Rights and Respect in photography

Today, I stumbled across an article on Found Photography, titled ‘Your rights as a photographer‘. At first, I was intrigued, thinking that it would have something to do about copyright.

Instead, it turned out to be about photographing Amish people, who, according to the article, "The Amish don’t like to be photographed because it might cause them to be tempted by pride". The article then finishes with some tips about your rights, if you come across Amish people in public places, and what your rights are regarding photographing them.

This reminded me of a different discussion I had a while ago, which regarded photographing people who didn’t want to be, also for religious reasons: Some Native tribes, for example, believe that a photograph of them means you steal their soul. It would, therefore, be less than wise to photograph them.  

The rights, as described in the article, are as follows:

1. Almost anything you can see you can photograph. If you can see it, you can take a picture of it. If you are standing on public property you can photograph anything you like, including private property. It is important to realize that taking a picture is different than publishing a photo, which leads to point number two.

2. As long as you are not invading someone’s privacy, you can publish their photo without permission. You can take someone’s picture in any public setting and publish it without consequence (even if it portrays the person in a negative way) as long as the photo isn’t “highly offensive to a reasonable person” and “is not of legitimate concern to the public.” You can even publish photos if you took them on private property. While you may be punished for being on private property, there is no legal reason why you can’t publish the photo from prison!

3. As long as you aren’t using someone’s likeness for a purely commercial purpose, you have the right to publish the photo. You can use your photos of other people without their permission for an artistic or news purpose, but you can’t use them for a commercial purpose (such as an ad). You could sell a photo of a person without their permission, but you couldn’t use the photo in an ad saying the person endorses your product.

Whilst this is all correct, and really important to keep in mind, there is a different consideration to keep in mind, which brings me to the point of this article...

Respect in Photography

As a photographer, I have experienced feeling that I have touched people in a ways I wish hadn’t. An accidental invasion of privacy, so to speak, which made me feel as if I had commited the rudest form of sexual harassment – without even being aware of it.

In photography, One day, you can take a photograph of someone who is not wearing any clothes, but it will be okay. The next day, you can take a picture of someone who is fully dressed, even if you don’t see their face, and it is the worst of possibly imaginable sin. What is okay in one situation can be wrong in another.

The legal aspect

Many countries in Europe have added the European Convention on Human Rights as part of their set of laws. This convention has something that is devastating to privacy, called Section 10.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include to receive and impart information without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” In practice, this is roughly the same as the 1st Amendment in the American Bill of Rights – the freedom to expression.

The conclusion drawn from the 1st amendment and Section 10 is that you can always take pictures. Even on private property, you have the right to photograph anything you can see.

Despite of something being legal, it doesn’t mean that you should, though.

The moral aspect

Several minority cultures believe that taking a picture is the same as stealing somebodys soul. Taking a picture of a member of such a culture is inexcusable. Upon having taken the picture – as far as they are concerned – it is too late.

If you, as a photographer – especially as a professional photographer – make the mistake of taking a picture of a member of such a minority group, you have fucked up beyond forgivenness. Call it a breach of professional conduct, or a kick to the shins of common sense.

Other times, however, you meet people of whom you really couldn’t have known their aversion to photography. I have experienced taking a picture of a couple looking wonderfully in love. When they realised I took the picture, the male half of the couple came over and asked me for the film. Apparantly he was married, and didn’t want me to publish the picture. What was I to do? I decided to promise him to not use the image, and deleted it off my camera. Not a legal choice - a moral one.

In the grand scheme of things, I haven’t been a photographer for all that long. Situations like that will arise again, I am sure. And I am certain that modesty, along with a dose of appropriateness, will get me through those situations.

I have a few friends who work as wartime photographers. In the job, they see some of the most horrible things known to man. The pictures in the newspapers are the mild versions of some of the pictures I have seen people come back with. And the pictures never go outside their photo albums. Why? Because some things don’t need to be shown.

A man far wiser than me said to me once: "These things are not secret, but they are sacred, and should not be taken lightly".

I know of no respected photographer who didn’t have respect for the subjects s/he photographs. And – even if you aren’t the best photographer in the world – showing respect will get you the respect you need to get a good start in the lion’s den that is Photography.