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Article: Avoiding Arrest & Your DSLR

Posted 10/23/08 by

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My 5 year old daughter came home from Kindergarten today with a letter from the school to all parents. Apparently a photographer was spotted by staff, with a tripod and camera, and when he observed school staff watching him, he promptly packed up his gear and left.

The school called the police, notified the school district, nearby schools, and pretty much everyone else short of the National Guard.

It is unclear from the carefully worded letter if the photographer was on school property or not, it sounds like he wasn't. There is a heavily wooded area next to the school with plenty of wildlife. It's also unclear whether or not he was taking pictures of the children, or if the camera was pointing into the wooded area. The letter simply states staff observed him with a camera on a tripod, and he quickly left when he saw staff watching him.

I am a huge proponent of Photographers rights. But I also care a tremendous amount about my children's safety. An increasingly paranoid public is treating as suspicious, and in some instances criminal, photographers who are pursuing their hobby or job without actually breaking any laws, often just because they have a large DSLR camera that looks out of place. I find this particularly ironic, since just about every cell phone now has a built-in camera, and pocket-sized P&S cameras that are easy to conceal sell by the tens of millions. Surely if someone is going to do something untoward, if they have two brain cells to rub together they are going to use something they can conceal and rapidly retreat with. However not everyone has two brain cells to rub together.

Indeed Texas is a potentially dangerous State for photographers anyway, since thanks to the Improper Photography Law (see Section 21.15), taking a photograph of someone or visually recording them without the person's consent, and with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person could land the photographer in jail for two years, and then have them register as a felony sex offender. One hopes common sense prevails, but the example often raised here, is what if you were taking pictures at a Dallas Cowboys game and you got a picture of the cheerleaders? With a complaint and the wrong jury could this picture land you in jail?

In the school incident above, the school did exactly the right thing. Their priority is to protect the children, as it should be, and it is the job of the police to investigate the motives of, and take the appropriate action with the individual in question. Packing up and taking off only adds to the suspicion. Maybe due to lack of foresight he suddenly realized he was doing something that might seem suspicious, and got out of there so he wouldn't have to spend hours justifying himself to law enforcement.

Maybe he was doing something he shouldn't have been, I hope not. If he was doing something untoward, I hope they catch him, and quickly.

If he was doing something innocent like taking wildlife pictures, then there are lessons here for us all. As a photographer, you have to act responsibly, be very aware of your environment, and be prepared to navigate the legal minefield of rights to privacy, homeland security and so forth.

It's vital the photographer is aware of their surroundings. Not just from physical dangers (like getting too close to the edge of a cliff or to a buffalo trying to get the shot), but being aware if you are doing something that might be deemed suspicious. Anything around kids is going to be suspicious. Taking pictures in, around, or even near government facilities, nuclear power plants, oil refineries, airports or even other infrastructure like dams or bridges can be seen as suspicious, and you can expect people to call the police on you even though you are doing nothing wrong.

If you are at a known tourist location, then you are most likely going to be okay. But if you are taking pictures of an oil refinery at sunrise, get permission first. Call the refinery; try to talk to their property management and/or security. Call the local police (not 911, call the non emergency number). Explain that you're a photographer currently taking pictures for your portfolio/web site/whatever of oil refineries, and ask if it's okay or if there would be any problems with you setting up a tripod outside their location on such a date. Showing a professional looking website often helps. Make a note of exactly whom you spoke to and when. This will not stop someone calling security or police reporting you as suspicious, but when they do show up, you can explain who you spoke to and when. Hopefully they can quickly verify this, and it should be sufficient to get you out of potential trouble fairly quickly. If you can get something in writing ahead of time, that's even better.

Common sense and a little planning go a long way.

Back to the school example again, if this photographer was simply taking wildlife shots, he must have known he was near the school. A quick call to the school ahead of time to let them know he was taking pictures on property next to theirs would have saved him a lot of hassle, having the police look for him, not to mention the hundreds of concerned parents who just got this letter tonight. You don't want to be that guy.

Maybe he was doing something he shouldn't have been, in which case I hope they catch him fast, and he gets what's coming.

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