Stand up for Your Rights- It’s NOT a Crime to be a Photographer

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


A police officer keeps the line as a crowd grows during the Democratic National Convention.

I just read the most outrageous blog about New York City street photographer Mason Resnick being harassed by a police officer. Here’s the link: Street Photography is Not a Crime

It’s not that Resnick was questioned by a police officer while he was in the process of photography, it was because he let the officer do something that was a total violation of his Fourth Amendment rights: He let the officer go through his images.

That in and of itself pisses me off more than the officer questioning him. In my opinion, Resnick gave the officer an authority he had no legitimate right to. He gave the officer the right to search his person with out probable or due cause.

What’s to say the officer saw one of the images and didn’t like it. Not for it’s aesthetic reasons, but for the content of the image? This would give the officer the premise to arrest the photographer although no crime as been committed.

In this case, Resnick states the officer said “I got several complaints. I was following you for several blocks. There are a lot of school groups here today, lots of children.”

Now with that in mind, let’s say the officer saw an image he didn’t like. Let’s say it is of an image of a little girl sitting on the curb eating an ice cream cone. Combine the complaints with the image and you have a tiny case for arrest. Granted, there would be no merit to the arrest, but that is an arrest I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to go through. Even though it may be an unsubstantiated arrest, the damage has been done and a reputation may have irreparably destroyed.

Many professional organizations such as the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies fight for photographer’s rights through court actions and advocating for our rights through the Legislative Branch.

Here is an interesting read on how the NPPA protested how the Transportation Security Administration used a photographer in one of their posters: TSA poster.

Recently the Department of Homeland Security released a statement saying it is O.K. to photograph Federal buildings. This action is the result of a lawsuit against the DHS initiated by photographer Antonio Musumeci, 29, of Edgewater, N.J. He was arrested and one of his cards seized while photographer the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in New York City. He, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the DHS.

In the settlement, the courts agreed it was within his rights to photograph the building. This led to a statement by the DHS to allow the photography of Federal Buildings. Here’s the link to the actual settlement: Federal Courthouse Photography Settlement

The New York Times ran a story on its photography blog: Lens: You Can Photograph That Federal Building

In the article, NPPA General Counsel Mickey Osterreicher quoted as saying “”I just find it absurd to have limits on people taking pictures. It’s a protected, free speech activity.”

In addition, many newspapers and magazines have fought for their photographer’s rights when a staff photographer has been arrested or their images/film have been seized. If the police attempt to subpoena their images, the publications fight the subpoena by having it quashed.

As a photojournalist who has worked for newspapers for the past 15 years, I have been harassed several times by police while at crime scenes and breaking news events. Even when I was only a student studying photojournalism at Western Kentucky University I was questioned by police.

Rachel and Shane Smith grieve as their apartment burns. I was being pushed back by an officer who said I had no right to be there and that I was bothering them. To this day, I still don't know how the officer knew I was bothering them, if I even was.

During my time in college, I was a staff photographer at the Bowling Green (Ky.) Daily News. During a fire at the State Street United Methodist Church, I was pushed back by a police officer and told to stand on a particular street corner and not move so I can stay out of the way. I simply stated what I was doing and reiterated my right to be there. He didn’t care and went back to controlling the growing crowd.

My photo editor Joe Imel showed up and asked what I was doing. I explained and he said for me to stay there. The fire continued to grow destroying the 1846 church. After a few minutes I left the spot and just went about shooting. I captured a poignant moment of the pastor hugging another church member as the two watched in vain.

I did learn to remain calm when having discussions with police. They respect you more. They also listen and learn about who you are and what your job is. And sometimes, ironically, become your friend and when you need particular access, can get you that access.

In another instance while covering an apartment fire, I was photographing a couple as they leaned on the back of a police cruiser watching the fire consume their apartment. As I was shooting, an officer began pushing me back saying I had no right to be there. My eye was at the viewfinder when the woman turned around. I shot two more frames and captured her anguish.

The best way to fight against the police or other federal authorities wanting to view your images or seize your film and cards is to educate yourself. Portland, Ore., attorney Bert P. Krages, II, has a great printable card for photographer’s stating their rights. It is helpful to carry this card when confronted by police. Here’s the link: The Photographer’s Rights

The key is education. And the education flows up, or what is known as “up-training.” But the first critical step is educating yourself. My suggestion is to read and study about your rights. There are plenty of online resources for you to educate yourself.

If you are not a member of a professional photography organization, join one. The cards these organizations give you will help to show the officer you are a professional that is practicing your craft. With the NPPA you can get a press credential that helps identify you as a working photographer. One of the big benefits of these organizations is that you have access to numerous educational tools to help you better understand your rights.

Some items you should carry that will let the officer know you are a professional:

1. Your Business card

2. Your professional affiliation membership card

3. Copies of the Photographer’s rights card

4. A state issued I.D. card or U.S. Passport

5. Phone numbers for attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union

When confronted:

1. Remain calm

2. State your purpose and hand them I.D. with your membership card, business card, and the Photographer’s Rights printout.

3. Stay calm yet press your rights. You have a right to photograph from a public place.

4. If requested, you don’t have to show images, nor hand over any film. They do not have the right.

5. If they continue, you have a right to request the Sergeant in Charge (duty sergeant) to come.

They key is not to give in. The police are only doing their jobs and you are doing yours. If they request you to leave, then leave. Now you have the time to call an attorney and file a complaint against the police department.

I was asked once by and friend who is an Aspen Police Officer if I had a choice to either hand over my camera or be arrested, what would I do. I said “get a jail cell ready.” Again, I educated myself on my rights and keep up with the current news of what’s going with our rights. We do have a First Amendment which protects our rights to photograph in public places. It falls under the “Free Press” clause. The Fourth Amendment protects us from illegal search and seizure, and the 14th Amendment extends those right under the “Due Process” clause.

We are the only ones who will fight for our rights. If we don’t, no one else will. And our rights and liberties are worth fighting for. Ask anyone who is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Here are a few helpful links:

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Protection from Illegal Search & Seizure

New York Times Photo Blog: Lens

Photographers Rights Card


  1. wonderful blog !! leaves you not only with alot to think about but with the education of my rights as a photographer . as you know i was myself confronted in Denver a few months back and stood my ground and i was very glad i did .. thank you for writing this and sharing your research and knowledge with other photogs. i know being new to the biz if it wasn’t for what you taught me i wouldn’t have known to stand my ground the way i did.. kudos !! and thank you


    1. Thank you Raven.

      One of the things I failed to mention is that when photographers do get arrested, it’s not for taking photos, its some other charge. Usually the charges are baseless as the arresting officer can not arrest you for taking photos. So they arrest you for other things such as disturbing the peace, unlawful assembly, disobeying a police officer, or what ever can be charged.

      All these times it’s because of ignorance by the arresting official.

      If we don’t stand up for our right, no one else will and we end up losing them.

      Thanks again Raven.


  2. I find this whole issue very disturbing on another level. If I were a pervert or a terrorist would I stand out in the open with a large SLR and a big 70-200 zoom attached to it? I doubt it, with all of the micro cameras out there. Once again, we are looking for the keys under the streetlamp because the light is better, instead of where we actually lost them. We will never learn.
    Great post by the way. There is a lot of great information here.


    1. Paul!

      Very great point. I’ve asked that myself. If I were a terrorist working recon on a target, would I want to stand out by carrying expensive gear? Or would I do quick shots with my cell phone and send them right away? It would make more sense to do that, then erase the images after sending. Why risk the attention and possible harassment of police with “big gear?”

      It’s sad our wonderful CIA and FBI can’t think along these lines.


  3. I’m taking my clue from Penn Gillette and have started carrying a copy of The Bill of Rights around with me. That way, if confronted by TSA, cops or whomever, I hand them the copy and say, “Here, take my rights.”
    Good post, Pablo!


    1. George! Happy Thanksgiving! How’s the pow?

      I agree. I’d like to do that and when the TSA wants to pat me down, I’ll hold it up & ask if they want it. If they say yes, I’ll respond with “You’ll have to fight me for them because I ain’t giving them up.” I’ll be arrested as a terrorist.

      Anywho, thanks for the comments. Very much appreciated. Now go hit the powder and eat some turkey.


  4. Interesting…

    While I have no trouble with the idea of photographing events as they happen, or of photographing public places (without actually interfering with events,) what is your opinion on paparazzi and such? I don’t care how “public” a figure is – to me, that doesn’t excuse being beset by photogs simply hoping to get a shot of you doing something embarassing.

    Nor does it excuse using a “long lense” to shoot across a beach or over a wall.

    Yes, these people are famous. Yes, they have become “public figures.”

    However, how many cases of celebrities coming unstitched do you think could be traced directly to being mobbed and set upon by people simply looking for the next “hundred-thousand-dollar-snap?” That sort of scrutiny is enough to drive anyone nuts.

    Crime scenes, disasters, public events – I’ve no trouble with those being documented for posterity and edification – click away! I also think that police departments in general are overstepping their authority, but that’s fodder for another discussion.

    However, there are some of the tabloid photogs who are overstepping THEIR bounds, and I’d like to know what you think of them. Wouldn’t being set upon by paparazzi be a violation of personal privacy, even in a “public area” (where you still have a reasonable expectation of being able to move about unimpeded and without – hopefully – being surrounded by irritants?)

    I’d like to know your thoughts on it, as a photographer yourself.

    As far as the TSA goes, don’t even get me started there. All of this “security theatre” doesn’t do anything to make me feel any safer – I hate going to airports, courthouses, federal buildings, or anywhere else they have this mock security going on. I’m half tempted to start going about in a loincloth or a kilt and sandals (I need a pocket to keep my wallet in,) so I can just lift it up when they want to search me…


    1. Hey 5-90! How’s everything in California? Hope all is well. Thanks for reading.

      First and foremost, I hate paparrazi. I believe they are a very intrusive, rude, and a disrespectful lot. I studied photojournalism and earned my BA from Western Kentucky University’s photojournalism program. One of the most highly respected programs in the country. Very strong on journalistic ethics, from shooting, to editing, to publishing. Again, I hate the so-called paparazzi douchebags.

      As you know, I lived in Aspen, Colo., and was the Chief Photographer at The Aspen Times for over seven years and only have one celebrity under my belt. I didn’t even know she was a celebrity. I just saw a cute blond holding her puppy in her fur coat while it was snowing and began taking photos. When I introduced myself and asked her name, it took everything to hold my composure. It was Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element) . She was actually quite happy and very cooperative.

      I also freelanced for Getty Images Entertainment and took assignments for PR events that had the celebrities as guests. I have a nice photo of Sarah Jessica Parker and Molly Shannon squealing over photos of their babies. It was awesome. Met Drew Carey and he introduced me to his girlfriend Elizabeth. He’s such a regular guy.

      During my time, I covered several events where the police were called to escort the paparazzi off the premises, clear the sidewalks, and get them out of the street. One time, they gathered on the sidewalk at The Elks Building blocking it. Heidi Klum and Seal were shopping at Amen Wardy. Nobody to get through the paparazzi as they tried to shoot through the windows.

      The police came and escorted them off the sidewalks and across the street. Reporter Charles Agar and I went to the fiasco and as I was taking photos of the paparazzi being talked to by the cops, one said the most hypocritical thing to me: “You better not put a photo of me in the paper.” Here’s the link to the story:

      For those that like to shoot over fences, from behind trees, sneak onto public property then sneak off, I think they need to find a real job. And I especially hate it when they call themselves photojournalists. They’re as much of a photojournalist as my 2-year-old niece with a phone camera.

      They may be within the law and within their rights, but personal ethics and respect should kick in at some point and say something to the effect: Is this really important? Am I serving the public good by pursuing this person? Is this really newsworthy?

      Even the courts say that public figures have some expectation of privacy. In Galella v. Onassis (1973), the court of appeals ruled “Of course legitimate countervailing social needs may warrant some intrusion despite an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy and freedom from harassment.” This basically gave the green light for intrusion.

      So in short, I hate paprazzi and think the lot of them are nothing but low-life douchebags. Well, most.

      My new name for the TSA is the Tyrannical States of America. Another set of rights stripping dickheads.

      ps: I live in Seattle now. And since moving here, my Jeep took a turn for the worse and began burning major amounts of oil. So I had to remove the cat (so clogged I couldn’t go 60 in I-5) and need to find a rebuilt one for cheap.


      1. Having read the linked case (Galella v. Onassis, 487 F. 2d 986 (1973),) I find myself agreeing with His Honour Timbers (dissenting) – particularly with respect to the specious modification (downward) of the “exclusion area” around Onassis and the Kennedy children.

        While we know that the First Amendment protects a “free press,” it is also well-known that the First Amendment is not absolute protection – the tired “You can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theatre” is a prime example of this. The First Amendment does not protect speech meant to cause harm (and, by extension, actions intended to cause harm,) it merely protects things like dissent with policies and coverage of the actions of government where these actions can and should be known (a government must keep secrets to function. That’s just the way it is. However, discretion should be used to decide exactly what to keep secret at any given time – Wikileaks has gone too far. Some discretion in the actions of media is required – and paparazzi have none.)

        SHIFTING GEARS: Other names for TSA –
        – Thousands Standing Around
        – Total Sexual Assault
        – Terrorists Screening America

        I’d stopped flying because the seats were getting too damned small (I’m not fat – just large. 6’3″, 270#, and a 38″ waistline isn’t “fat”…) and because Airport Insecurity was getting stupid – TSA pushed it all over the edge. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that TSA told me I was “grossly overqualified” back in 2002…


  5. Interesting. I’d always wondered what an honest photojournalist would say about paparazzi – now I know! Sounds about like the same thing I’d say…

    (Frankly, I think if you’re going to shove a camera in my face, I should be allowed to do my level best to stick it up your nose in return. Don’t want that to happen? Don’t stick it in my face!

    (As far as trying to long-lense me over a wall, I have “long lenses” on my rifles, and plenty of long-range shooting experience. I doubt you can get out of range of me while trying to take a picture…)

    Yep – there are a few cases where I think battery should be justifiable, and this is one of them.

    Methinks that society is done a disservice by having assault & battery made illegal as a blanket policy. Face it – there are just some people who NEED to be whacked in the head from time to time…

    Side note (didn’t realise who I was talking to…) sorry to hear about your rig. I figure it’s one of two potential causes for your trouble – either the oil control rings are shot, or the valve guide seals are shot. Try adding a seal conditioner additive to your engine oil and see if that slows consumption any – if it does, the seals have gotten hard and want replacing. The 6-242 valve guide seals are, as I recal, “umbrella” type seals and can be replaced without removing the head if you have an “air chuck” to keep the valves from dropping in the cylinder once you’ve removed the springs.

    SJC is about as decent as it gets – if you’ve been following me on any of the fori, you know what sort of things my wife and I have been dealing with for the last year…


  6. Your blog is informative and extremely helpful. Great dialogue and insight into the fact that very few emerging photographers understand their rights, although, the flip side of this coin includes the rights of others as in the case of the paparazzi; a point well noted.


    1. Hi Anne,

      Thanks for stopping by to read.

      You are correct that the flip side to any rights or liberties are the unscrupulous few who use them to gain what they need. But in a truly free and democratic society, you can not chose who has these rights and who doesn’t. It must be a blanket right in that all citizens have the right to photograph on the street. And in the courts, it has been proven time and again that citizens have the right to photograph anything visible from a public place.

      In the case of Galella v. Onassis, 487 F. 2d 986 (1973), it is a personal suit brought on by Jackie Onassis against photographer Ron Galella and only affected his access to the former first lady. It was a restraining order against Galella that kept him from getting a certain distance. Other photographers were able to get much closer.

      But the key point was that the courts could not limit photographer’s right and their access when photographing from a public place. And the general knowledge is that “any person in a public place has no expectation of privacy.”


  7. Paul,

    This is invaluable information to say the least. I just printed out two copies of the Photographer’s rights to put into each of my bags. I have several friends that are fire-arms enthusiasts and they essentially have the same rules, stay calm, be educated in what you are standing up for.


    1. Thanks Colby.

      Most photographer’s just assume they know their rights, but the reality is that they just parrot what they’ve heard.

      I keep up with what going on concerning photographer’s rights through the NPPA and the ASMP.

      It’s better to be educated than not.


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