Tom points to the debate between Jeff Harrell and Derek Powazek about taking pictures in public places where they are supposedly prohibited. Jeff says:

Derek clearly sees this as an issue of civil rights; I see it as an issue of basic civility…. More and more, we’re hearing the “I’m going to do whatever I want, and asking me to stop is a violation of my God-given rights” idea being expressed, and that’s simply wrong. Life in a pluralistic society is about compromise; there are no absolute liberties. We all sacrifice some measure of our liberty in order to secure the benefits we gain from living together as a group. We get things like roads and schools and art and culture, but in return we have to accept some basic responsibilities. Like the responsibility to be civil toward each other.

Jeff argues that photographers foisting themselves where they are not wanted exercise bad manners and breach that civility he values so highly. Derek’s philosophy is one of civil liberties:

In a post 9/11 age of paranoia and suspicion, public photography is increasingly seen as threatening, or mistaken as criminal. And we here at JPG are sick of it. The theme [is] meant to remind everyone that amateur photographers are the documentarians of real life. People with cameras bear witness to the everyday dramas of ordinary people. We capture our world to help us understand it.

Neither side is absolutely right, but I think the truth is closer to Derek’s side than Jeff’s. Paparazzi who hound and harass well-known figures, even in public places, in order to get the front page picture for the glossy newsrag, may be exercising their civil rights but intrude into the rights of others to do so. In such a case, Jeff is right: don’t be an ass. But that’s not the point of the “Photography is not a Crime” event. Pictures of public places, public buildings, public landscapes and the like are fair game even in a compromise-dependent civil society.

Jeff’s foundational assumption is wrong. Just because someone puts up a sign or posts a security guard does not mean they have the right to prohibit photography, to confiscate cameras, or to destroy or delete pictures or film. Any idiot can have a policy, but civility doesn’t demand that we respect that policy if it’s wrong. Part of civility is that we shouldn’t post security guards to prevent public photography. Part of civility is not overreaching, not imposing your will where it doesn’t belong. Jeff’s theory of adulthood – “don’t be an ass” – applies equally to the picture takers and the picture banners.

Ultimately, civility demands that we put incivility in its place. Being an adult does not require us to be sheep. It requires us to take responsibility for our own actions and also for our freedoms. When those freedoms are unduly restricted, everyone loses. Not everyone answers the call to defend those freedoms, but everyone benefits from those who do. Our country was founded by people who risked their honor, their lives, their fortunes standing up to the world’s most powerful sovereign in the name of freedom.

Does taking a picture in the subway rise to that level? Only in the rarest of circumstances. But civil society is just a little bit poorer if no one goes for the shot when the shot is there.

  • http://jpgmag.com/ Derek Powazek

    Thank you, Mike. I’ve honestly been surprised by the response to this theme. But that’s good! Part of the reason we chose “Photography is Not a Crime” as our next theme was to inspire exactly this kind of debate. What are the rights and responsibilities of public photographers? Where is the line between standing up for your rights and being a jerk? The more we talk about these issues, I think, the more we might be able to come to a better understanding as a community.

    But the bottom line for me, as a photographer who shoots in public, is this: It is not a crime to take photos in a public place, and it almost never is (exceptions being private property and military installations). And there are lots of examples of photographers who were harassed, arrested, even jailed, simply for taking photos of things that were perfectly legal to photograph. And it’s got to stop.

    Thanks for giving this issue an evenhanded look.

  • http://jpgmag.com Derek Powazek

    Thank you, Mike. I’ve honestly been surprised by the response to this theme. But that’s good! Part of the reason we chose “Photography is Not a Crime” as our next theme was to inspire exactly this kind of debate. What are the rights and responsibilities of public photographers? Where is the line between standing up for your rights and being a jerk? The more we talk about these issues, I think, the more we might be able to come to a better understanding as a community.

    But the bottom line for me, as a photographer who shoots in public, is this: It is not a crime to take photos in a public place, and it almost never is (exceptions being private property and military installations). And there are lots of examples of photographers who were harassed, arrested, even jailed, simply for taking photos of things that were perfectly legal to photograph. And it’s got to stop.

    Thanks for giving this issue an evenhanded look.

  • http://www.metagrrrl.com/ Dinah Sanders

    I think the really critical difference between the two viewpoints might be the assumption of what you’re taking pictures OF. Yes, if it’s an identifiable picture of an individual, civility most certainly comes into play (and Derek has always been civil about that in my experience; hell, I’ve even seen him ask people before he takes a picture of their dog).

    But the photograph which is the teaser for the issue is a picture of a security guard trying to stop Heather from taking a picture of the front of a building. I’m sure another antecedent to this issue of the magazine is the weird encounters people had with security trying to stop photographs in a public transit station. That would be a darn shame if I had to miss photos like this:

  • http://www.metagrrrl.com Dinah Sanders

    I think the really critical difference between the two viewpoints might be the assumption of what you’re taking pictures OF. Yes, if it’s an identifiable picture of an individual, civility most certainly comes into play (and Derek has always been civil about that in my experience; hell, I’ve even seen him ask people before he takes a picture of their dog).

    But the photograph which is the teaser for the issue is a picture of a security guard trying to stop Heather from taking a picture of the front of a building. I’m sure another antecedent to this issue of the magazine is the weird encounters people had with security trying to stop photographs in a public transit station. That would be a darn shame if I had to miss photos like this:

  • http://www.metagrrrl.com/ Dinah Sanders

    ahem, like this: http://www.hchamp.com/archives/598.html

    (Seems to be an issue with the insert links functionality of this comment box toolbar)

  • http://www.metagrrrl.com Dinah Sanders

    ahem, like this: http://www.hchamp.com/archives/598.html

    (Seems to be an issue with the insert links functionality of this comment box toolbar)

  • Mike

    Derek: Techincally speaking, I’m not aware of any state law that criminalizes photography on private property except where it might constitute a separate crime such as harassment, threat to personal safety, and so on.

    An owner of private property does have the right to impose certain conditions on access to the property, and if those conditions are not met, expel the person. A person returning to private property after their permission to enter has been revoked (or intially denied, as in the case of a “No Trespass”) may be committing a crime depending on state law. Under no circumstances that I’m aware of does a private property owner have the right to conficate equipment or destroy images taken.

    Dinah: I dunno what’s wrong with the linkbox thingy. Sorry.

  • Mike

    Derek: Techincally speaking, I’m not aware of any state law that criminalizes photography on private property except where it might constitute a separate crime such as harassment, threat to personal safety, and so on.

    An owner of private property does have the right to impose certain conditions on access to the property, and if those conditions are not met, expel the person. A person returning to private property after their permission to enter has been revoked (or intially denied, as in the case of a “No Trespass”) may be committing a crime depending on state law. Under no circumstances that I’m aware of does a private property owner have the right to conficate equipment or destroy images taken.

    Dinah: I dunno what’s wrong with the linkbox thingy. Sorry.

  • Mike

    For another look at the value of pushing the envelopes of civility through photography, see here: http://www.perpetualbeta.com/release/archives/2005/12/08/the-value-of-outlaw-photogrpahy/

  • Mike

    For another look at the value of pushing the envelopes of civility through photography, see here: http://www.perpetualbeta.com/release/archives/2005/12/08/the-value-of-outlaw-photogrpahy/

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