to lose my innocence. I will continue to do street photography, and will continue to be open about what I’m doing because I know I’m not doing anything illegal, creepy, or unsavory. I will continue to explore how people, places, and things look like photographed. If Garry Winogrand, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Lizette Model, Robert Frank and William Klein (and many contemporary street shooters) can do it, so should I. I’ll use common sense and awareness of the current climate to avoid rare confrontations like the one I experienced yesterday, but I’ll keep shooting.
UPDATE: Read my follow-up blog post, Heroes of Photographers' Rights
My question to my fellow street photographers: Have you been hassled by the cops or people you’ve been photographing? How did you react? How did it turn out? Are you discouraged or worried about street shooting in the future? Leave a comment!