NOTE THIS POST REFERS TO THE UK AND UK LAWS - OTHER COUNTRIES LAWS MAY VARY AND SHOULD BE CHECKED IF PHOTOGRAPHY THERE IS PLANNED
So last week I ran into a fairly common issue for modern photographers who use cameras with larger lenses, although I was surprised and a little dismayed at where I ran into it. The issue is what people think they know (and are so often totally wrong about) regards the legalities of photography especially when that photography involves people and ultra especially when it involves children - up to the age of 18. I was dismayed about this particular occasion because it involved an individual in a professional role who I would expect to have at least a basic understanding of the legal position of photographers.
So what is it people think they know - and are wrong about - the legality of people taking pictures? In one word it's "permission". What people think photographers need and what the law says they must have are very very far apart from one another. Lots and lots of people think a photographer needs their permission to take their picture - and that is not the case. The same people and even more are absolutely certain that a photographer MUST have a parents (or the person legally responsible) permission to take a photograph of a child. Again this is not the case. If the photographer and their subject are in a public place the photographer does not need any permission whatsoever to take the picture.
So are there actually any legal rules on taking photographs in the UK - and what are they? The vast majority of photography rules in the UK are concerned with what is done with photographs after they are taken - and are focused around the right to use in commerical undertakings and I will explore what exactly a commercial undertaking is in another post. There are other laws that can affect a photographer that are not directly related to photography the most common of which is tresspass. The only really photography specific laws are Terrorism and Indecency and both are actually quite specific in what they limit.
Obscene Publications Act 1959 section 1
"For the purposes of this Act an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect or (where the article comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it."
So this is going to be a photograph of or appearing to be of a sexual act - nudity alone is not indecent. Sexual acts that may be reasonably expected to occur in full public places like kissing, hugging, and touching again are not going to be obscene or indecent.
Section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000
This is slightly less precise and relates to stop and search powers when terrorist activities are suspected. If a police officer suspects you are a terrorist they may stop and search you for evidence confirming this suspicion. This includes examing and viewing any images on a camera or mobile phone in your possession. If they find images that reasonably support their suspicion they may seize the camera/phone. They cannot delete or destroy any images on said camera or phone - that can only be done with a legal court order
So what does all this mean in practical terms when it comes to taking photographs and what photographers are and are not allowed to do?
If the photographer is in a public place - usually the public highway - they may take pictures of anything or anyone they can see. There is a grey area when it comes to individuals who are in private areas visible from a public place if they are engaged in an activity they may assume is private - say for instance someone has left their curtains not fully closed and is getting changed - they may be able to bring a case of invasion of privacy but this is all on a case by case basis.
If the photographer is on private property with full public access like a park or a cemetary any restrictions will be down to the owner of the property. This can include some areas of public highway where councils who technically manage can require permits to photograph although these are pretty much always only for full commercial photography. Trafalgar Square and some Royal Parks have strict photography bylaws but a single photographer taking photos for their own pleasure (ie the tourist taking holiday snaps) is unlikely to be in breach of these.
If the photographer is on private property with limited or no public access - ie you need either to pay for entry or be invited - all restrictions will depend entirely on the owner of the property. This will include things like music concerts, sports grounds, museums, and of course people houses. Most paid entry places with have any photo restrictions on the entry ticket - and these restrictions can vary from nearly none like some zoos who dont mind what you take or what you do with it so long as any commerical or public display includes an attribution to the zoo, through incredibly strict with the National Trust enforcing very strict private personal use only - they have been known to ask people to remove images from photosharing sites, to absolute bans with no photography allowed whatsoever - which has included some concerts.
What does it mean if you are person being photographed? Basically unless you are on your own private property out of general public view (if you are in your front garden and every passerby can see you then it is considered general public view) you do not have to give permission for someone to take your picture. If you are on someone elses private property you can ask them to restrict photography but if they choose not to do so that is their choice. The same rules apply to children - if they are in a public place and the images are not obscene or indecent there is no permission needed for someone taking their photograph
If you are someone who is uncomfortable with public photography, who does not like having your picture taken, who thinks photography is a direct risk to children I ask you to consider one thing next time you see the photographer with the big camera and big lens. Stop and look around and count how many people have mobile phones. Think how many people you see every minute of every day with a mobile phone because each and every one of those could be taking pictures of you, of children and you would not know anything about it. Anyone approaching photography with evil intentions is going to go for the subtle hidden non obvious approach - the person weighed down with a big bag lugging a camera with a huge lens is not going to be up to no good they are just going to be taking photographs.