Do you have the right NOT to be photographed?

A while back, there was an online video from Weekly Imogen that essentially asks the question:  “Would you delete a photograph if someone asked you to, or would you stand your ground?”

Aside from bored security guards, I’ve not personally dealt with much protest over photos. I experienced an amusing situation at Lake Ozarks while lakeside shooting fireworks: a boat docked in my shot and a drunken woman exited. She came all the way over to my position (well off-path over rocks) and slurred out a request to go back later and delete any photos she was in. I humored her and told her I would (I didn’t, and it wasn’t necessary…she wouldn’t have shown up in long exposure shots). And off she stumbled to likely resume her group’s evening bender.

I’ve personally known others who’ve received more hostility behind the camera. One photographer caught the wrath of a flock of angry women when he snapped a candid shot of a child playing in a public fountain. A security guard literally stalked members of my photo club outside his jurisdiction over a building photo taken from the public sidewalk. At the public space of Grand Basin in Forest Park, a practicing fire dancing troop threw a hissy fit over nearby DSLRs…completely ignoring the plethora of camera phones from curious onlookers.

Why do a number of people have such aversion to photography? More specifically, do they have the right to not be photographed in the first place? 

The fear of photography

The dislike of candid photos can stem from the simplest of reasons: some folks just don’t like having their photo taken. My mother was exactly this way.

Others are simply drama queens. Social media is dangerous with imaginations run amok, proven when an Australian woman slandered a man online for taking photos at a shopping mall near children. When the man caught wind of this and went to the police to clear things up, it turned out he was actually snapping a selfie with a Darth Vader cutout to send to his kids.

21st century paranoia has greatly exacerbated the illusion of the world around us. Things changed after 9/11, and now we live in a hyper-connected world where stories of creeps, rapists and terrorists of the world are popularly shared on social media, painting a picture of a world that’s more unsafe than it really is.

Not to say that there aren’t individuals out there with improper intent. Campaigns to address creep photographers includes the “Ask First” sticker campaign which calls for consent at public events of a sexual nature, though the campaign has clashed with the legal right to photograph in public. I’ve heard similar PSAs before (especially at Burning Man) that equate taking a photo without permission the same as stealing. There was also Homeland Security’s “Know the Signs of Terrorism Related Activity” campaign, which warned about prolonged photography in areas including facilities and infrastructure.  

While well-meaning, I’m concerned these kinds of campaigns are slippery slopes inadvertently perpetuating two incorrect beliefs: 1.) that permission needs to be granted to being photographed in public, and 2.) furthers the paranoia that anyone with a camera and tripod are potentially up to no good.

The right to be photographed

So let’s return to the original question: does a person have the right NOT to be photographed? And does the photographer have to comply with deleting photos if asked?

Before I answer that, know that certain laws can vary based on your country, providence or state…I’m not a lawyer, check local laws appropriate for your situation, yada yada. The following also assumes photos are for personal or artistic purposes: using one’s likeness for commercial work without permission is a whole other can of worms. Got it? Good, let’s continue.

Generally in the United States, people are protected from photography in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. Taking photos in public restrooms, showers, changing areas or through the window of your home are unquestionably no-nos. Photography on private property accessible to the public (like shopping malls) is mostly okay, but you can be asked to leave or be removed from the grounds if deemed a bother.

In areas completely open to the public like parks and city streets, there is absolutely NO reasonable expectation of privacy. Aside from the types of exceptions noted above, a photographer has the right to photograph anything and anyone that is visible.

So can you ask a photographer to delete a photo they’ve taken? Sure you can…but they are under no legal obligation to oblige. Cameras, film and memory cards cannot be seized (even by the police) without a court order, and those who attempt to do so may suffer charges of theft.

Rights versus better judgment

So huzzah, the law is on the side of shutterbugs in public. But I will also say that sometimes just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean it’s the always best idea that you SHOULD. In some situations, deleting photos on request is sometimes in the best interests of everyone involved.

I need not explain why it’s a bad idea be seen pointing a huge lens at a children’s playground without announcing yourself. You also likely shouldn’t try explaining personal rights and law to a violent brute ready to break you and your expensive camera.

I think photographers need to ask themselves how far they’re willing to go if they are confronted about their activities. I’ve seen some argue that photographers caving to these requests are willingly giving up their rights. To a certain extent, I agree…a misinformed public won’t be reminded otherwise.

At the same time, I don’t think photographers are obligated to protect anyone else’s rights to begin with. Everyone should choose how to best deal with the situation as they see fit, strictly in the interests of personal time, courtesy, aggravation or personal safety.

The true phantom menace

As for those who remain camera shy in public, I would point out that maybe photographers covertly capturing your likeness without permission isn’t the thing we should be most concerned about today.

In most people’s pocket lies an invasive piece of technology that not only records media, but can instantly share them out to the world with automatic facial recognition and tagging. (If that isn’t the sheer poster child of non-consent, I don’t know what is.) CCTVs are in more places than we think, and there is always a new piece of technology out there just waiting to listen to whatever we say.

If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, then go ask your Alexa.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.