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Street Photography And Privacy Laws

December 13, 2009

Canadian law is pretty clear on photography in public areas and reasonable expectation of privacy. The clause …reasonable expectation of privacy… does not protect a person’s rights NOT to be photographed in such public use areas as public streets, public events, or in a bus.

It does however protect a person’s right not to be photographed in such public areas where a reasonable expectation of privacy is held, such as bathrooms, change rooms and at bank machines. Areas such as restaurants, movie theatres, and art galleries are considered public areas insofar as the person being photographed is concerned, but the right to take photographs in such places can be revoked by the owner of the space, as it is private property.

Also, newsworthy events are considered acceptable subjects for photographers.

Let’s be realistic. How could newspapers and magazines publish photos of parades, protests, and natural catastrophes if they were required to hunt everyone down and get written agreement? With so many camera phones and small digitals out there, there is no longer any way to police street photography as far as I can tell.

As a photographer I will defend my right to free expression, as I have always done as a writer. Being an ethical human being I have lines I will not cross, in terms of exploitation, but I do consider these lines to be a personal thing. There are boundaries I impose upon myself, having being raised to care deeply about others. These ethical rules transcend the laws of my country, and of any other country, although I do not consider any artist above the law. (If one disagrees with a certain law then one has a right to attempt to change the law, but not the right to disregard it. This includes the right to go to jail to defend one’s beliefs.)

With the 2010 Olympic Games coming to Vancouver there’s been a lot of talk in the local newspapers about photography at public events. The rule of thumb seems to be that if the photos are for private use, then no problem. I think an issue might arise if people try to sell their Olympic photos. On the other hand Canadian law protects my right to photograph newsworthy events, so this warning could be a bit of bluff by the IOC to try to maintain some control over images that get tagged “Olympic Games”.  (Logos are of course, protected by copyright law, and we all know the IOC is quite zealous about protecting their copyright.)

I think the bottom line here is that many laws developed ostensibly to protect our individual rights actually serve better to protect the rights of corporations, and to further allow us to descend into a highly litigious society. (Something that serves lawyers well, I might add.) I wouldn’t call myself cynical, but I am definitely realistic. As a creative person I am certainly concerned with these issues.

Quite simply it all boils down to this for me: Without the freedom to express myself I would not want to live. As far as I’m concerned Canada is a country where I can be myself, and express myself, and I consider myself fortunate to live here; a law-abiding citizen in a beautiful and free country.

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