If you’ve been following my blog, or my photostreams on flickr or Zooomr, you know I shoot all over the Bay Area, and I shoot a lot of neon signs. Many of these signs are in various windows: bars, liquor stores, corner grocers, etc. Occasionally, the people in the store will ask what I’m doing. Most of the time, they are just curious, and sometimes they even invite me in to show me the neon inside the building. That’s how I found out about this beautiful sign at a bar called Toot’s in Crockett.
Sometimes, however, the people think that I’m doing something wrong by shooting the signs, and get downright rude, nasty, or violent. And this post is a story of one of those times.
I was shooting in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco (not the greatest part of town) in the afternoon. I spotted a couple of promising signs in the window of a little store, and started shooting them. The person in the picture above came out and asked what I was doing. I explained that I collect pictures of neon, and I was just taking photos of the signs. He told me that I needed to ask him first. I politely told him that I was not going to go into his store, and that I would stay on the sidewalk, and continued shooting. He came over and shoved my camera back into my face, and told me that I could not shoot at his store.
At this point, I aimed the camera at him and took the photo you see here. I told him that I would call the police if he assaulted me again. He did not like this, and told me that we didn’t need the police, but that I should be “very careful”. He went back inside, and I took a few more shots and went on my way.
After I posted the photo on Zooomr, Thomas Hawk posted about it on his blog. Reading the comments on that post got me thinking about what I feel is the right way to handle this kind of situation, as opposed to what my rights are.
In the situation described here, it’s pretty clear that I was well within my legal rights to take these photographs. I was not trying to take photos through a window into a private place; these were photos from a public sidewalk at a sign in the window of a business that is open to the public. Was it the right thing to do to take the photos? I believe that it was, and I believe that I handled the situation in the right way. I did not yell at the person. I did not speak to him rudely. I did not act violently towards him. In fact, if he had not pushed me, I would not have even taken his picture.
I think that it is important for everybody to stand up for their rights. Free speech is not something that should be taken for granted, and allowing somebody to force you to give up your rights by trying to intimidate you is simply not acceptable. Of course, you should be mindful of your own safety as well.
So what kind of situation would cause me to choose to not exercise my right to take a photograph in a public place? One thing that I can think of is taking photographs of people. People have feelings, and it is understandable that some people would be uncomfortable with a stranger pointing a camera at them. If somebody asked me nicely, I would probably respect their wishes. I would most likely politely explain to them that I do have the right to take photographs in public, and that I will be taking photographs, but I would attempt to leave them out of the frame if it makes them more comfortable. I think that is a reasonable consideration to extend to somebody, and that it would be the right thing to do.
But people and buildings are different things. Buildings, signs, and storefronts do not have feelings. Generally, these are places that the public can enter and leave freely. Things are displayed in the windows to appeal to passersby and attract them into the store. I really do not see that there is any harm in exercising my right to take photographs of these subjects. If somebody asks me not to take the photo, I will be polite to them, but I will probably choose to exercise my right to take the photograph.
You might not agree with me, and that’s fine. I don’t expect everybody to agree with my thoughts on this subject. But if you enjoy taking photographs in public places, these are things that you may want to give some thought to. Thinking about these situations before you encounter them will help you to keep a cool head and be polite to others, even if they are being obnoxious towards you.
Which leads me to the bottom line: I think the key to handling these kinds of situations is to be as polite as possible. Don’t be afraid to explain what you are doing; often times people just misunderstand your motives. Don’t be afraid to carry a printout of the photographers rights and to share a copy with people. Be sensitive to the feelings of others, but at the same time don’t allow others to bully you into giving up your rights. It is possible to do the right thing, and still stick up for your rights.