Private Property: Keep Your Cameras Away

March 1st, 20101:57 pm @ Angela Odom


Before going any further with this, I will provide a link to the American Society of Media Photographers’ (ASMP) page about Property and Model Releases. The reason for this is I recently read an article on Altadenablog about some photos of homes that were used in an advertisement for an organization. One person, a homeowner, was upset to see a photograph of his/her home used in the advertisement, for good reason. I say for good reason because words, unfortunately, were used to infer or imply something about the home.

I will not link to the article, I’ll let folks do that on their own because comments are closed, collars got a little warm and my purpose is not to focus on the article. Actually, everything got worked out and the homeowner’s photo was removed. There was no ill-will, as far as I could tell. It was merely a simple misunderstanding. It did make for a a good jumping off point to discuss the issue of using photographs for purposes other than personal use. If you take pictures and perhaps use those photographs as stock images for sell or to be used by individuals, groups, organizations or agencies that are not aware, you and the organizations might find yourselves in a very heated argument or worse, in court.

There is a reason for my cynicism and that is I have worked in legal for perhaps far too long. After landing in SoCal, I was amazed to see the number of cases filed here. California is known as the most litigious state in the nation and I can understand why. I believe there are enough cases filed in the legal system here to satisfy every resident of the state. Trespass is a big one and it matters not if the perceived trespass was performed by camera, two-legged creatures, four-legged creatures, adult or child.

One of the most controversial areas of photography is the issue of when releases are required. Personally, if I’m out doing a walk-about looking for good stock images, if possible, I will get a release for everything. I carry a bag full of property and model releases that cover everything from fine art to commercial use. These releases are as important to me as my gear.

In journalism, you can capture a boat load of images containing people and places without need for a release. However, if you plan on using those images again for commercial purposes it is always good to get a release, just in case.

Unlike people, property does not enjoy the right to privacy. If you’re walking down a street and take a photo of a home while standing on public property — sidewalk or middle of the street — it is permissible to publish that photograph without permission from the owner of the property. This can get a little sticky when you hang the photo in a public gallery, sell the image as artwork, or use the image in an advertisement. It can get even stickier when the image is used in conjunction with words that might imply or infer something about the property or property owner.

Years ago I shot images on Chicago’s near Southside. I wanted to capture the character of those old bungalows. The images were mounted and used in a gallery exhibit about Chicago’s architecture. I don’t remember exactly what words were used but it had something to do with how some areas were run down and urban gentrification.

The folks running the show wanted to use one of my photographs of a beautiful bungalow with an open window and curtain hanging out of it for the advertisement. Unfortunately, the words used for the show and that photo would have implied the home was either run-down or in a run-down neighborhood.

To be honest, my spirit was a little unsettled by this and though I was initially okay with its use I decided to go against everyone and visited the homeowner to get a property release. The homeowner looked at the photo and was not upset about its use in the exhibit but was not happy about his house being used with those words. I was able to get a release from him stating the photos could be used for fine art purposes but not for advertising or commercial use. The homeowner was happy but the gallery was not. I didn’t care about what they felt. I cared about the homeowner.

The gallery — again mad with me — decided to use another photo from another photographer showing a run-down building. The photographer did not have a release for that building either and guess what, the gallery and the photographer were sued by the owner of the building. The scaffolding seen in the image was not something that had been there for years. The building was actually being refurbished. Though there appeared to be curtains in the first-floor window, no one lived in the building. Though the building had no right to privacy, the man who owned the building did have a right to privacy and the words accompanying the image of his building gave the impression he was a slumlord. Not good.

Going to Google Maps. I love Google Maps but there are times when I have cruised down a street and found noticeable gaps. Those gaps may represent complaints or lawsuits. Perhaps the property is protected by a federal trademark. There might have been a recognizable product — I understand one motorcycle manufacturer is good for suing when images of their product is seen outside of their own advertisements — or perhaps Lassie or the infamous Taco Bell dog is laying on the grass. You can’t show ‘em without the owner’s express written consent.

Now, why is it that porta cops can jump out of buildings downtown faster than ants from an ant mound when you show up with a camera? As much as I don’t like it, they are actually protecting the people within the building. Imagine your photograph was used by a terrorist to figure out how or when to hit a building containing thousands of innocent lives. Not a good idea right? Right. Play a game one day with Google and see if you can turn the camera to view a building or plaza. You might find some skewed images, for good reason.

Now, I’ve made this very simple but there is more to it, a lot more to it, than what I’ve just said. The safe rule of thumb for me is this: when photographing property for use in a show, get a release. If the property becomes transparent on any level where I can see the individual — I can see their clothing, homemade curtains, their show dog, their catalog model kid — get a release. Actually, if anyone other than the county, city or state own the building, get a release. Basically, cover all four corners of the thing before you use the images in any advertisement or show.

Lastly, when it comes to your images, be vigilant. I know this is hard but care about the people and the homes, animals and children you photograph, not the money. Put yourself in their place and ask a question, would you be offended?

While I’m on the subject of private property, the right to privacy, etc., it is also important to note something else as well. I don’t put pictures of friends and acquaintances online because they have a right to privacy. You will not find photographs of my friends and I at a wine tasting party or any party for that matter because the one photograph could cause them to lose their jobs, could adversely affect their professional lives, or the image could become the fancy of a stalker. I cannot, in good conscience, say it’s not my problem.

A good photographer is a responsible one. Get a release if you will use the image outside of something personal, or the joy of photography. Be considerate of others, put yourself in their shoes and ask questions. Be extremely careful with the words used to describe your image as well. If you photograph anything that can be easily recognizable as belonging to a particular individual, get a release.

As that old saying goes, you can get more flies with honey. The joy of photography for me had little to do with the images and more to do with the people I met. Good old fashion talking to folks got more releases signed and invitations to photograph more people, places and things. Sure, it can be a pain for some but it’s a pain that allows me to sleep peacefully.