Tuesday, April 28, 2009
If I take your picture on the street, do you have the right to hit me?
Untitled, Powell Street, San Francisco, October 2007.
This homeless person was either having a bad day or had a very sharp bone to pick with authority figures. Whatever it was, he was taking a major dump on one of San Francisco's Finest. As he circled and taunted the cop, spewing gibberish at full spit, I snapped away from the sidelines. At one point, he screamed directly at the officer's ear, with no more than an inch separating their faces. (I missed the shot.) The cop remained remarkably stoic throughout his ordeal and didn't utter a single word to his raving tormentor. After the homeless man moved on, the policeman approached me. "The next time you take a picture of a police officer," he said, "ask for permission." I was dumbstruck. The man was just cursed at and spat on by a lunatic, in his ear, and he let all that slide, but he was annoyed that I took his picture.
The question of street photographers' rights, which is discussed here, lies at the heart of this incident. Did I really need to ask the officer's permission? US legislation says no, but even that fact gives no comfort. How can an amateur photographer arm himself with the law in the face of a very annoyed subject? Or worse, a very annoyed cop? He can't. He simply apologizes, or as I have done before, say "I wasn't taking your picture, you were actually in the way of my shot."
Other countries like the UK or Australia have adopted photographer bill of rights. UK photographer Stephen Griff, who photographs the night life in his native Leeds, carries a copy of the document whenever he shoots his nocturnal revelers, just in case. Fortunately, he and his fellow Leeds photographer, Lloyd Spencer, have such easygoing styles that their subjects are just too happy to mug in front of their cameras.
When my daughter was in fourth grade, I volunteered to design the newsletter of her English class. I was photographing children in the school yard for the newsletter when I saw an after-school teacher rushing in panic towards me. With both hands on her hips and speaking in her best Miss Hannigan voice, she said: "Why are you taking pictures of my kids?" As I was explaining my purpose to her, my daughter arrived. Convinced that I was a legitimate school parent after all, the teacher calmed down, headed back to her classroom, but threw one last suspicious look in my direction. It was only then that I realized the full meaning of her insinuating tone, and I felt the blood rush to my head. Although it reassured me to know that teachers in my daughter's school cared for the safety of their wards, the incident gave me pause. That evening, I looked at myself in the mirror just to check if I really looked like a creep.