Avoid Being Hassled By The Cops While Shooting Pictures

Shortly after 9/11 I was working with a small crew shooting an advertisement for Microsoft Mobile on a street corner in downtown Seattle directly across from the Federal Building. Within minutes of breaking out a couple large reflectors and clicking away a few frames, two armed officers came over and shut down our operation saying “you can’t photograph federal buildings”. I assured them the building was not the subject of the image. Nonetheless they shut us down. And in the many years since 9/11, we’ve of course seen and heard numerous incidents/reports/cases of cops unjustly and illegally harassing photographers for similar stuff.

Although this approach was systematically the standard for almost a decade, that treatment was officially laid to rest between August and October 2010 with a settlement between the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Feds that stated it was okay to photograph Federal Courthouse buildings. TODAY however, the NYTimes Lens Blog reports that the NYCLU has received a redacted and updated version of the directive that was sent to all law enforcement agencies nationwide indicating that it is officially legit to photograph ANY AND ALL exteriors of federal buildings from “publicly accessible spaces such as streets, sidewalks, parks and plazas.”

I encourage you to download and print this updated version of the directive and keep it in your camera bag in case you ever get hassled.

In addition to illustrating that you can photograph buildings from public spaces, it mandates that “absent reasonable suspicion or probable cause…officers should not seize the camera or its contents, and must be cautious not to give such ‘orders’ to a photographer to erase the contents of a camera” as this constitutes and illegal seizure or detention.

Good news for us all.

[via the NYT Lens blog]

54 Responses to Avoid Being Hassled By The Cops While Shooting Pictures

  1. Taylor Perkey January 27, 2011 at 10:28 am #

    Very interesting! Good to know! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Raymond Spaddy January 27, 2011 at 10:30 am #

    Thanks Chase! This is very useful.


  3. Will Kronk January 27, 2011 at 10:30 am #

    Great post. I’ll pass this on to photograph groups that I’m a part of.

  4. Jacob F January 27, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    Hell yes!!!! Very happy to hear this!! Thanks for the heads up Chase!

  5. Capturesque January 27, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    Thanks for making this available easily. Printed and will have copies all over.

  6. Bill Pennington January 27, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    Great news, thanks for sharing Chase. Timely as well since I am shooting around some federal buildings this weekend. Downloaded, printed and stuck in my bag.

  7. gil feliciano January 27, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Where might we find state directives?

  8. Scott Broqn January 27, 2011 at 10:40 am #

    Great post Chase! I’ve never experienced it myself, but know many who have. I’ll be sure to pass it on.

  9. Mike Bourgeault January 27, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    Thanks for sharing Chase! Does anybody out there know of any links to similar resources in Canada?

  10. Erin Davenport January 27, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    Thanks Chase! :) You’re awesome.

  11. Laura Sweeney January 27, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    I did not know you could not and I went inside a VA Hospital, the largest VA hospital in St. Petersburg Florida.

    Now I was not taking any pictures of PEOPLE due to privacy yet I was taking pictures of a whole bunch of cabinets which were built by the company who hired me to shoot his work for potential clients and his website. None of the photos where of entire rooms either.

    It was not until the end of the day, that someone told me that if I got caught, they had the ability to take my camera away from me……

    This article certainly clears everything up.

    Just glad that I was able to get my job done without any hassle.

  12. Olaf January 27, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    In Germany it depends what you wear … unfortunately

    (In german, but it is easy to get the point ;)
    Locations: Brandenburg Gate, Chancellory and Reichstag

  13. Chris Giles January 27, 2011 at 11:53 am #

    Thank you for posting for posting this Chase. I’m currently photographing LEED buildings in San Diego and I’m sure one of my subjects will be a federal building or next to one. The print out is already in my bag.


  14. Matt Hunt January 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

    Hopefully the US Police do not have the equivalent characters to those in the City of London Police who, last year, demanded that people generally (but of course they were stopping people with SLRs) carry ID and stop taking pictures when told to. No legal requirement in the UK for ID and this was after a major police authority printed guidance saying photography, was, er, legal!

  15. brett wlliams January 27, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    nice one chase!

  16. Cooper Strange January 27, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

    This document only pertains to federal buildings, which I am sure are the biggest problem. My question is how much further this can be applied, whether in court or practically when you actually show it to an officer when you were photographing something besides a federal building. This might be a knife in a gun fight, but at least you would have something.

  17. Shay January 27, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    Whats the situation with photographing bridges? I was in NY on holiday in 2008, took some photographs of Manhattan from a bridge we were on in traffic (fast moving traffic, foggy day!). A cop at the toll booth saw the camera, demanded it, deleted the (blurry!) photos (after becoming very aggressive that the pics were only showing on screen for a second!) and threatened to keep the camera. We were told what we were doing “was a threat to national security and that we couldn’t take a photo from, on, or of a bridge”

  18. Jon January 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

    Now buy the T-shirt: http://photographernotaterrorist.org/

  19. Darien Chin January 27, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    About damn time. That crap was getting ridiculous.

  20. Paul January 27, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    This, of course, covers non-commercial photography only. Photographers shooting for commercial purposes would still need the permission of the building owners to both shoot and publish the images.

  21. Jon January 27, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    Thanks Chase for posting this important info… I don’t want to get over political, but it’s such a shame that as a result of 9/11 so many of our rights have been taken away by our own people. The true injustice of that day for sure.

    To think they built the federal buildings with our money and we can’t take pictures of them; absurd…

  22. Jdub January 27, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    I saved it as a PDF and sent it to iBooks on my iPhone…..always have it that way.

  23. Bob January 27, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

    It’s too bad that there are plenty of bad cops out there that are some combination of ignorant, stupid, and malicious when it comes to dealing with photographers.

  24. Joseph W Nienstedt January 27, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

    If you ever have to correct an officer on matters of the law, you better be a really smooth talker! Those folks have enough to worry about and a smug artist is the last thing they want to deal with. It’s always best to cooperate – if they ask you to leave, then just leave. You can always make a phone call to the precinct later and inform them of their mistake. Let their internal affairs people correct them, because nobody likes being told how to do their job. OTOH, if it was for a commercial shoot you would have a permit anyway, which would probably be enough to resolve the situation in a professional manner.

    • Orwell January 28, 2011 at 10:32 am #

      Don’t be a sheep. They shouldn’t have to publish a document to state the rights that we have, this is a free country. Stand up for your rights!

  25. Omar Carter January 27, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

    I needed this info for sure. Cus they always picking on us in NY

  26. Matt Timmons January 28, 2011 at 12:45 am #

    Hell yea. My client I were once detained for about half an hour by an over-zealous Homeland Security cop just for taking acting head shots in the vicinity of a Federal building. He was sure hoping he could have used his gun on someone that day, he really wanted to feel like a national hero by harassing me and scaring a 19 year-old actress.

  27. Mathieu Wauters January 28, 2011 at 5:55 am #

    Interesting news. Thanks for the update, Chase!

  28. san francisco event photographer January 28, 2011 at 7:35 am #

    Awesome news, will have to print and keep that on us as well – thanks for the update!

  29. Clay January 28, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    Good new, indeed, Chase! Thanks for keeping us “in the know.”

  30. Brian January 28, 2011 at 8:49 am #

    Chase, et al.
    I always carry this handy sheet, written and compiled by attorney Bert Krages, in my camera bag:

    Although I may start carrying this fancy lens cloth instead:

  31. Jon DeVaul January 28, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    Thanks, I also keep copies of “The Photographers Right” in my bag. I’ll add this one too. I doubt very much that terrorists would set up reflectors or have assistants standing there, or even using professional equipment…I’d be more suspicious of someone taking shots with their cell phone camera…oops, sorry :D

  32. TonyJ January 28, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    The Seattle Federal Building is such a dang beautiful structure — I love the stairs. While shooting the stairs about six months ago I was pleasantly hassled by security. And I do mean pleasantly: he simply started up a conversation, asked that I not photograph the entrances (which I wasn’t doing) and wished me well in making the images I was working on. After he left I thought, “Hey, I’ve just been hassled” but it was so smooth it only hit me later. Not all security dudes are jerks.

  33. Craig Stewart - Locations January 28, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Thanks for bringing attention to this issue. As a location scout and manager I have experienced the misplaced authority that security, property management, or even police firmly enforce as you stand there on the street with camera in hand. I inform security or property management companies, that their authority ends at their property line. As long as you are on public property or you have permission from a private vantage point, you can photograph buildings as part of a cityscape. Tourists, average citizens with a smart phone camera, a location scout, and photographers can take pictures from public property. If you are a professional photography crew, you should, of course, have a city film permit for public property. When photographing a specific building that you intend to feature, it is always advised to give notice to that building as a general policy. Information is always appreciated by the property owner and usually buys you good rapport while shooting.
    Buildings like the Space Needle are trade marked and have usage fees attached to the specific uses of the film/photograph. The Space Needle has been very cooperative and understanding by giving photographers a little creative latitude as long as the Space Needle is part of the cityscape and is not singled out and rebranded to fit someone’s advertisement or storyline. Not communicating with a building such as the Space Needle could come back to bite you or your client later if you don’t have a release. Photograph those cityscapes from the street, but also be informed about the building you are shooting.
    Thanks again Chase!

    I’ll keep a copy on my iPhone from now on…


  34. Geoff January 28, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    Chase I thought you might be interested to know that us Australian’s are having similar problems down here and it’s beginning to get way out of hand. It is now illegal to take photographs in some national parks and on some beaches without a permit (Bondi Beach comes to mind) and at Uluru you can only take photos from designated areas even though in general, landscape photographers only require a tripod which would result in zero damage to the environment.

    Hopefully we can turn this craziness around before it goes to far.

    I’ve attached a link to a video where Ken Duncan (one of Australia’s most well known landscape photographers) discusses the issue in a little more detail. (He’s not the most eloquent person going round but you’ll pick up his point).



  35. jamesd3rd January 28, 2011 at 2:51 pm #

    “absent reasonable suspicion or probable cause…officers should not seize the camera or its contents, and must be cautious not to give such ‘orders’ to a photographer to erase the contents of a camera”

    Good to know but still sounds pretty subjective to me. I mean I’ve been pulled over for DWB (Driving While Black) and was never given a single explanation. I suspect it was either because they saw my passenger (my girlfriend at the time) was white or they thought I was in the wrong neighborhood when I lived about 4 blocks from where I was pulled over.

    So if an officer has a bad night with his wife, lost a bundle on a sports bet or stubbed his toe getting out of bed, as far as he’s concerned, that’s ‘probable cause’ to hassle anyone. As a black man I’m smart enough not to argue otherwise I may never be seen or heard from again. Don’t get twisted, just because Obama is sitting in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave does not mean life on the street is necessarily different.

  36. Zorro January 28, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    the nikon lord himself (lilkiwiguy87) stated that those documents are fake and department of homeland security’s official website never addressed this.

  37. The Spaniard January 28, 2011 at 11:12 pm #

    good its nice to see peoples rights honored these day. its about time people stand up for thier rights. no matter what it sounds rediculous that we live in a world where we get hassled for doing our jobs especially taking a picture. good for you for puting this knowledge out there

  38. Jeremy Bales January 29, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    Absolutely. It’s important to know the law. Maybe you could give some insights to your followers on how to use this document when the time comes. I would avoid waving it like a flag in the face of authority.

    Regardless of who is in the right a blown photo shoot is a blown photo shoot. A night in jail is a night in jail. Nobody likes being told what their job is or isn’t

    I usually explain to police what my understanding of the law is and politely ask them to contact a supervisor for clarification. The next step would be to use this document, or NYPD Operations Order 14. It’s always a good idea to vocalize the officer’s point of view: “I understand that you’re just trying to keep everyone safe…” etc.

  39. Ben Pettit January 29, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Printed and in the camera bag. I thought about laminating it!

  40. Karl January 30, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    Looking in from the outside (from Ireland), it seems to me that the “Land of the Free” has as many ridiculous restrictions and inhibitions as many of the supposed “suppressed” cultures your authorities and/or media seem intent on building a culture of fear of.

  41. Mark Griffith January 30, 2011 at 8:32 am #

    Just so you know, this same does not apply in China. ;).


  42. Jared January 30, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    One thing i would like to have mentioned. Im a correctional specialist for the USMC. Just because the officers come out and tell you to stop shooting dosnt mean hes out to get you, or is part of a mass conspiracy. 99.99999(repeating of course)% of the time. They are a average joe who dosnt care, but has a boss above them harping on them to tell you to stop. I have many of times had to go tell people to stop snapping photos because our facility and inmates are covered under the Privacy Act of 19 something. The standard response is “Oh its not posted we cant take photos”. Well, yes and no. Other parts of the exterior it is posted, just not this section. Why, because the administration is lazy and broke and haven’t posted the signs. Sorry. Their are many levels of BS, crap, and people with egos the size of the building. Please dont hate or argue with security whos telling you to do this. Hes just trying to keep his job. Go after the people above him.

  43. logicalnot January 30, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    Thank you. I am printing the document right away!

  44. Howard Haby January 31, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    Cool. I’ve been a little paranoid as I was in the US this week. Nice to know. Thanks.

  45. Weston February 1, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    interesting, I didn’t know this. Thank you for the document.

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  47. Lucila Reynolds April 23, 2013 at 1:38 am #

    Would anyone who has been a portion with the program from the beginning mind sending me copies with the prior letters? I’m signed up now but unfortunately did not hear of this until now. Many, many many thanks in advance.


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