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Can you legally photograph people in public without permission?

Dear Cecil:

I recently completed a photography course at a local college, where our instructor told us we could not get into any legal trouble photographing people in public places, and that we did not have to get their permission to take a picture. So far I have been verbally threatened (although not yet beaten up) by people who did not take kindly to the idea of having themselves immortalized on film. Is the law really on my side?

Maria, Baltimore

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Cecil replies:

I’m sure your heart’s in the right place, snugglebuns, but I’m not sure I can say the same for your mind. Taking pictures in public is indeed legal, but that’s not likely to impress some outraged citizen who’s determined to tapdance on your cranium. What you need is a plan involving subterfuge and deviltry, which Cecil shall shortly provide.

First, however, be assured that you don’t need to get the permission of your subjects before you take their pictures. If you make a real nuisance of yourself, after the manner of the late Jackie Onassis’s nemesis Ron Galella, you could conceivably be sued or charged with disturbing the peace, but that’s a separate issue. You can even publish your pictures, subject to certain restrictions.

As I say, though, what you’ve got is more a practical problem than a legal one. Your best bet is to get your mitts on an old Rolleiflex or other camera of similar design, where you sling the thing over your neck and look into the viewfinder from above (be forewarned–these cameras ain’t cheap).

This makes possible the following stratagem. Suppose you want to take a picture to the east of you. You face north. You point the lightshield on the viewfinder of your Rollei so it looks like you’re actually shooting north. Surreptitiously, however, you swivel the cubical camera body so the lens is facing east, and click away. (If you don’t follow this, have somebody at the camera store show you what I mean.)

Tricky, eh? Well, you know my heart is pure. But journalism is one business where it pays to be a good sneak.

Cecil Adams

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