Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fair Questions

I used to roughly measure my productivity by the frequency of getting hassled while photographing. Cops, landlords, neighbors, angry pedestrians, tweakers, I've dealt with all of them. Which was good. I figured if I was stirring things up it meant I was sticking my nose in the properly sensitive areas. After all most things worth censoring are worth seeing.

Lately the hassle-meter has fallen off some, and it had been a few years since I'd been accosted for taking photos. I'd allowed myself to believe I was past all that. Wrong. Last Friday while shooting at the Lane County Fair, I was quietly surrounded by a small bevy of security guards in mirrored sunglasses.

You street photographers and petty criminals know the drill. Stay where you are. ID please. Get your hands out of your pockets where we can see them. What's your name? Where do you live? Who do you work for? Why are you taking photographs? What are you going to do with them?

Bubble pricked. All these questions out of nowhere. I was a bit unprepared. Why am I taking photographs? What am I going to do with them? I've spent my life trying to answer those questions. The answers are quite complicated. Should I really get into that? No, probably not. Instead I went for the direct approach.

"Yessir, Nosir, Rightawaysir. Name'sblakeandrewssir. Er, what'sthisallaboutsir?"

We saw you taking photographs of children.

Aha! The real issue surfaces.

"Yeah, I was. I take photos of whatever I see at the fair. Kids. Grownups. Rides. Stuffed animals. Is that ok?"

You can't take photos of children without permission.

"Why not?"

Who knows what you might use them for. A web site. A magazine. Something pornographic maybe? In this age you can't tell. I'm not saying you're doing all that but you understand our concern.

"I'm not sure how I could take pornographic photos at a fair."

People do all sorts of stuff with computers nowadays. Get rid of clothes, alter postures, you name it.

"Yessir, absolutely."

You know what I'd do if someone did that to my kids?

"Nosir. Whatsir?"

Let's just say there'd be trouble. You got any kids? Would you be ok with someone photographed them secretly?

"Yeah, I've got three kids. I have no problem with anyone photographing them."

Well anyway, it wasn't just that you were taking photos of kids. It was how you were doing it. You were being sneaky. When I take a photo of my own kids I make sure they know I'm doing it. I ask them to smile. If it's not my own kid, I ask the parent's permission. We saw you taking photos like this (clasps hands in front of chest), without even looking. That's not appropriate at the fair.

They'd scouted me well. I'd been shooting sometimes from the hip, apparently against fair convention. But that's how I tend to approach a busy frantic scene like a fair. When I have time to line something up I pause and look through the viewfinder. But when I see something in passing I react quickly, often before I can I stop and look. Sometimes from the hip, or more commonly the chest. I mix it up. I don't plan. Some of my best shots have come that way, along with many of my worst.

We talked a little longer while one of the cops ran my license through the bad-guy database. I noticed that they were carefully positioned on all sides of me, as if I might take off running. Then I was summarily booted from the fair, told not to return during any of the remaining days of the event. Which would have been ok considering that after the interrogation I wasn't in a mood to take any more photos that day. The problem was I'd been planning to come back on Sunday with Tab and the kids.

On Sunday morning I shaved my beard, put in contacts, donned my sunglasses, and left my ratty cap and backpack at home. I'm not sure if I looked like a different person. I know that without a camera I felt and acted like one. I walked around the fair with my kids, ate junk food, enjoyed the rides. It was the first time in a long while I'd been out without any cameras. We spent a few hours, then left without any hassle.

I don't mean to add to the pile of "street photographer accosted" stories. I know this is just a drop in the bucket. It happens all the time, and in the grand scheme of things it's pretty insignificant. Certainly it doesn't compare to a Hispanic hassled in Arizona or an Arab hassled at airport security. That's a real hassle.

But I would like to ask the question, when did it become wrong to take photographs of children? Why is that wrong? Kids are the most carefree, spontaneous, unself-conscious humans on the planet. Why is it wrong to capture that? I can think of a few reasons, from basic privacy concerns to the increasing segmentation of childhood as a special zone in life with its own special rules, to a general societal paranoia which has draped itself all over the current epoch. I think all of these reasons can be easily debated, but there has been no debate. Instead the unwritten rule is "No photographing kids, period" and don't argue about it.

The result is that the more discouraged people are from photographing kids, the less common it is, and the stranger it seems when it happens. It's a vicious circle. To paraphrase the NRA, if photographing kids is outlawed, only outlaws will photograph kids. We're basically creating a criminal class from scratch, for no clear reason. It makes me wonder if Helen Levitt or Lewis Hine or William Klein could make their photos of children in today's environment, or would they be arrested?

There's only one solution. Go out and photograph kids along with everyone else. Make it an everyday occurrence. Make it normal. Get people used to interacting with cameras. God knows they're already surrounded by them in every store and on every street corner. Shoot, shoot, shoot, people. Shoot kids. Shoot nuclear facilities. Shoot whatever the hell you want whenever you want. If you get hassled, you must be on the right track.

Addendum 8/26: Read Part two, the response, wherein I steal a page from the skaters.


Lilly said...

I think it became wrong to photograph kids when the very first internet child porn ring was busted and publicized. Then stories of pedophiles photographing kids in a park started to show up in the press and it was game over. I feel for you and sooner or later you'll probably have to face an irate parent or group of parents, which will be much worse than security guards.

K. Praslowicz said...

Sounds very similar to my incident a year ago, only add women into the mix of things which are apparently illegal to take photos of.

It is sort of getting to be at ridiculous levels, the worst being that poor guy a few years back who got arrested for taking photos of his own kids in a park.

I've sometimes wondered if printing up a special deck of business cards that says 'Child Pornographer' in place of 'Photographer' would go over well enough the drive the point to whoever asks that I think they are being ridiculous. A friend of mine once verbally told a group of college guys that he was out taking pictures of people to molest when they asked him why he was photographing. The stun was quite amazing and they didn't ask any more questions.

Anonymous said...

Blake, thanks for recounting this story in such an un-flinching way.

I hope it wont stop you going with your instincts in the future.

Shame about losing the facial hair.


plópez said...

let the children come to me ... Who said that?

yes, a photographer who is in jail.

Does anyone imagine a normal guy in front of the school saying that?

America promised us that things were better than in Spain, but not true.

I hope this does not stop you to take photos

SR said...

Interesting... I expected the same at Clark County Fair recently but I guess nobody noticed.... or too hot to care.

The issue for me was whether the Fair is public or private property (like a mall... where they can kick anyone out anytime).... so I was very selective in aiming the camera at children unless he shot had real star potential... and often after the shot I try to complement the parent on how their child was doing something that might make a good photo... usually no probs then... sometimes just a grunt and stare from them and I depart....

Michael Sebastian said...

I've endured enough low-grade harrassment over the years while photographing in public that I finally added a page to my website (, just to have a place to send my interlopers to school them on our respective rights. Most people are astonished when they discover that they have virtually no privacy rights when out in public, regardless of age.

Depending on your stomach for futher hassle, you can always explain---either or politely or not, depending on the treatment you're receiving---that it isn't illegal to photograph, and simply ignore them. Or demand that they call the police to sort it out, since their impeding you as you lawfully photograph could constitute harrassment. Private security guards are the worst; at least with real cops you stand a chance of encountering someone who actually knows the law.

Of course, if you're on private property, they can ask you to leave at any time, which sounds like how this encounter ended. On public property---such as a government-owned "fairgrounds" which private fair operators pay to use---it's a bit more confusing what your rights are. Often, the conditions of admission prohibit certain behaviors. Again, summon the police if you are in the mood for further hassle, and want to stand on principle (and maybe end up in jail.)

Just another reason to hate stupid, ignorant people.

Yger said...

America is a lost cause. Blake, go to Japan for a change. People would actually say thank you to me when I shot their little kids in the street.

Gooseman said...

This is an all too common situation. I even got set upon in New York for photographing a block of telephones in Penn Station for God's sake.

I never, ever take photographs secretively these days and I've learned something about human nature in this era of the ubiquitous digital camera. No one cares anymore. if you took issue with every Jo/e taking pictures you'd be there all day doing it. I've been shooting as a pro for 25 years now, back when, if you showed up with a commercial looking camera you'd be besieged. Nowadays I shoot with a Leica (looks like a point and shoot) and a DSLR with no battery pack and generally a 50mm lens. My camera looks modest compared to most amateurs!
So be brazen, expect some hassle in private places, but in general people (security guards, police) have given up worrying about people with cameras. There's just too many out there.

But I do draw the line at kids. A few years back I had an art director ask me, as part of a larger brief, to shoot kids playing on an English beach. I laughed out loud. When I explained how sensitive this now is he understood fully. Personally I'd rather shoot a riot than risk the beating I'd get shooting kids on a beach.

Blame 'helicopter parenting', blame the internet, blame media fuelled paranoia, but it's gone, we'll never be able to shoot other people's kids again. Tragically, it's a lost cause.

Droid said...

Of course none of this is a problem for female street photographers.

Ryan (Cube) said...

I have been exactly where you have, but guess I was lucky that it was "real" police, and on city property, I was threatened with arrest, and told him I welcomed the opportunity to make an ass out of him in court.

More recently, as far as the fair goes, it has been the carnies themselves accosting me, for the most part I told them if they had a concern, call the police, but to few, I did reply "would you be asking me these questions if I had breasts instead of a d1@k?", it got the point across for most of them I think.

This topic was seen on Flickr and linked here from the group "Photography is not a crime"

Ben said...

A fucking asshole at the New York State fair a few years ago threatend to "crack that camera" on my head for taking a photo of him and his wife. I said, "There is no law against photographing in a public place. If you have an issue, let go find a cop." He lost interest and I walked away, shaking mad and scared. But the upshot is...I stopped a state trooper to tell him I was threatened with assualt for photographing a man and his wife. I said "It's ok to photograph in a public place, right?!" He had the nerve to say I should have asked for permission first. He didn't even know the law. I was pissed.

Anonymous said...

Almost identical story here at the (now defunct) Michigan State Fair last year. As I was leaving the fair, after having photographed Aretha Franklin being besieged by teenage girls who recognized her walking down the central alley, I was stopped by a pair of staties. Same questions-- you were reported taking photos of kids, etc. I was polite but did not allow them to look at my display. I must say I was not pressured into doing so, and one of the cops was fairly apologetic. It's a funny world these days.

Llu said...

I'm curious. It seems to me that this kind of incident only occurs to male photographers.

I don't do much of street photography (I'm too shy but I'm trying to work on it), so pardon me my naive question, but is it not easier for female photographers ?
They don't have to suffer from this cliché of the pedophile photographer (as if it must be a man...).

If I (I'm a young woman) were taking pictures of kids, I don't believe the cops would have stopped me, would they ? I'm not acquainted with the US cops, so I may be totally mistaken.

Yet this does not solve the problem of publishing the pictures. There I think men and women are on equal ground.

It's really a sad and funny world. Everyone is admiring pictures of past street photographers (I remember the enthusiastic comments I heard on a exhibition) but at the same time very suspicious of today street photographers...

I hope there will still be some photographers who will keep trying.

Anonymous said...

So… did you get any decent photos that day? (does that make me a pedophile?)

J said...

You should email the Fair Director, Rick Reno and educate him.
Send him a copy of this PDF:

Also, I think the fair security was engaged in False Imprisonment by surrounding you. I would have told them I am happy to discuss the matter but to back off and not surround me.

BuffySquirrel said...

The statement that this only happens to male photographers is not correct. I was harangued by a woman for taking photos of her kids in a public place a couple of years ago. She even 'reported' me to an organiser of the event we were attending--this even after I agreed to delete the pictures.

bryant said...

I realize that this goes against the grain of the conversation here but what about respect for the individual to NOT be photographed or to NOT have their children photographed. It seems to me that there is a sense of entitlement here that you can do it because you want to and that it is a public place. What about the fact that I do not want to appear in print or on your website simply because I have dared to go out in public.

I am a photographer who does a lot of street work but generally out of respect do not point my camera at people going about their day to day lives, sometimes it is irresistible though.

This sense of entitlement could be mitigated by seeking permission of parents and offering copies of the photos as compensation for the privilege of shooting their children. All I can say is if I am in the park with my friends daughter and you start taking photos of her without seeking permission, there is going to be some trouble.

Runny Yoke said...

It's an interesting conundrum because it IS perfectly legal to photograph people on the street. I will not comment on the cops interference, but rather on the idea that people get angry when you photograph them, which make perfect sense to me. (I myself am a photographer so I understand the dilemma). The people (our subjects) don't care about the law, they are worried about what you will do with their image, or that they look ugly or that they just do not want to be photographed. This conundrum seems interesting and important for photographers to constantly consider. We cannot avoid the humanity of our subjects and therefore have to consider it part of the work.
I photograph to feel closer to the world and understand it more. That is one way to look at these often scary interactions.

Blake Andrews said...

I haven't developed the film yet so not sure how the photos turned out.

It is understandable that people might not want their photo taken in public, or their kids. I am usually conscious of this, too conscious at times, and I try not to make anyone feel like a target or portray them in some nefarious way. And if someone objects, I don't take their photo.

That said, legally any person or thing in a public place is fair game. I expect the laws will change within the foreseeable future as the general paranoia level grows, but for now they are what they are.

I think the main question in this incident is, does Lane County Fairgrounds count as a public place or is it a private gathering? Not sure.

WaveLight said...

It's not restricted to male photographers at all. I'm definitely female, and additionally, I'm very short, very blonde, and (I think) very non-threatening looking. I've also been hassled many times in many different environments. With or without people, children or other factors present, the only constant was that I had a camera on me.

One evening I was parked on a public street taking photos of some sunset lightning going on a few miles off, and the security guard who came to chase me off told me that I had to leave because his employer owned the street!

The building in question was actually located across the street from where I was, and my camera was pointed AWAY from their property, looking across an empty field.

Another time I was in a public square, and I had just taken a picture of a flower. Just the flower alone! I was told that photographing the "landscaping" was not allowed! This is America today, folks.

Anonymous said...

"This sense of entitlement could be mitigated by seeking permission of parents and offering copies of the photos as compensation for the privilege of shooting their children."

I agree, certainly you are within the law to shoot others, but that doesn't mean that they will be happy about it. I think the best way to deal with photographing kids is to offer copies of the photos to the parents. I could be wrong, but it seems like that would turn the situation from a "I feel like my privacy is being violated" to "What a nice picture, thank you!".

Lisa said...

There are some perks to being a girl photographer. I have blatantly taken video and photos - mostly video - of kids dancing and playing in parks and concerts without any trouble in circumstances where I know that a guy in sunglasses would definitely have been busted. For some reason people just tend to assume that girls are more innocent.