A few years ago I read a book called “The Bang Bang Club” (which was also later made into a movie). It was the story of four South African photographers during the early 90s who were documenting the transition from the apartheid regime to democracy. The thing that really resonated with me in this book was the sub-story about one of the photographers, Kevin Carter. He was the guy behind the camera of the famous Pulitzer prize-winning photo of the starving Sudanese girl being stalked by a vulture. While this photo was rightly acknowledged as one of the greatest ever, it also became somewhat of a burden on the photographer. He was criticised for taking the photo rather than helping the girl and this conflict is believed to have contributed to his untimely suicide.
Some argue that photos such as these do far more to highlight issues and subsequent action being taken than simply helping and not taking the photo. Whether you agree with this or not will come down to your personal opinion. But what this highlights for me is the notion that as a photographer, you have a responsibility. It also means that sometimes just because you can take a photo doesn’t mean you should.
Don’t be a selfish photographer
I recently got into a heated debate with another photographer (who shall remain anonymous) because of his disregard for not taking photos at a location. At this particular site, there were clear signs forbidding the use of drones. Yet this photographer blatantly disregarded this as they knew they could get away with it. When I asked them why they were choosing to ignore the rules the response I received was “you have to break the rules to capture good photos”. Yes, break the rule thirds, break the focusing and framing rules, but not the actual rules.
I did some investigating and discovered the reason for the drone ban at this location was distress drones caused to birds that nested with their young in the cliffs. This is just one example that I have encountered over the years. Other examples include people taking photos in places of worship that were considered sacred and photography not allowed, using flash photography in galleries and museums, even photographing people when they asked not to be photographed.
So what is the problem?
You may ask what the problem is if you can get away with it. Sometimes the rules are there to protect the environment and wildlife. For example, if an area is cordoned off, it could be because they are trying to protect the fragile landscape (like for example sand dunes on a coast). Or it could be that it is done for the safety and enjoyment of other people. Keep in mind how irritating it can be if you are in a museum or gallery and see flashes going off. It ruins that ambience and could damage the artwork.
If enough people continue to disregard the rules then eventually all photographers suffer. For example, it will only take a few irresponsible photographers with drones to cause a blanket ban for all drone photography. So don’t be one of the photographers who are responsible for this.
Should you always follow the rules?
Having said all this, that doesn’t mean that you should just accept all photography rules. There are times when they could be unfair and have no logic as to why there are restrictions. They could also be illegal in that you are perfectly entitled to take photos. Anyone can put up a sign saying no photos, it doesn’t mean it’s correct.
Recently, I was shooting on assignment at the famous Tower Bridge in London. As a UK photographer, I know what my rights are for photography in the UK and more importantly the law. On this particular day, I was shooting Tower Bridge from the banks of the River Thames (something that I have done many many times along with millions of others every year). I was approached by a local security guard from one of the office buildings next to the river who began to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to take photos of Tower Bridge and that I need to delete the photos or he would confiscate my camera.
I usually keep calm and I’m very polite and courteous in these situations as a smile and friendliness go much further than getting angry. But I must confess that I was irritated. The reason being that I know the law in the UK when it comes to photography, however, someone else might not and would have been bullied into not taking photos and even deleting the ones that they had taken. I was certainly not going to do either of those things. For one, I explained to the security guard that regardless of the situation, in the UK only a police officer has the authority to confiscate a camera and even then there has to be a reason (i.e. security reason). So under no circumstances did this person have the authority to confiscate my camera or even ask me to delete photos.
Secondly, I asked him if I was standing on public or private land. He wasn’t sure. Again, I explained to him that my rights in the UK are that I am allowed to take photos of any person or place, including buildings if I am standing on public land. As you can imagine, he sharply made his way back into the office building when he realised that I knew more than him on this topic.
The point here is that you shouldn’t always accept the rules but it pays to understand the reasons why they may be there. You can then make a decision of whether you want to break them or not. Obviously, if the rules are valid and legal you will also have to potentially pay the fine or other punishment that you may receive.
So to go back to my original statement, just because you can get away with taking a photo, doesn’t mean that you should. Because it could be wrong to do so morally or even detrimental to the environment, wildlife or even other people. Be a considerate photographer rather than a selfish one.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission.
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