It was renowned street photographer Garry Winogrand who once said, “Anything and all things are photographable.” However, in today’s society where almost everyone has a cell phone, and just about every cell phone has a camera built in, many people are increasingly concerned about their personal privacy. The line between what you are allowed to photograph and what you should photograph is constantly being challenged. On top of that, what and where you may legally be allowed to photograph in your home country isn’t always the case while you’re abroad. And then there’s the question of ethics; just because you could photograph something or someone, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.
Here in the United States, street photography falls under Free Speech and is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. In general, you are free to take photographs as long as you are in a public space, where there are no reasonable expectations of privacy. But always remember to exercise common sense. Public spaces include streets, sidewalks, public parks, etc. Even though you may physically be in a public space does not mean that you’re allowed to photograph into someone’s private residence, or photograph into private property. You’re also not allowed to take inappropriate photographs of another individual, such as while they’re using the bathroom or up someone’s skirt. Photographing children in public is also a grey area and should be avoided in general unless you have the express permission of their parent or legal guardian. You may also be prohibited from taking photographs at certain public places in the interest of national security or public safety.
Things work a little differently when you’re on private property, where the property owner can dictate whether or not photography is permitted. Usually, if you’re on private property that’s open to the public, like restaurants or stores, you’re fine taking photographs unless there are signs posted on the premises stating otherwise. Just don’t be that annoying patron climbing up onto your chair and breaking out lights inside a dimly restaurant just because you want to photograph your food for your Instagram feed. For the most part, you shouldn’t need to worry about model releases as long as you’re photographing for personal, non-commercial purposes, and there aren’t any identifiable people in your image. If you intend on selling or exhibiting your work, however, err on the side of caution and obtain a model release for anyone that happens to be in your frame. There have been instances where photographers have had legal action taken against them by individuals appearing in their photographs after said photographs appeared in exhibitions.
It’s important to remember that just because you have the right to photograph does not give you the right to trespass upon private property or restricted areas. With incidents of law enforcement officers behaving badly on the rise, so too has citizen journalism, but this doesn’t mean you should interfere with law enforcement officers while they are engaged in legitimate law enforcement operations. Always remember to exercise good judgement and be cognizant of your surroundings. The American Civil Liberties Union is an excellent resource on photographer’s rights here in the United States, and offers some advice in the event that you are confronted by law enforcement officers while you are photographing in a public space:
In Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom, for example, the rules for street photography for non-commercial purposes is pretty similar to those in the United States. Some countries, like Sudan and South Sudan, require anyone that wishes to take photographs to obtain a photography permit from the government. Other places, such as Hong Kong, for example, prohibit photography on government owned public property such as courts, government buildings, libraries, civic centers, and museums without permission from the government. The rules get even stricter in places like Macau, where photographers are prohibited from taking photographs of any persons against their will even in a public place. It is also illegal to photograph the police in Macau. Like Macau, Spain also prohibits the photographing of police officers under many circumstances. In South Korea, photographing women without their consent is considered criminal sexual assault, even in public, and carries a hefty fine along with a considerable jail sentence. A recent amendment to the law also voted in favor of allowing for chemical castration of anyone taking said photographs. Wikimedia Commons, a project created by the Wikimedia Foundation, has a handy chart outlining consent requirements in regards to photography involving identifiable people.
If you’re traveling to a foreign country and intend on engaging in street photography, it behooves you to do your own due diligence and familiarize yourself with the local regulations in regards to photographing in public. When it comes to street photography, know your rights, exercise your best judgment, and don’t be a creep.