‘I love the people I photograph. I mean, they’re my friends. I’ve never met most of them, or I don’t know them at all, yet through my images, I live with them.’
Bruce Gilden – street photographer.
Street photography has long been a respected art form, but it has become mired in controversy in recent years. Despite – or perhaps because of – the ubiquity of cameras in modern life, many people are increasingly uncomfortable with being photographed, especially without their consent. But where does that leave the street photographer? And what does the law say?
In this post, we’ll explore some of the legal issues around street photography and how photographers worldwide can stay on the right side of the law.
Street photography is a powerful form of documentary photography that has been around since the early days of picture-making. There is no definition of street photography set in stone – it doesn’t have to happen in the street – but it usually involves photographing people in public places, sometimes without their knowledge or permission. In most cases, taking pictures of people in the street is legal, but there are important factors to be aware of.
Although many of us are more used to being photographed and filmed than ever, we have also become more aware of how our images are used. Increasing surveillance is also viewed with suspicion by many, and street photographers, unfortunately, often bear the brunt of that suspicion. Add to that a few high-profile bad apples – perpetrators of ‘upskirting’, for example – and the climate around taking pictures of people in the street has become somewhat hostile.
Many people don’t understand the laws around street photography, and this leads to problems. Photographers might be too scared to practice their craft, and people in the street might have unrealistic expectations of their rights. The best situation is one where everyone understands and respects the rights of everyone else.
Street photography is a vital part of the social record. It’s crucial to be able to document situations, places and events without fear. Photographers must balance their rights with those of their subjects, and show reasonable respect. What’s OK is not always an easy call, and the laws around this subject can be vague, unhelpful or downright stifling.
That depends on where you are. In most parts of the world, the situation is pretty simple, on the surface at least:
Taking pictures of people in public places without consent is legal in many places. However, there are caveats. Where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy – in public toilets and changing rooms, for example – it is not allowed. A good rule of thumb is, if it’s visible from a public space, it’s legal to photograph – but be respectful of the right to privacy of all subjects. There is generally no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place.
Things get more complicated when you want to publish a photo. In some countries, such as Mexico, it’s legal to take pictures of people in public without consent but illegal to publish them. It’s important to note that in some countries, such as Spain, Switzerland and Brazil, photographers must obtain consent before taking photos of people in public – whether they want to publish the photo or not.
Yes, it does. In most places where it is legal to take photos of people in public without their consent, that only applies to photography for non-commercial purposes. That means photography for personal use, journalistic purposes, or in the name of art.
Note that selling a photo itself does not make it a commercial photo. Grey areas exist around social media and blogs – if you’re using a photo on a website or social media account that is used to sell or promote anything, it’s best to get permission from all the people in the photo.
Some social media platforms, such as Twitter, have their own rules about consent. It’s always best to check the legal situation before publishing.
There are regional variations to the laws around taking photos of people in the street. In much of Asia, the US, Australia and New Zealand, and parts of Europe such as Greece, Bulgaria and Slovenia, it’s legal to take photos of people in public and publish them non-commercially. In other parts of the world, including most of Europe, it’s fine to take photos in public places without consent, but it’s not legal to publish them. Other places, such as Spain, Switzerland and Brazil, require consent to be obtained before taking pictures in public.
If you want to use street photos commercially, pretty much anywhere in the world, you’ll need consent from the subject(s). As with all aspects of photography law, the rules change often – so always check the situation before you get snapping for a pretty comprehensive guide to what is allowed where, check this WikiCommons page.
Many countries have exceptions to the legal provisions for photographing people in public or private areas, usually prohibiting harassment or misrepresentation. These laws are constantly developing and subject to change, so always check before relying on them.
There are some places where it is usually not allowed to take photos. These include:
Note that photography is allowed in these areas in some cases, but permission must be granted by the relevant authority.
The photographer owns the copyright to any photo that they take. If you legally take a photo of someone in the street, that photo belongs to you. Sometimes people think that if they are the subject of a photo, they have the right to it. This is simply not the case – the photographer always retains the copyright unless they sell the rights to the picture.
If someone is using your photos illegally, you have options. You can search out each case and attempt to challenge them yourself, or you can engage a service like PhotoClaim. PhotoClaim does the legwork for you – finding instances of your photos being used illegally and connecting you with experienced lawyers who will lead you to receive the compensation you are owed.