Having fun shooting art reflected in downtown buildings. Getting pissed off being harassed by the petty functionaries of the oligarchy.

Photographer and downtown reflected in giant windows.

It's been too long since I just put the office computer to sleep and headed downtown to take a walk and see what's new. After I retouched some portraits this morning and got a bid on getting the house painted I grabbed the favorite camera of the last few weeks (the Nikon D610 and Tamron 20-40mm) and escaped from the clutches of responsibility. I always tell myself that I'm walking to exercise my body, my mind and my eyes and that it's not important even to bring the camera to my eye. The camera is just coming along for the ride. It's there in case I see something that desperately needs to be photographed. By me. 

There was lots of context floating around downtown just not a lot of new, visual content. I was on the return leg of my usual loop when I came back to a big set of windows on a building called the Colorado Tower that I had first photographed earlier in the year. I can't see through the windows with the bright daylight outside and, frankly, I really don't want to. I use the windows a a giant, multi-dimensional reflector that shows everything around me and behind me as I shoot into it. I like the confluence of the blue sky, a green tinted wall somewhere off to the right and the repeating vertical lines. I snapped a sequence of handheld shots and then ambled off to the opposite corner of the intersection to see what the building would look shot at the widest setting of my lens.

That's about the time the happy photo buzz I was enjoying got blindsided by the idea that the wealthy in America enjoy special privileges and can interfere with our joyous rights to freedom of expression and the freedom to take photographs on the streets (indeed, any public place) with impunity. A tall, wide man in an ill-fitting black suit ventured out of the building I was photographing into the 100(f) degree temperatures and
made his way to where I was standing, across the intersection from the building he serves.

In all honesty his manner was not very confrontational but when he started asking questions I immediately suggested that, if he thought I was doing anything illegal, he should immediately call the Austin Police Department and we could have them settle the issue. He stated that he didn't want to get confrontational and didn't need to call the police but that "some people in the building might be concerned if I photographed the building and he wanted to....." I stopped him right there and told him I owed him no explanation and was finished talking to him. If he wanted to escalate he should immediately call the police or I would call the police and file a complaint for harassment. I turned and walked away a few feet and then continued to photograph the building. He shrugged his shoulders and lumbered back to his air conditioned lobby. 

While I appreciate that he didn't become confrontational or really escalate his attempted intimidation I walked on trying to grapple with why I felt so angry and frustrated by the exchange. I finally decided that the thing that set me off was the implication that property owners have some special dispensation when it comes to interfering with the constitutional rights of other citizens. That their emotional comfort in their relative anonymity superseded the rights of the general public. That, and the fact that any confrontation while trying to work and make art blunts the process and interrupts the flow you work hard to create.

The paranoid and privileged control freaks in our culture shouldn't build buildings that are visible from public spaces if they don't want their edifices immortalized by a Sony sensor... We need to always push back and stand up for our rights......if we want to keep them. Knuckling under to intimidation just encourages them to continue hacking away at our freedoms.

The antidote to the feeling of freedom when pursuing your art.


Raymond Charette said...

I'm from Canada. We are usually a more docile people. The predictable canadian response would be: «I'm sorry» or «Excuse me» and to walk away with camera lowered.

However, I applaud your response, based on your rights! «If I'm doing something wrong, call the police. If I'm not, f*** off!» Oops!

A number of years ago, a street photographer in Montréal, was fined because he photographed and published (in a small magazine, circulation about 1000) a picture of a young woman standing in a doorway, without her knowledge or permission. The woman sued for damages and won on the basis that : «her friends laughed at her» when they saw the picture. She invoqued her right to privacy and to her own image under the canadian Charter of Rights (somewhat akin to the american constitution). When I explain the case to my students, they are dumfounded. Some get angry. Happily teenagers are somewhat rebellious.

Congrats, Mr Tuck. And thanks for the example.

Next time someone approaches me, trying to prevent me from taking a picture, I will respond as you did.

Eric Rose said...

Ah to bad it's not a building owned by "The Donald". After getting bullied by the rent-a-cop you would have been descended upon by a herd of news outlets. Ya just can't win for loosing.

Noons said...

Well said. I follow exactly the same approach:
"Want to follow-up on it, call the police now.
Otherwise, I shall do so!"
Simple, and so far I have not had to do it.
I actually wrote to an Australian federal minister a few years ago and got back a reply that said what I suspected: there is no way the police or anyone else can stop us from taking photos in public of public buildings, events or places.
I now carry his printed answer in my camera bag. Amazing what it can do!...

MyVintageCameras said...

I've had similar experiences in Downtown Denver. Usually by the time they see me, I've already taken the photo that I want. I now mostly go with groups to distribute the harassment. It does take some of the fun out of street photography though.

James Pilcher said...

The situation you encountered will only become more common, Kirk.

We have passed the tipping point and not only will this type of harassment increase, but the situations will inevitably become increasingly more confrontational as individual rights erode. Those who wish to control you will be emboldened. You are the interloper, the guy in the ill-fitting uniform is "just doing his job." With whom do you think the police are going to side if they are called in? At the very least, you will be asked to move on. If you refuse, you might suffer being detained for interfering with a police officer. See how that works? Making an innocent photograph has turned into interfering with a police officer! Very sad. You might win in court, but I don't think going to court is your purpose when you step out the door with a camera.

James Pilcher said...

Oh, and now you have some proof that someone does indeed read your non-gear blogs!

Kirk Tuck said...

Here is my lawyer approved method for incidents like this: Know your rights and never give in to non-public security people. Immediately default to: "Stop harassing me. If you think I'm breaking the law call 911 and we'll let the police sort this out. In the meantime move away from me." If police do arrive my approved strategy is complete compliance with anything they say, in the moment. Be sure to get badge numbers and names and take it up with the police department ombudsman or supervise after the fact. Never do anything with the police that may route you to jail. Not ever worth it.

Rene said...


This came up with thew Boston Police a few years back (unfortunately not all that uncommon) and went to federal court on 1st amendment grounds. The photographer won $170,000 and an important change in Boston Police Policy, However, it did take about four and a half years for justice to be served. More importantly the case was an important ruling on 1st amendment rights with national implications.

Here's the link:


Tom Devlin said...

I like the first shot. Nice lines and color. Good stuff.

Nigel said...

Sadly, not quite so clear cut in Europe:


Ron White said...

Kirk - I had an experience in Denver, CO last year. There are two 30+ story buildings that share a plaza.
I was in the Plaza, shooting upwards when I was approached by a private security agent. He politely informed me that the plaza is private property and that the owner/management did not allow photography without prior approval. He then told me that if I moved about 30 feet towards the street I would be on public property and could take whatever photographs I wished. I thanked him for his professional, firmly polite, response and complied.

TBan said...

Good on you, Kirk. Bert Krages is an attorney in Portland, Oregon who has a "Photographer's Rights" pdf available for free download here: http://www.krages.com/ThePhotographersRight.pdf

If you're shooting in the USA, it's not a bad idea to keep a copy in your bag.

Anonymous said...

Kirk - Good for you. We need more people to stand up for their rights. I also like your wise advise to comply with what the police say. A trip to jail is not worth it.


Willie Jackson said...


Check out the PINAC Site if you want to see this type of paranoid behavior gone wild. For some odd reason a camera is a major threat to many with Law Enforcement types leading the pack way too often.

Anonymous said...

Situations like that are partly responsible for my switch to the micro four thirds format. When I went out with my Nikon gear I got mistaken for a pro and was told I could not sell pictures of their event or building (which I had no plans of doing). No one seems to care much about my EM-5.

Robert Roaldi said...

The culture is working against you. Every cop show, every war movie, every security/spy thriller ever made is about a lone hero, who ignores every law ever made, to "do the right thing". People imitate movie hairstyles and name their kids after character in soap operas, so it's no surprise that every under-trained police officer or surrogate thinks he's Brice Willis saving America, damn the actual laws. You don't need to have an actual police state, all you need to do is convince everyone that they need one. I am not optimistic for the future, we're privatizing everything, even politics. But hey, don't worry, the free market will fix it.

Anonymous said...

Really Kirk, unfortunately you don't need a camera. Today in many instances a person simply standing, looking and enjoying can be construed as suspicious.

Max Rottersman said...

Nothing upsets and depresses me more than someone asking me not to take a photograph. Or asking me "what I'm doing" when I'm taking a photograph. I want to get a baseball bat and beat them up. This is the root of their feeling too. What loss does anyone incur in having a photograph taken? I don't "enjoy" having my photograph taken either, if I'm honest. However, I always try to be generous in situations where someone is getting some pleasure, in whatever they do. Everyone's image is taken thousands of times a day in every store, park, intersection they enter. The security guard in a booth can as easily masturbate to that as any photo taken on the street by a photography nut. Why do people spend $100,000 on home improvements and landscaping and yet can't believe anyone would want a photograph of their beauty? Why are most people petty and distrusting, despite knowing full well that they couldn't find that photograph you took of them on the Internet if their life depended on it?

Genocide in their eyes. That's what I see as a photographer. Young men, old ladies, security guards. The possessiveness and violence ooze out of our pores when much photography happens (me included). The connection between the security guard exerting his power and clan-ishness over a photographer is no different than the men who rounded up Jews during the Holocaust, or lately in many parts of Africa and the Middle East. No one outright kills anyone, everyone just nudges the victim into the place, inch by inch, until the killing is nothing more than depersonalized mechanical act

I do photography to find beauty, to connect with people. Unfortunately, that connection has a dark, dark side. People are mean, cruel and violent--even when it's really nothing to them.

BruceA said...

I had a similar experience photographing a Goldman Sachs building in lower Manhattan. In this case, however, a uniformed NYC police officer (obviously off duty, and being paid as a security guard) stopped me and told me that "they" did not like to have the building photographed. Huh? Even though I had a copy with me of NYPD Operations Order 14 about not bothering people taking photographs on the street, I walked away. Not worth the aggravation.

In another incident, I was photographing through an open gate of a NYC sewage treatment plant (really interesting and colorful plumbing) when a rent-a-cop came out and told me I couldn't photograph. I told him to go away and stop bothering me, since he had no right to tell me what to do out on a public street through an open gate. I got my shots and as I was walking away, he ordered me to stop while he called the police. I responded to him in graphic New Yorker terms and kept walking.

By the way, I also carry a copy of Krages' document, just in case.

And the NYPD document is here:


Corwin Black said...

Terrorists win when they succeed in spreading terror and thus fear in hearts of everyone.

Murray McMaster said...

Kirk, you responded well. The only thing I would have done differently would be to take his photo. I might not have been as polite as you either. The legality of photographing public things from public places is well established in US and Canadian law, the test being reasonable expectation of privacy.
Science fiction writer David Brin has been writing about watching the watchmen via photo & video counter surveillance (sousveillance) for a couple of decades now. http://davidbrin.blogspot.ca/2011/06/sousveillance-new-era-for-police.html?m=1

amolitor said...

Quite apart from the legalities of the situation (which are, in general, clear albeit often not as widely known as they ought to be) I find the debate interesting.

Photographers almost universally line up behind the "I have a right to take pictures, the pictures are mine, and there's no stopping me". Usually they have the law on their side, and when they don't, they are angry with the law.

But consider, photography is an appropriative act. We "take" a picture, don't we? It is almost universally felt that when someone photographs you, they are, in some strange way, taking something. Not that you, the subject, are losing anything, but the photographer is nonetheless taking something -- the photographer winds up with something that you feel is, to a degree, yours. You feel it, I feel it, we all feel it, unless we're quite unusual people. It's not a rational thing at all. It behooves us to be sensitive to that, I feel.

The situation is even murkier with buildings and other works of man, but the feeling is still there, that something is taken the ownership of which is, morally, not entirely distinct. Did not the architect contribute? Even the window washers played their part.

I have heard that the fact that photographs enjoy copyright at all, and that it is the photographer who owns that copyright, are more or less historical accidents. It was not perfectly clear that photographs ought to enjoy copyright protection at all, and if they did, it was more or less a coin toss that it went to the photographer.

All that said, of course, the legal situation is clear, and nobody like being hassled by a rent-a-cop who's wrong.

Anonymous said...

Since it has been referred to, you might be interested in reading more about the Aubry v. Edition Vice-Versa case. Aubry being the woman in the photograph published without her consent in Montreal.

First the judgment itself:

A legal opinion:

Jim Simmons said...

It sounds like you said, "I am not the photographer you are looking for," and the storm trooper said "OK" and then walked away. Well done, Obi Wan, the force is strong in you.

Several years ago, having recently arrived in New Zealand from the US, I was hired to photograph some historical buildings on the NZ government grounds adjacent to parliament. I was armed with a letter from my sponsor, fully expecting that my massive Gitzo series 5 tripod and 4x5 gear in a rolling case and massive shoulder bag would attract some storm trooper attention, but no, nada. One security guard came around a corner, saw me, and decided to take a smoke break in the doorway of a nearby building and simply watch me while I worked. I waved at him, he nodded back, and I spent my 15 or 30 minutes doing my work, observed, but not harassed. The whole affair felt very appropriate. I was actually glad that someone was paying attention to security, but also that he was assuming that I had a right to be doing what I was doing.

C Jay said...

Right on dude, you almost took one of the most epic selfies ever!

Thing is, you're right of course. You just don't have to be so pretentious.

Kirk Tuck said...

C Jay, "pretentious." ???? WTF?

FM said...

This makes me so sad and so mad. A few weeks ago I picked up a package (rental lens) from the post office. I open the box in my car and mount the lens, standing in the parking lot taking a few pix of the post office.

Next thing I know a lady from across the street ( 4 lanes with a median!) is standing on her front steps yelling at me wanting to know why I am photographing her house! I politely tell her that I am not photographing her house even though it is in my field of view when photographing the post office. Pretty soon she has her sons (20-something's) shouting threats at me if I don't "stop taking pictures of their house". I tell them to call the cops or I will. It slows them down. (They did have 4 lanes of traffic to cross...). I got in my car so pissed off.

In retrospect I'm thinking I should have hit send on my 911 ( I was starting to feel in danger of a physical assault) call and had the cops advise them on their right to harass me.

Paul Glover said...

This kind of situation saddens and angers me and makes me more than a little wary of anyone who approaches me for *any* reason while I'm photographing, even though I haven't really had direct experiences like this myself...yet. Funny how people freak out about someone with a camera on public property, yet will willingly post the mundane details of what they do, when and where they do it, onto the wide Internet and into the care of giant companies with a known track record of privacy violation. Go figure.

I've had a handful of people ask why I'm photographing something, not out of concern that I'm doing it but because they simply couldn't understand why anyone would even bother. All art is subjective, evidently!

One person who stopped and asked why I was photographing their property (from a public road) was concerned because they're having a dispute with a neighbor. Once I explained that I was merely trying to get a photo of a scene which I found appealing, they relaxed and moved along.

The most tense-to-not-at-all-tense moment however, involved a campus police officer at VMI. I was trying to figure out an angle on the main building when I noted the cruiser pull up and stop just to my left. "Oh great", I figured, "wonder how this encounter is going to pan out?". Turned out he had stopped so as not to interfere with my photographic endeavors by driving into my shot! Ended up just chatting with the guy for several minutes about the history of the place.

Chris Dematté said...

Such things can happen everywhere. A few month ago i was taking pictures of one of this Stalin Sugarcake buildings in Moscow (which is ironically now named "Raddison Royal Hotel") when one of the countless security guards approached me. We solved it the Russian way: I had to make one step to the left and was on public ground...

Henry said...

I lived a few years in Vancouver, BC. While walking in Stanley Park one day there were about 15-20 local artists who had set up under trees and were selling their paintings. Each one had 6-12 paintings set up and they were using up quite a large space. There were many people around looking at the paintings. I was standing back a bit with my 2mp digicam (this was about 2001) and took a wide angle shot of pretty much the whole thing. I hardly had time to lower the camera when one of the "artists" ran over to me quite irate. He was berating me for taking a photo that "might" have included some of his artwork. He then demanded I delete it immediately. I brought it up on the rear screen so he could see that it wasn't a close-up of one of his paintings. There were lots of people in the photo with lots of paintings and since this was 2mp probably no painting was using more than 20-50 pixels across or something like that. You couldn't even make out any detail at all in any of the paintings. That did not satisfy him. He was talking loudly and making a public scene so people were turning to look at us. What a jerk. Trust me, Canada, just like any other country, has their share of aggressive, obnoxious idiots. No more, but no less than other places, I would say. :-)

theaterculture said...

Regarding the Aubry case, that ruling is specific to Quebec and refers to the Quebec Charter of Rights, not the Federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Moreover, in that case the Supreme Court of Canada found that it was the publication of the image without consent, rather than the capturing of the image, that violated Aubry's rights.

There's a long history in French civil law, and by historical consequence in that of Quebec, of giving individuals greater rights to exercise some control the publication of images of themselves than is the case in most Common Law nations, even if the images were legally made and the image itself is the work and thus the copyright of someone else. In Common Law nations and provinces, on the other hand, we tend not to draw this line until the image in question is recognizably using the person to endorse a product or viewpoint without consent. This is a question of slightly different cultural interpretation of the principle of privacy in public, not a sign of the kind of would-be-thuggery Kirk is talking about here.

typingtalker said...

I wonder if the petty functionary tries to prevent picture taking using a phone.

Anonymous said...

We have just had a petition in Britain posted to the EU as they proposed copywriting buildings so one could not photograph them. The massive petition stopped them . My son has been stopped by security three times in Olympic park to ask what he is photographing. None of this compares to Hungary where allegedly you must not photograph a street without getting permission of people in it. What I wonder would Capa make of such a law. Why i wonder in my old age has the world gone mad.