On Photography and Rights
Conditions of Entry -- Kyoto, Japan -- Copyright 2008 Jeffrey Eric Francis Friedl
Nikon D200 + Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 26 mm — 1/400 sec, f/5, ISO 400 — map & image datanearby photos
Conditions of Entry

When I went to the Heian Shrine yesterday morning during the brief spell of amazing snowfall, it was with the intention to enter their gardens to take pictures, as I did during a snowfall two years ago. Most of my pictures from the Heian Shrine, such as yesterday's, or of the intense burn, or the Setsubun events, are from the large areas of the Shrine that are open to the public without cost. There are other areas, including a large and beautiful garden that costs 600 yen (about US $6) to enter.

Unfortunately, it wasn't yet open when I was there so I couldn't go in, but while looking for a sign indicting their hours, I noticed the sign above (with the closed entrance to the gardens in the background).

The bottom sign lists things you can't do in the gardens: smoking outside the designated smoking areas, bringing in food or drink, hunting fish, foul, or clams, or picking flowers or felling trees.

The top sign says that a permit is required to use a tripod or monopod, and that they are available for 2,000 yen (about US $20); enquire at the entrance.

If you read the open forums at Digital Photography Review and elsewhere, you'll find that some people get very angry with such restrictions; they feel they should be able to take pictures anywhere they want, in any way they want (or, at least, in any way that they themselves feel is reasonable). They're offended and indignant when, for example, a mall security guard enforces the “no photography” policy that's stated at all the mall entrances.

On the other side of the spectrum, you'll find people who feel photography should be much more restricted, and that it's wrong for a stranger, for example, to photograph children in a park.

Much of the angst that both camps feel is likely related to their ignorance of the applicable laws, so they're surprised when they unknowingly run against it. In America, at least, a private landowner can set pretty much whatever conditions they want for entry to their land. Just as the owner of a house can set conditions for your being in his living room, the owners of a mall (or sporting venue or a restaurant or hotel....) can set conditions for your being there. I don't know that it would make much sense for a mall (or a shinto shrine) to stipulate “photography allowed only while wearing red socks”, but I believe they should have the right to do so if they wish. It's their land.

In the case of the shrine and the $20 fee, a knee-jerk reaction would claim “it's just another revenue stream!” but again, it's their land. Sure, it's a revenue stream. So what? It's their right. I understand the need for permits, because it's a tangible way for them to restrict the number of obstructions (tripod/monopod-using photographers) during busy times. They may have found that people poking these things in the ground has increased their maintenance costs, and so picked a $20 fee to cover it. Or, it may just be another way to line their pocketbook. It's their land...don't enter if you don't agree to the conditions.

On the other side, a lot of Americans are surprised to find that if it's visible from public land, it's generally legal to photograph. There are a few exceptions related to child pornography, but pretty much anything else is legal, including a stranger taking photographs of your child at the park, or of you picking your nose in rush-hour traffic. In America, there are no “expectations of privacy” in public.

I do believe that what should be legal is a valid subject for debate (unlike some militant photographers, I don't feel that photography in public is an unalienable, basic human right). Some countries do have restrictions on public photography, such as making it illegal to photograph someone at “embarrassing times” (e.g. picking their nose). But a debate about what should be legal is different than what is legal, and a lot of people's anger seems to stem from ignorance of the latter.

Of course, on either side of either debate, the old adage “having the right doesn't make it right” certainly holds.

As for myself, I maintain my right to look like an idiot, chasing after my kid with my camera shutter on rapidfire.

All 4 comments so far, oldest first...

One interesting exception to the American “anything goes” policy is that you can’t take a picture of someone through their house’s window, even if you’re on public property. Apparently courts have ruled people have an expectation of privacy while in their homes.

I’ve heard various stories related to this, usually hinging on whether the view was clear from public or not. Jamming the lens up to a crack in the curtains, or holding the camera up over your head to get a view over a fence are different than taking a picture of a row of buildings that happens to include people visible behind wide-open windows. Google’s “street view” map-related service had images of people in their homes, via windows that were left wide open, for example. I don’t know the law that would be applied in each case, but for myself, hopefully my common sense (and common decency) happens to lie within those legal bounds. I’m no paparazzi, that’s for sure. —Jeffrey

— comment by Ben Pharr on February 20th, 2008 at 12:41am JST (9 years, 10 months ago) comment permalink

I completely agree. Most people’s “moral compass” will keep them within legal bounds. That’s true for more than just photography.

— comment by Ben Pharr on February 20th, 2008 at 2:09am JST (9 years, 10 months ago) comment permalink

I see both sides of this. Of course we all have our own ethics about taking pictures. That line is different for everyone. For instance, I would gladly fire away at strangers walking around luxury shops, etc and publish them online with no consent; but I hate “artists” using the homeless to evoke sympathy and make “interesting” portraits, so I never shoot homeless or disadvantaged people. And it’s obvious to most people you shouldn’t shoot women’s dressing rooms or hide cameras in showers.

However, I do strongly support “militant” photographers when it comes to security guards and concerned soccer moms in the States enforcing laws that do not exist. For instance, I’ve been personally told that I can’t take pictures inside DC’s Metro rail system. Not only is that not true, it’s clearly stated in Metro’s policy documents that photography is allowed. I’ve gotten the same flak from security guards at the World Bank, who told me I can’t shoot their building from the sidewalk, even from across the street, standing in a public park. We all know there is no law against this. I can’t tell you how frustrated that makes me!

On the other hand, some photographers do take it too far and attempt to resist or be rude to others in the process of defending their values.

It’s important not to be too much on either side. Both privacy and freedom are important.

— comment by Jon Van Dalen on February 24th, 2008 at 1:56am JST (9 years, 10 months ago) comment permalink

Interesting subject. My father is a professional photographer, and I grew up taking cameras and photography for granted anywhere and everywhere – or so it seemed to me. (I suspect Anthony must have the same impression. 😉 In general it saddens me when I see “No Photography signs”. (No flash photography I can totally understand.) In the case of museums and such it immediately lessens my interest level – especially here in Japan where I like to snap the descriptions to study later at home.

The worst case I’ve had of being told not to take pictures was actually at the city hall here in Akita. My wife and I were filling in and submitting our marriage license, with her mother and my father as witnesses, and my father taking pictures as we did it. We got some great shots from this, including one of us holding the form just before we submitted it, on which you can actually read the whole form. Shortly after that (and by which time my father had taken about 50 shots, over a period of at least 15 minutes) one of the office workers told us to stop taking pictures. We were a bit taken aback – don’t most people want pictures of their marriage? I’m just glad that the guy waited until we had pretty much all we wanted before laying down the law.

— comment by Thorf on October 30th, 2008 at 1:08am JST (9 years, 2 months ago) comment permalink
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