What Can’t You Photograph?

Arne Svenson recently came under fire when he staged a new exhibition entitled “The Neighbors,” one which entirely featured photos of people inside their swanky apartments in the Zinc Building.  Made entirely of glass, this building in TriBeCa provided easy access for a peeping Tom with a telephoto lens.


However, there’s nothing technically illegal in what he did.   There are no complete faces in the pictures, and he took all of the photos from his own property and of windows that were uncovered and open for anyone to see.  The subjects of the pictures may be rightfully livid to find their images for sale at $7,500 a pop, but besides pursuing a civil suit there isn’t much that they can do.

Svenson is lucky in that his particular brand of photography hasn’t been tried in a court of law before.  However, there are several other grey areas that do have a legal precedent.  Here are four common questions about photography, and what you can and cannot legally photograph.

Can I take pictures of other people in public?

Technically, if you’re out in public you are allowed to take pictures as long as they are still photography and not video.  The presumption is that you are in a public space, and thus everything you do is public. The legal precedence here is the New York Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Nussenzweig v. DiCorcia, where the court ruled that you do not need a subject’s consent to display, publish, or sell street photography.

However, there are still restrictions.  A photographer is not allowed to use those pictures in an advertisement without their permission, and they might get in trouble if they publish it in a derogatory or insulting fashion.

Can I take a picture of a police officer?

If you are in a public space you are allowed to take pictures, even if the subject is a police officer.  However, you are not allowed to impede or interrupt their duties in any way, which means that photographers need to keep their distance.  However, just because something is legal doesn’t mean that photographers will not be illegally harassed, detained, or arrested for taking pictures so tread with caution.

Can I take a picture at the airport?

Yes.  According to the TSA Blog, there is no prohibition of pictures at screening locations, as long as you don’t slow things down or interfere with the screening process.  However, there may be local ordinances in place that affect what can and cannot be photographed.

Can I take a picture in an art museum?

The answer is, it depends.  Art museums are not public spaces and have the right to try to protect their intellectual property by restricting photography, especially since some amateur photographers don’t seem to know how to turn their flash off.  But many museums understand the difficulty of enforcing no-photo polices.  Museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Louvre, and the National Gallery of Art all allow photography.  It’s probably a good idea to check with the museum before you arrive.