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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Release Me!

If you want to feel properly protected and have the latitude to maximize your ability to sell an image, don’t forget the model releases when you hit the street

Like many photographers, my way of seeing the world was influenced by images capturing discrete moments in time in everyday places. Whether it was Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic image of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square on VJ Day or Cartier-Bresson’s image of a man jumping a puddle, images like these scenes captured on the street continue to inspire generations of photographers. While the spirit of these photographic pioneers inspires photographers who seek to capture the reality of people and public places through candid images, the world has changed from those early days unfortunately. As with so many other aspects of life, it should come as no great surprise that the law finds its way into something as seemingly innocuous as street photography.

Post-9/11 Paranoia
In addition to other impediments facing street photographers and photojournalists, paranoia since September 11, 2001 has resulted in photographers being hassled, detained and even arrested simply because they were using a camera in public. While examples abound, one particular incident received widespread attention. On December 21, 2008, Duane Kerzic went to New York City’s Penn Station to photograph Amtrak’s trains. According to Kerzic’s interview aired on The Colbert Report, “My intention when I went to the station that day was just to get a couple of good photos of the trains that were shiny.” Within minutes of appearing on the train platform with a camera, Kerzic was confronted by officers who searched him and then handcuffed him to a wall for about an hour. Kerzic’s experience is ironic given that he intended to enter some of the photographs in Amtrak’s photography contest.

Kerzic’s experience is hardly unique. In September 2009, photographer and activist Erin McCann presented a statement regarding the harassment of photographers who photographed the Department of Transportation building in Washington, D.C., to the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management, chaired by Eleanor Holmes Norton. In her statement, McCann detailed her experiences when attempting to photograph the Department of Transportation building and her discussions with one of the building’s security supervisors. According to McCann’s testimony, the security supervisor told her that “guards are trained to stop all photographers and collect their contact information.” The supervisor, after collecting McCann’s contact information, refused to permit McCann to photograph the building, saying that it was “illegal to photograph a federal building.”

Roughly a year earlier, McCann testified before the same House Subcommittee regarding police and security officer harassment of photographers, including her own experiences at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Despite being assured by Amtrak and the station’s management company that photography is allowed in Union Station, McCann was repeatedly stopped while photographing public areas of the station. In one case, McCann was informed that the building was private property and that all photography is prohibited. In another case, the officer confronting McCann told her that her camera was “too professional” and, therefore, her rights as a photographer weren’t the same as rights of tourists who are free to take pictures inside the station.

“For the most part, attempts to restrict photography are based on misguided fears about the supposed dangers that unrestricted photography presents to society,” writes photographers’ rights advocate and attorney Bert Krages on his website. As Krages points out, “Neither the Patriot Act nor the Homeland Security Act have any provisions that restrict photography.” In an effort to educate photographers, Krages put together a one-page, downloadable guide (www.krages.com/ThePhotographersRight.pdf) that photographers can print and carry with them as a quick-access reference when dealing with confrontations.

While it’s important to know what your rights are when attempting to create images in public, confrontations are inevitable. The street isn’t the right place to resolve such confrontations, however, particularly with law enforcement, as such confrontations generally end badly for all involved. The better approach is to comply with the law enforcement officer’s instructions and then contact your attorney or the local office of the American Civil Liberties Union.


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