It seems I’m not very brave. When confronted by a police officer for the simple act of doing street photography, I wimped out.
At least, that’s what a bunch of photographers said when I reported being stopped by a policeman last month in Times Square, and how I reacted. The blog post certainly started a lively discussion about photographers' rights and how to best confront a cop who challenges you.
I did some soul searching (Moments after I sulked away from Times Square, I started kicking myself for caving in to the cop’s offensive insinuations way too easily). Thanks to a firm kick in the pants by commenters on a variety of forums, I’m determined to stand my ground if and when there’s a next time.
There’s a good reason to stand one’s ground. Too many photographers—especially photojournalists—are being confronted with increasing frequency by cops who are emboldened by a mandate to step up security, and by hovering parents who go ballistic if anyone dares take a picture of their child. Credentialed news photographers have been confronted by police, and some of them have been arrested while taking pictures.
And as I’ve learned from many pro shooters’ reactions to my article, any sign of weakness can be interpreted by the cop as license to more boldly confront the next photographer he faces.
Keep shooting: If we want to retain the right to take pictures in public places, such as this shot that I made last month on 34th Street and 7th Ave., we can’t let overzealous, misinformed cops intimidate us. Scroll to the end of this article for a list of photographers' rights resources. Photo by Mason Resnick.
And so, I revise my advice to street photographers when a cop stops you: It’s OK to be polite and cooperative, and to not to be belligerent—after all, I still think its important to get the message across that we’re on the same side—but its equally important to use the moment to remind the cop that you have the right to photograph in public, and that what you’re doing is legal. If you say this politely and respectfully you can avoid getting arrested. Get the cop’s name and badge number and if you feel he overstepped his authority, and report it to the appropriate civilian investigative authority in your area.
I recently came across some photographers who take the whole “I’m a photographer and I have rights” thing to some interesting extremes. Here are three photographers who, each in his own way, bravely stands up for photographers’ rights:
Jordan Matter blatantly and humorously crosses the line that demarks who, where, and when he photographs. He has photographed topless models on the streets (without a single complaint), and is now working on a project called Dancers Among Us, where he shoots dancers doing their thing in publicly accessible private spaces and public places. He shoots in well-known places that are not necessarily public domain, such as Yankee Stadium, Apple’s flagship store in New York. He never asks for permission because he assumes the answer will be no, and, according to his blog, he has been escorted out of many locations. Undeterred, he keeps coming back, and gets some amazing shots, as you can see in his blog.
Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden fits so many conceptions of a gruff New Yorker it’s almost comical. But his demeanor and attitude “I have the right of way here,” “Keep moving—no, DON’T SMILE!” and his ability to invade the space of the people he’s photographing results in dramatic, direct images. It’s not for everyone, but any street photographer can learn from his confrontational technique. As one commenter posted, “if you are in the public domain, you are my art.” Pay attention to how Gilden responds to a challenge at 2:40-2:50 in this video:
A multimedia journalist who has been arrested twice for photographing cops (he’s beaten both cases), Carlos Miller runs the blog “Photography is Not a Crime.” It is an ongoing collection of instances, including some rather absurd ones, where photographers are attacked, hassled, arrested or otherwise had their rights violated by police, politicians and private security guards. (He even devotes a post to my experience, along with some choice words about how poorly I handled it.) You’ll learn about photographers who have taken a strong stand against police bullying and intimidation, ongoing investigations, and more. Thanks to his blog, Carlos Miller has become an internationally recognized champion of photographers’ rights, with the experience to earn our respect.
Knowing your rights and politely but firmly letting the officer know you understand them is a reasonable approach. Here are a few resources that might be useful: