There’s Rights, and then there’s right

I was intending to post about something completely different today but I just finished reading a blog post and the 90 comments that went along with it and I’m not sure how I feel about all of it.  The story goes that a photographer saw a man yelling at a homeless guy and started taking his picture.  He didn’t have a long lens so he crossed the street to get closer.  The yelling guy didn’t like the fact that he was now the subject of someone’s photograph, especially since he was caught yelling at a homeless person.  The man also had his daughter with him which I guess made matters worse.  Then the man turned his anger from the homeless guy to the photographer.  It got a little heated and I guess the guy started to get a little on the physical side but left, while yelling that he would bring legal action if his picture ended up on the Internet.

Well, his picture did end up on the Internet and he is climbing the charts in Digg and StumbleUpon and other such sites.  So here is my problem with this story.  I know that the photographer had legal “Rights” to take the image.  My question is rather, should we, the general photographic community be photographing private citizens without their permission.  I realize that Press photographers make their livings doing just that but that is their job.  I’m not sure what the intention of the photographer was that originated this story.  He said he thought the conflict of a man yelling at a homeless person made a great image.  So did he take the shot for the sake of art?  Should we, as humans, be afraid to have our moments of human behavior for fear that someone will photograph us in the act?  Do we have to remain shut-ins because if we go out in public we are now targets for anyone’s camera?  Don’t get me wrong.  I am in no way condoning the actions of the angry man but what if he had been doing something else that the photographer thought was provocative, like kissing his girlfriend?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions but I throw it out to you to decide.  Do we lose our privacy when we step out our front door in the morning?  As a photographer, do you respect the requests and wishes of others as you would have them respect your right to take photographs?  It’s a two way street folks and someday you might be on the other side, coming at me.

Say Cheese!

If you would like to see the story and all the comments that stirred this diatribe from me, click here.


  1. Hi Jeff,
    I am the photographer in question, and these are very good questions indeed. Do we lose our privacy when we step out of our front door in the morning? I think we do, especially in larger cities. We are photographed many times every day: on the street, at the ATM, at the supermarket, at the local coffee house, in the background of other peoples photos, and sometimes as the subject of a strangers photos.

    Personally, I try to keep a balance between what it is my Right to do and what it Is Right to do, as I’m sure many other photographers try to do. Do I always succeed? No, I’m human too. It is not uncommon for people to ask my why I am taking photos — not just of people either — and sometimes they can be quite threatening. However it is very rare for a situation to escalate to the point of physical violence. Normally I am able have a rational conversation with people that wonder what I’m up to, and sometimes they even ask me to take their photo and email it to them. I have stopped taking photos when people have asked me to. I have asked people if I could take their portrait and they said no. Unfortunately, sometimes things just don’t work out nicely, and it is always easier to say “what if” when you are not involved in a situation. I don’t enjoy conflict, but I also don’t allow people to threaten and bully me.

    At any rate, I was hoping to make people think about what they would do in a similar situation, and have been quite amazed by the attention the post has received. Apparently these are questions that all of us, on both sides of the lens, need to think about.

  2. In Belgium it is forbidden by law to take pictures of people without their permission. Only if they are part of a landscape, crowd or newsfact it is allowed. If the person is the main subject you are to ask permission. Not many people being photographed will take action against it (who would pay for such a case) but it is the duty of the photographer to respect the rights of the individual.

  3. This is the price we pay for living in a democracy. I was a press photographer for many years and I always felt I was intruding on people\’s personal space when I shot photos of them in public spaces in difficult situations. But so be it. I would not take a photo which would unduly embarrass someone.) It’s not up to government or the police to dictate what is allowed or not allowed to be photographed. Over the years, I\ve had occasion to education some police officers about this fact. The “freedom of the press” rights don’t apply just to the press. The press gets these freedoms because they are freedoms available to us all. Yes press credentials can be helpful to get you past police lines but they don’t guarantee unlimited access anywhere at anytime. My one thought would be the wisdom in photographing someone who is already clearly out of control. The level of personal danger in this situation (based on what I’ve read) is more than I would accept even shooting professionally. I have shot photos during dangerous confrontations even ones involving gunfire but I was made certain there was a big armed cop somewhere close by who I could hide behind if needed. I didn’t consider this as cowardice but rather good sense. (I’ll expand on this topic on my blog at

  4. Adrianne says:

    I believe that everyone has the right to photograph what they see in life around them. But to sell the photograph for profit you should have permission. To say that I just don’t have the right to photograph something or someone because I *might* use it in my personal collection is wrong.

    To tell a photographer that they can’t publish a photograph because it might be embarrassing is a violation of our freedom of expression and speech. It’s really simple: You don’t want a photograph of you having a public meltdown or a PDA, then don’t do it in public. Why is it okay to subject everyone around you to seeing it but don’t publish it as it might be embarrassing to you? If you’re embarrassed to have people see a pix of you doing it, then don’t do it in public!

    I recently was involved in a traffic incident where someone was acting irrationally in their vehicle. While I stayed away from them as much as I could, they choose to escalate the incident, blocking my car and getting out of their vehicle. Was he just going to verbally abuse me or physically? I don’t know. But the fact that I immediately grabbed my camera, getting shots of him and his license plate number made him decide to get back in his truck quickly and speed off. Did I need a model release to give his information to the police? No. What if I decided to put it on my blog to let my neighbors and friends know to watch out for this obviously irrational and possibly dangerous person? I don’t think so. If he was having a bad day and acted that way, I’m sorry. But his motivations did not justify his actions. I feel I have the right and the duty to protect myself and my fellow human beings. Hey, maybe it would make this person see they needed some help. At the worst, it might help another family keep someone dangerous off the streets and behind bars.

    Let’s be honest, a very small percentage of us have a photographer hanging out by our door just waiting to take photos of us doing everyday things. So is this really an issue? No. If someone is going to get upset because you took their photograph, as a human being we should take their opinion into consideration. If we are going to use the photograph for some sort of gain, be it monetary or industry recognition, then you should get a release from the person in the photograph. But if it’s just for you to practice your photography, to post an interesting image on your blog or to protect yourself personally, then no a release should not be necessary.


  5. John Larson says:

    Most of the time when I have extended the courtesy to ask someone if I might take their picture, they have been very gracious and have helped me to get the right lighting, etc. If for some reason a person does not wish to be photographed, we photographers should honor that wish.

  6. Thanks for the comment Jeremy and everyone else that has taken the time to write a comment. As I said earlier, I don’t have any answers to the questions I asked which is why I threw it out there to anyone that cares to voice their opinion. I think that this is the kind of event that can really help photographers explore their medium and how it is perceived by others. Unfortunately for you Jeremy, the comments on your blog turned ugly and turned to personal attacks between those making the comments. Somehow a discussion of the event was lost, which is unfortunate. As I said in my comment on your blog, this is why I moderate my comments. Not to silence a dissenting opinion but, instead, to keep things civil and make sure that the spirit of the conversation is not lost. Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your experience and your opinions.


  7. Moderating comments on blogs has become almost a necessity. Some resources do manage to keep things civil (Scott Kelby’s blog for instance almost never deteriorates into personal attacks), while others maintain civility through moderation (like yours and The Online Photograper.)

    Very cool of you to follow up on the post though and encourage dialog…dialog is what makes us think and if we don’t take the time to think, is when creativity takes a back burner.

    Returning now to the original topic, I think Jeremy hit the nail on the head in that is a balancing act to consider in exerting your rights versus doing what IS right. (Very well said there…) And, to top it off, I’ve now got another great blog to follow! 🙂

  8. I’m on board with what Thomas Hawk stated on his blog: if the guy acts like to total idiot and assaults a photographer, he deserves to be seen in the public eye for what he is. If the guy had been civil, there’s no reason to not be civil back to him. Jeremy did the right thing.

    As for your other questions Jeff… Hey, public space is public space. People love reading gossip magazines full of paparazzi shots, but then they’ll turn around and get all nasty with a photographer taking a photo of them. Fair game people — if you think you’re important enough to hide from a camera, then don’t leave your house. Besides, if you’re doing things in public that you don’t want captured on film, you probably shouldn’t be doing those things in public.

    And if it’s understandable for a photojournalist to take photos out on the street, why isn’t it just as acceptable for a street photographer to do the same? Is the pursuit of art any less meaningful than photojournalism? I take photos of people I don’t know every time I go out shooting. I don’t ask for their permission. Most of the time, they don’t even know it happened. Heck, some of those photos are even for sale as art prints. Why? Because I can. Because I live in America and I can do these things. And because I enjoy it.

    And you know what? If my face turned up on somebody’s artwork — awesome. More power to ’em if they can make a buck off my ugly mug.

    I’m not trying to be a bad-guy with my comments, but street photography is something I feel passionately about. In any event, it’s up to the photographer to use good judgment while shooting on the street.

  9. Peter O'Callaghan says:

    I have to admit that I take pictures of people who don’t want to be photographed all the time. I’m a press photographer. From my perspective I always try not to influence the things that are going on around me. Anytime a photographer and camera are inserted into a situation that situation changes. For those of us who have had to shoot riots, protests, police actions, criminals, and the like will know what I mean. My goal is to capture what is newsworthy and influence that event as little as possible.

    So, to the photographer who crossed the street and got in the guy’s face – he influenced that situation. In my mind he escalated it and almost got himself hurt. Here’s the question – motivation… we have heard about the ‘What?’, but I am more curious about the ‘Why?’.

    There are all kinds of reasons to editorialize and rationalize, but for me there would have to be a pretty compelling reason to do what this photographer did. Street photography has a rich history and has produced some very wonderful and powerful images. But, if Henri Cartier Bresson had taken that set of photos – they would have looked a lot more interesting and less snapshot-ish. To me, I see a brute confronting a brute and coming away with not much more than a bruised ego and bland photos.

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