Even when you know you don't need permission to shoot, it doesn't hurt to make sure. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who has been documenting Ground Zero since 9/11, went so far as to get a permission letter from the police commissioner's office authorizing him to shoot throughout New York City. He's working on a city-sponsored photo project and wanted to avoid the inevitable hassle with police. "There's a surveillance of infrastructure," he says. "That I would need to get an authorization letter up front says a lot about how photography is viewed now."
Interviews with professionals and amateurs who have been accosted while taking pictures reveal two approaches that may help you out. But first, make sure you're right. There are many quick-reference guides to photographers' rights on the web. Study the FAQs at www.copyright.gov and Bert Krages' "The Photographer's Right" at www.krages.com. Keep printouts in your camera bag.
Ounce-of-Prevention approach: You're less noticeable without a tripod, but sometimes they're necessary. Jonathan Smith, who has been stopped many times by police officers, says, "At night, I've wised up. I keep one eye out for the cop car at all times, and wait until he's gone. Be as polite as possible, don't challenge them, and shoot after they go away."
Don't-Tread-On-Me approach: If you're the defiant type, keep your head, get the officers' names, and, right afterward, write a strictly factual account of the events. You may need it if you go to court, and police claim you're lying. Freelancer Steve Malik of San Francisco tried this approach in February 2005, when two fare inspectors confronted him for shooting at a San Francisco Municipal Railway station. In a letter demanding an apology, Malik wrote that they told him it was illegal to take pictures at underground stations since 9/11, and if he didn't stop he'd be cited. After challenging what he viewed as an abuse of authority, he was asked for ID and taken into an office. When the police arrived, no one could find a law to cite him under, but he was detained for an hour. Officials sent him a written apology, which Malik posted online.
Possible Trouble Spots
From terrorism to trademarks, there are plenty of reasons why security may try to stop you.
Sears Tower. In late February, security saw three men get out of a car and start taking pictures of Chicago's 110-story cloud-topper. The guards questioned the men and took down their license plate number. The car turned out to be rented under a false name, leading to an investigation by the Joint Terrorism Task Force, according to the Chicago Tribune . Now's a bad time for photos.
New York subways. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's official policy does allow photography, despite a recent attempt to change the rules. But you're still likely to draw unwanted attention from the public and the police if you break out a camera and start clicking away. Tripods are expressly forbidden.
The Flatiron Building. Photographers have been led to believe this beloved New York building is copy- righted. It isn't. But the current owners are touchy about how pictures are used.
The Hollywood Sign. This is trademarked by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. It donates a portion of licensing fees to the Hollywood Sign Trust, which maintains the huge landmark.
The "Lightning Field" artwork. Sculptor Walter De Maria's gigantic grid of 400 polished steel poles on a high plateau three hours southwest of Albuquerque is strictly off-limits to photography. The work is copyrighted, but the photo restriction is only enforceable because the Dia Art Foundation owns the surrounding land, making it virtually impossible to see from a public place. Private property owners can set their own rules about on-site photography.
The san diego zoo. No, the animals aren't copyrighted. But as at many venues, an entry ticket is considered a license. Printed in red on the back: "...visitor agrees not to commercially use any photography or reproduction in any form taken during any visits to the park." Similar restrictions apply at Colonial Williamsburg, Sea World, Busch Gardens, and Hearst Castle.