Photography in Public Places – Your Rights as a Photographer

Well, it finally happened. I had read about it time-and-time again (in magazines and all over the web), but had been fortunate to have never experienced it first hand – until last Sunday, that is…. What am I referring to? Being approached in public and told I was not allowed to take photos.Last Sunday, I decided to spend some time in Downtown Toronto updating my portfolio of the city. I spent quite a bit of time in the Financial District shooting various buildings at both ground level and upward. Late in the afternoon when shooting one of the bank buildings from the sidewalk, I was approached by a security guard and told to stop taking pictures. When I asked why, he tried to tell me that I was on private property and that photography was not allowed. I challenged the fact that I was on the sidewalk of one of Toronto’s main downtown PUBLIC thoroughfares and that photography in public is allowed. He again tried to tell me that I was on private property, that I was not welcome there, and to immediately stop taking photos and cross the street. I again challenged the ‘public’ nature of the Toronto sidewalk on which we were standing, and he gave me a ‘warning’ that if I didn’t leave immediately he would escalate the issue (whatever that meant). At that point I walked away – not because of any wrongdoing on my part, but I didn’t want the situation to escalate any further.

So, I’m sure you want to know what building this happened at. Well, I’m not going to tell you (just yet). I decided to contact building, property, and security management of the building in question and challenge my experience. As I have yet to hear back from “The Building”, I will keep the location nameless for the time being.

So, was I legally entitled to take photos of the building in question? Absolutely. There are no laws in Canada or Ontario preventing photography in any public area. Based on my research, the only limitations are if an individual’s privacy is compromised (see below for more on this), if there is a legitimate security risk associated with the photos (eg. military installations), or the act of taking the photos would interfere with public interest (eg. shooting firefighters battling a fire and getting in their way in the process).

A web search for ‘photographer’s rights’ will return countless resources on the subject. From my research, some of the better resources are:

For photographers in the United States, The Photographer’s Right info card by Bert P. Krages (Attorney), and for us Canadians, Photography Laws at Ambient Light are great resources.

The bottom line is, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms secures one’s right to take photos in public, falling under the Fundamental “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication”. This includes photos of people – where that becomes an issue is if a photo where people are recognizable is used for commercial purposes – in this case, a model release (authorization to use the image) is required. But, simply taking a public photo of people is not a problem, unless privacy is compromised. But, privacy is relative to the specific location and situation, and is limited to a ‘reasonable expectation’ of the individual’s privacy. If someone is walking down Yonge Street in Toronto, they are in a very public space and cannot reasonably expect to be ‘private’ in that environment. A public bathroom, doctor’s office, store change room, or the like, on the other hand, all do have some level of ‘expected privacy’. A photograph taken in these situations could constitute a violation of an individual’s privacy and therefore not be permitted.

So, what about private property? In general, photography on private property (eg. shopping mall, office building, etc.) IS permitted unless specifically notified otherwise. In the case of my experience last Sunday, had I been inside the building in question, or within the building’s ‘private property’ (eg. entry steps, courtyard, garden, etc.) the guard, as a representative of the property owners, would have been entitled to ask me to refrain from taking pictures and to leave. Failure to comply could be considered trespassing, and then you are no longer within the law. You cannot, however, be demanded to delete or hand over any photos already taken. As a photographer, once a photo is taken it is your property and that ownership is protected by law.

And what about “The Building” at the heart of my experience? Well, I’m hopeful (if not overly optimistic) that I’ll receive any response to my inquiry. Should that happen, I’ll be sure to give details of their response. I may decide to blow their cover depending on their response (or lack thereof), but in the meantime I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Will I stop photographing in public places? Absolutely not. Will I never photograph the building in question again? On the contrary – I plan to. And who knows…. Depending on the response (or lack thereof) from “The Building”, and feedback I may receive on the issue from other photographers, a group gathering and photographing of the building may be warranted….. Wouldn’t they love to have dozens (or hundreds) of people lined up taking photos of their building at once? It would of course all be from PUBLIC property, and a completely legal and peaceful demonstration of photographer’s rights.

So, don’t be afraid to get out there and shoot what you want, where you want. If you are approached and challenged, be polite and professional. Clearly state your legal rights, and that you are doing nothing wrong. Judge the situation and use some common sense.

Have you been approached, questioned, or harassed while taking pictures in public? You’re not alone, and unfortunately it’s becoming an all too frequent occurrence. Feel free to post a comment with your experience!

About David Wood

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