Sunday, August 29, 2010

Legal Challenges

On Friday afternoon I managed to finish work a little early and thought I would head out with camera to do some local research for the third assignment.  I have been very impressed with the work of Stephen Shore and purchased his book "Uncommon Places - The Complete Works".  What intrigues me is his ability to take mundane everyday locations and turn them into a timeless record of life as well as a piece of photographic art.  His work is very much in tune with the goal of assignment 3, the use of buildings and how people interact with them.

I cannot emulate his style completely, nor would I necessarily want to, however, I thought it might make an interesting exercise to do something similar.  I have a 24mm tilt-shift 35mm lens, not the easiest to use, but capable of capturing great detail and at the same time permitting correct recording of perspective and thus is an ideal lens for anything involving buildings.  The added "benefit" is that is requires a very measured approach to photography, the lens is manual focus and generally is best used at pretty small apertures, f/16 or f/22.  This means the lens must be placed on a tripod and each photograph has to be very carefully composed prior to hitting the trigger.  When the lens is shifted the camera is no longer able to measure correct exposure so requires manual exposure setting prior to shifting.  This means the workflow for a shot is as follows

  1. Find a location that will work at 24mm
  2. Set up the tripod and ensure that the camera is completely level, I use a spirit level that sits in the hot shoe
  3. Check that the image looks correct when the lens is shifted - live view is useful here
  4. Manually focus, again with live view I can zoom in on the image and ensure that focus is where I want it to be
  5. Set the aperture, speed, and ISO manually
  6. Tilt the lens
  7. Take the picture
  8. Review and adjust, start again
This is reminiscent of the process involved in using a view camera, as used by Stephen Shore.  Using a 35mm digital camera does speed up the process, but this is still a slow considered approach to photography, very different from the rapid shooting style of Street Photography.

I had been planning to do all of Assignment 3 using this lens, to provide a consistent look and feel, but also to slow me down.  HOWEVER, this weekend I ran into real problems and a very ugly situation that left me doubting both my approach and even my commitment to continue on this course.

I decided to head over to a recently built small shopping center, thinking that this would make for a good subject for my work, very much a building with multiple uses and presence of humans.  I started off by taking a couple of "landscape" shots that show the access to the center and also the architecture of the site

I am happy with these images and they show quite clearly the access to the building a key part of how people use such a space.  I then decided to head down the ramp and get closer to one of the shops a local supermarket and shoot in close.  The first image tried to image people coming into the store.  The low light required a longish exposure time of 1/8s, blurring the people as they entered the store.  I like this effect as it shows how people move and also makes them very anonymous. 

I then thought that a show of the tills and people paying would work.  This is when the problem started

Two things to point out first, I did not step inside the shop for this shot, but equally did not ask permission.  Immediately I was confronted by staff telling me photography was forbidden in the store.  I explained that I was not in the store and that I was a student and not involved in any form of commercial activity.  They phoned management and iterated again that I could not take photographs.  I said, OK, apologies and agreed that I would cease taking photographs.  This is when it became unpleasant as 3 people surrounded me, not aggressively, but requiring that I delete the photographs.  I refused and stated that I had taken the photographs legally and anyway what was the issue, after showing them the images what offense could I have made.  My German is poor, luckily the store manager spoke English (most Germans do), however, one of the staff started to suggest in German assuming I could not understand at all, that they confiscate my camera.  At this point I was getting pretty upset.  Passersby were on my side, however, the store employees were getting quite insistent.  

I explained the following 
  1. I had not entered the store - they replied that my camera was photographing stuff inside the store and that the outside pavement belonged to them as well
  2. I mentioned that I could return with a 500mm lens and from public ground take the same image, this seemed to worry them
  3. Peoples faces were not visible - they said that their logo was
  4. I pointed out that every person in the store had a camera built into their phones, they could be taking photos and spying for the opposition - apparently I was much worse because I had a "proper" camera.
In the end I simply said goodbye, turned my back and walked away, perhaps not the best solution, but the argument was getting worse and I was getting more angry and might have said something I would regret.  They did not try to detain me which was smart as that would have been assault.  During the conversation I suggested several times that they call the Police, they really did not want to, so I figured best to leave.  This is a supermarket I shop in quite often, guess I will not be back in a hurry.

I headed home, too upset to do any more photography and have been trying to get my head around this very since.  This was not the first time I have been challenged, it really makes completing this assignment quite challenging.  I checked the law when I got home and will consult a lawyer who is a friend and a passionate photographer - he is on vacation at the moment.

From what I understand of German law:
  1. Photography in a public space is permitted of any structure that is permanent 
  2. Photographs of temporary structures, deemed as art is permitted, but it is illegal to sell them without the artists permission.  This was due to someone photographing the Reichstag when  wrapped in cloth and selling the image.  The resulting court case resolved my first comment as it distinguished between permanent and temporary installations - permanent is fair game.
  3. Selling a photograph of a building that is under copyright, many modern architecture is, cannot be done without permission
  4. People can be photographed in public space without permission, however, persistently photographing a single person could become harassment or obstruction.
Sadly this did not really help me as a shopping center might not be deemed to be a public space as it is privately owned.  However, there is free public access to this space and it is not covered and thus not technically inside a building. The first 2 shots were fine as I was on a public pavement.

What this means for my work is that I need to be more selective of subjects that are either public or easily viewed from a public space.  My goal of using the 24mm tilt-shift is therefore not really viable, perhaps is never was in any case.  I am not as an individual very good at handling this type of confrontation and much beer was applied to gain a better perspective chatting with my wife and best friend.  

My conclusion, persevere and develop a thinker skin, however, find a definition of German law on photography and put it into my camera bag.  I want to continue onto the Social Documentary course and so this is unlikely to cease to be an issue.

As far as the current assignment, become more creative, try and select public buildings and space, although what defines public is a question I have yet to resolve.  


  1. Hello Shaun, first you have a great blog. I am suddenly enthused again to have a go at mine and improve it!
    Second, I live in Switzerland and I guess the law is very similar. As far as I can figure out people have the "right" to their image so any shots in which people are recognisable might be a problem if you don't have their permission and intent to share or publish the shot. If we students turn up with good gear and appear proferssional it might be hard to persuade people that we don't intend to publish? There seem to be some exceptions including someone taking part in a public event, parade or carnival, a person who is just accidental to the shot (e.g. you are taking a shot of a cathedral and someone is standing in front of it) or a famous or prominant person undertaking public duties or appearances. There are probably more but I just found a book that explains the law in great detail and am wading through it: Fotografie und Recht ISBN978-3-8266-5944-7. It is, of course, in German but you might find someone to translate relevant bits. I wonder however, if this means I might also have problems with some of the exercises as I go through. If you find out more let me know!

  2. I just realised I meant to say if you "intend" to share or publish....

  3. Hi Jane

    many thanks for your comments, I really enjoy working on the blog, it is a kind of dump for thoughts and observations. I would also suspect that Switzerland and Germany will have a similar cultural view of photography and privacy, although I am not sure legally. Germany's history, both pre-45 and with East Germany make anything that looks like surveillance very suspicious. Interestingly the people side of it seems less of an issue, I tend to get challenged when photographing buildings, seems that many modern corporations are very jealous of their style and logo's. I have had 4 or 5 occasions on which I have been challenged, including the Police, although they were the most polite and engaging. Am slowly developing a thicker skin.

    Thanks again, though, for the comments, it is good to know that I am not alone in this and I wish you well with your blog