A Photographer’s Right

The Incident
There is much misconception among the public about people’s right to photograph. This fact presented itself this weekend when two men from my neighborhood knocked on my door and asked if I was a photographer. When I answered yes, I was expecting an invitation to a neighborhood barbecue to take pictures. Instead I was barraged with accusations of illegally photographing one of the men through his bathroom window. “We seen you taking pictures from your window!” exclaimed one of the men. I explained that I take pictures of a lot of things from my window, but assured him that his bathroom window was not one of them. He then stated, “I don’t want you taking pictures of me, my house or my car!” He pointed to the gray apartment building across the parking lot in which he is a tenant. The owner of the building is an absentee landlord. I explained to him that I am free to take photos of anything I want, that I was not breaking any laws. He then became loud and starting shouting “Continue to take pictures and see what happens!” as he and his moral support starting walking back to the gray apartment building.

This man has not spoken two words to me in the two plus years that I have lived in my house. It is too bad that our first meeting was on bad terms. To prevent further escalation, I called the Amsterdam Police who sent a patrol car over to my house. The officer listened to my story and asked if I knew the men. All I knew was that they lived in the apartment house, didn’t even know their names. He stated there was nothing he could do, that the veiled threat was not enough to call for any charges. Then one of the two men stepped out of the apartment building and talked with the Officer while gesturing toward my house for about five minutes after which the Officer drove off.

Your Rights as a Photographer
You have the right to photograph anyone, adults or children, or anything as long as you are not violating anyone’s right to privacy. This right to privacy is defined as any area you would normally be free to remove your clothes or engage in intimate activities in a private area. In New York State, personal images are protected in part by NYS Civil Rights Law Article 5:

§ 50. Right of privacy. A person, firm or corporation that uses for advertising purposes, or for the purposes of trade, the name, portrait or picture of any living person without having first obtained the written consent of such person, or if a minor of his or her parent or guardian, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

So if you take photos of a kid playing baseball, you can’t sell or use the image as advertising without written consent from the parent or guardian. You can sell an image of the entire team playing, as long as exclusive rights have not been given to a specific photographer. You are free to use all these images for story telling or not for profit purposes.

And yes, you can shoot on private property if it is open to the public. That includes malls, retails stores, Starbucks, banks, and office-building lobbies. If you’re asked to stop and refuse, you run the risk of being charged with trespassing, but your pictures are yours. No one can legally take your camera or your memory card without a court order.

You can also shoot in subways and at airports.  Airport security is regulated by the Transportation Security Administration, and it’s quite clear: Photography is A-OK at any commercial airport in the United States as long as you’re in an area open to the public.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Here is a downloadable version of The Photographer’s Right.

Aftermath
I’m not going to stop taking pictures of my neighborhood. My street is dominated by rental units owned by absentee landlords. There are many code violations which I report on a regular basis using photographic evidence. There is also drug activity reported. The neighborhood can only improve with time as people become aware of what is acceptable behavior according to the standards set by State and Local Ordinance.

Example: 

Ordinance  232-1, 232-4 Maintenance or repair of motor vehicles in residential areas.

The Common Council of the City of Amsterdam hereby finds that the storage or presence of abandoned, junked or inoperative motor vehicles or the repair of motor vehicles on private property, except at a duly licensed repair shop or vehicle dealership, creates a public and private nuisance and is harmful to the public health, safety and welfare. Such vehicles present a source of serious injury, particularly to children, seriously harm the aesthetic qualities of the City and tend to depreciate the value of properties in the neighborhoods of the City. The Common Council finds that the problem can be diminished by permitting the storage and/or repair of such vehicles only within a garage or other enclosed structure and only under the restrictions as set forth in this chapter. 

It shall be unlawful for any person to perform automotive repair or maintenance on any motor vehicle in an area zoned for detached single-family or multifamily dwelling units in the City, except under the following condition: Any person may perform automobile maintenance or repair work on a currently licensed motor vehicle titled in his name or in the name of a member of his immediate family, provided that such work shall be done on the premises of his residence; and provided, further, that such work shall not be performed in violation of any other City ordinance.

Parking lot auto repair shop.

Multiple code violations and wheelchair taken from closed Park Hill Adult Home.

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9 thoughts on “A Photographer’s Right

  1. Diane

    Gerry,

    Unfortunate situation which means they are maybe afraid of being caught doing something they are not supposed to. Have you tried to contact the property owner about the auto repair?? He can have the lot posted.

    It would be nice if the police were more responsive in regards to the unregistered cars and illegal auto repair being done all over the city. If the new cheif is reading this blog, maybe he can start sending the officers out to ck out these autos and get them gone, if in fact they are illegally sitting. It will do 2 things, make more room in the streets, and driveways and lets the officers do neighborhood drive thrus for which the residents will feel like the officers are out there more. Greg how about it??

    • Diane,

      It really has to be a combined effort with Codes and Police. While the Police can address the illegal auto repair shop that has been going on for months, the trailer and unregistered vehicles, the rest is up to codes. I sent a copy of the last photo to both departments on May 13th. Since then, the unregistered red vehicle is gone and the wheelchair races have stopped, but with both Park Hill Adult Home closed and inactivity at the Buddhist Temple, there are a lot of kids playing behind both buildings. There was even a break in and squatters living in the Park Hill Home!

      • Diane

        Gerry,

        I hate to think of anything happening in the Park Hill Home. It is a beautiful building. Is it on the market yet? Is the property secured??

        • There are no for sale signs on it and the owners closed the business because of financial problems, so it may be a while before it gets liquidated. It has an alarm system because it was activated a couple of weeks ago at 2:30am, but it looks like a window is partly open. There is no one taking care of the property as the one manicured lawns are now overgrown.

        • 11:40pm 30 May 2011, two firetrucks and two patrol cars just left the closed Park Hill Adult Home after another apparent false alarm. It looks like they searched the building for about 10 minutes and left empty-handed.

  2. Rob

    I think the writer is missing a simple point. Just as some people don’t like opinions or statements of others, some people just don’t like their picture taken. That is something that should be respected. Not just the writers rights, opinions, feelings and thoughts on this matter count.

    I truely hope that you take the threats seriously and not as idol words spoken. We have both professionally interacted with people who are doing life in prison for less.

    Also, this police officer failed to do his duty in my opinion. If he said there was nothing he could do I think he just did not feel like your situation was enough for him to personally address. At the very least I believe he should have asked you if you wanted to swear out a statement of complaint to begin the proper legal documentation of this matter.

    Be safe and thank you for your past service to our country.

    • Rob,
      The point is that I have a right to take these photos, none of which were of the person who threatened me. There is right and wrong way to approach someone and respectfully request something. To come to my home and accuse me of committing an illegal act and then threaten me is definitely the wrong way.

      I agree that the perpetrator could have been charged with 2nd degree harassment, but the responding Officer did not see it that way.

  3. robert purtell

    While working for banks, one of the requirements that they have in my reports is that I have street scenes or neighborhood scenes, I have on several occaisions been stopped by the locals and threatened with my safety, I have had one guy come out of his home witha shotgun ( in the country). I have had people follow me back to my office andthreten me, although it is legal for me to take my pictures, I now am very careful about when and how I take pictures. I also no longer take pictures that have anyone in them. I end up taking pictures very early in the morning when the native are sleeping.

  4. Rob M.

    Rob, while the guy in Jerry’s scenario may not like his picture taken, there really is nothing he can do about it.

    You may or may not recall a few years ago a scenario in Schenectady where a photographer was taking pictures of the Stockade and its homes and a few other places along Erie Boulevard. He happened to snap a picture of the adult shop as a man was leaving and the man tried to sue him. I don’t remember if it hit the courts or not, but the complaint was dismissed on the simple grounds that if the man did not want to be photographed before entering or after leaving an adult shop, then he shouldn’t have been entering or leaving the adult shop.

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