• LAW: The photojournalist and the law

Relatively few laws relate directly to photography or photojournalism.

This may be surprising given the impact and emotional power of pictures in our society. One might assume that there would be a boatload of legislation and legal precedents governing the taking of pictures. But the fact is that no such boatload exists.

Still, legal considerations should be an important part of the thinking of the photojournalist. People do care about pictures, especially when they are involved, and sometimes they try to call upon the law to control what the photojournalist does.

In real life situations, however, it is often not the law but the courtesy and demeanor of the photographer that is the most important factor in allowing the photojournalist to work.

Here are a few of the legal and legally-related considerations that photojournalists must understand.

  • Photographers are generally allowed to take pictures in public places and in places to which members of the public have access. This is not true for every public place – such as courtrooms, for instance – but it is generally true.
  • Private places that are clearly visible from public places are open to being photographed. For example, a man mowing his grass on his private land can be seen from the street. Can you take his picture without his permission? Yes.
  • In a controlled environment – one where access may be limited – a photographer should ask permission of those in charge.
  • Photographers should observe police and safety lines and should obey the orders of public safety officials.
  • DO NOT surrender your camera, film, or flash cards to anyone who orders you to do so. No one, not even police officers, has the right to demand that you give up your camera or pictures.
  • Ask permission when children, handicapped people or people who are sick or infirmed are likely to be visible in the photographs.
  • Take great pains to be accurate in the information you gather about photographs. One of the great legal pitfalls for photojournalists is misidentifying people in a picture.


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