Just because something is your right doesn’t mean it’s always wise to exercise it

Instant Parking Lot
Polaroid Big Swinger 3000, Fujifilm FP-3000B Professional, 2012

“Someone was seen this afternoon taking photographs of cars in our parking lot. Police were notified. Please report any similar suspicious activity to the office.”

An all-company email was sent out with this quote in it from the company that managed the property. Instantly, co-worker Charlie messaged me. “Was it you photographing the cars?”

Charlie knew me all too well. Of course it was. But didn’t they know that I’m harmless?

I test new-to-me old cameras all the time, and I need subjects to photograph. Cars in the parking lot are great subjects! They offer plenty of interesting details when you move in close, and you can often find them in interesting arrangements. And when I’m working in a suburban office park, there are a whole bunch of them right there.

Photographing things in public places is 100% allowed in the United States. Moreover, if you can see it from a public place, you can photograph it, even if the thing you photograph is in a private place. You need no permission.

That’s not to say that photographing everything is wise. Photographing small children on the playground is likely to get the cops called on you. Some police officers don’t take well to being photographed while they’re working. I’ve had a couple run-ins with people when I’ve made photographs. One time on a road trip while documenting a small town, an angry man came running after me because I had photographed his house. After photographing an interesting storefront, a worker inside rushed out and asked me what the heck I was doing and why.

On the day the property manager called the cops on me for making photos including the one above, I wasn’t exactly in a public place. The parking lot of my office complex is private, and even though I worked in one of the buildings, I could be considered trespassing. They were within their rights to call the cops, even though it was an overreaction.

But whoever reported me had to have seen that I was shooting a Polaroid Big Swinger 3000, a comically large instant camera that was then more than 40 years old. They had to recognize it as a camera in the first place, something I’m not sure most younger adults could do today! Me holding that huge camera in my hands should have made it crystal clear that I was just a nerd hobbyist with no nefarious intent.

But I never photographed cars in the parking lot again. It’s best to be wise.

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31 responses to “Just because something is your right doesn’t mean it’s always wise to exercise it”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    It’s not that you were photographing cars and someone called the police on you for doing so, that worries me, it’s that if the police arrived, many are so illiterate about the law that they might have arrested you for doing so, instead of just asking you a few questions. This has somewhat abated in the last few years, but before that, the photographic media was filled with stories of illegal arrests of photographers for nothing more than standing on public property and photographing public areas. Usually, if you have a pretty good local DA’s office, they drop the hammer on the cops for this crap and it goes away, but not always…

    We all realize that cops have a tough job, more so now than ever; but I have a long history of living in a city with a draconian police department, that’s spent a lot of time hassling people for legal activities that they don’t understand are legal. Now they can’t seem to stop violent crime and car thefts in our central city. Cops have to earn my respect, and they’re still on an uphill battle with me from my tweener years. The quality of your police department depends on the city you live in, and how they train, and it can be wildly different.

    1. matt Avatar

      “Cops have to earn my respect, and they’re still on an uphill battle”…

      Gone are the days of Andy Taylor and Officer Friendly. The Police (as an institution) are no longer about keeping the peace, as we know it; but instead, the government’s first line of defense against the citizens.

      I know a couple of individuals who are police officers, so I know there are good ones out there. But collectively? No thanks, I’ll pass.

      On the other hand — addressing Jim’s post directly — I can’t understand the instant defensiveness (or possessive qualities) people have over things that are just out in public (referring more to the store fronts and houses and less to the cars parked in a “private” lot). Interestingly, they don’t seem to get too worked up when the government photographs all this stuff (CC cams everywhere and satellite imaging) and slurps up all your email, phone records, and social media data without showing probable cause and obtaining a warrant.

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        But a man with what is clearly a vintage camera — threat for sure.

        1. matt Avatar

          Face it, Jim… if I saw you in that get up in a movie, I’d think “Villain, for sure”. :D

          I don’t mean to hijack your post, but I was thinking about this a little more on my way into work — isn’t it funny how people have zero issue filming themselves and putting it up on TicTube, but a man with a (clearly-comic-book-villain) camera will cause them to flip out.

          1. Andy Umbo Avatar
            Andy Umbo

            Believe it or not, Matt, I literally had this discussion with a documentary film maker buddy of mine just two days ago! We both said that any monkey can whip out a cell phone camera and blast away, but if you swing up a professional looking rig, everyone goes bonkers! He says even it third world countries! The street picture day is gone!

            1. matt Avatar


        2. fishyfisharcade Avatar

          And yet people pointing phones with high-resolution cameras and 4k video capabilities get nary a second glance. People surrepticiously taking images with a phone (which they can then instantly upload online) is likely a much greater threat to privacy in the wrong hands, but most people have phones and take pictures of whatever they like with them wherever thy happen to be, so are unlikely to think they’re in the wrong. The guy with the sixty-year-old film camera though – watch out! He must be up to no good!

          1. Jim Grey Avatar

            Super solid point.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      YouTube is full of videos of cops in action, ignorantly or willfully misapplying laws and rights. If I ever come upon a cop who isn’t thrilled about me being there with a camera, I’m just going to say, “What if I just moved along now.”

  2. DougD Avatar

    Great quote for the title, they should put that on your money. ;)

    A non-camera person wouldn’t notice a comically large Instamatic, or just think it was a weird camera. It’s amazing what people don’t notice.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Good point. They noticed enough that I was taking pictures, but they probably didn’t connect with the camera itself.

  3. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    I photograph houses in my town all the time and have had enough mildly negative reactions that I only photograph a residence if I don’t expect to encounter anyone. It’s usually no big deal though, just “What you doing?”. Usually any explanation will suffice to mollify the resident.
    In these politically charged times every activity becomes suspicious.

    1. tbm3fan Avatar

      Alex Luyckx photographs a lot of houses when testing out film, developers, and cameras. I wonder what his experience has been. As for me my experience consists of one house that was in the background of my target. I’m across the street from the house, sitting in my car on the way to work, pause on the side of the road, and take the picture. Withing seconds an older man rushes out and yells what are you doing. Geez, was he sitting at a window waiting for this? Anyway I tell him it isn’t his house but all the cool 80’s cars in front. That changes his tune instantly when he hears I like/shoot older cars. Tells me about them and says some will be for sale and I should take a look.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        You are very lucky to be able to have talked with the “complain-ee” before anyone called the cops…always the best solution…

        I had a similar situation photographing a very deco bus station in the south in the 80’s, someone ran out to find out what the hell I was up to, and when they found out, they waxed poetic for the next hour on who built it and it’s history! These are the type of things I love about the classic old community individuals…

      2. Terry Avatar

        Alex lives in Canada. Different country, different rules. And from my experiences with Canadians, more laid back, polite, responsible citizens, too.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I show people my vintage camera and that usually does it.

  4. Terry Avatar

    This should be prefaced by stating that it took place (and the rule of law involved) is limited to the USA. It is likely different outside the USA, where we have FIRST Amendment rights (still!).

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      True. Your rights vary from place to place!

  5. M.B. Henry Avatar

    Oh wow – I’ve been fortunate to not have any scary run-ins while photographing, but then again I mostly shoot nature. The flowers don’t complain all that much! :) I like the car pictures at any rate!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s the small towns and iffy neighborhoods where I get the most unwanted attention. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

      1. M.B. Henry Avatar

        As someone who lives in a very small town, I can absolutely see where you’d run into trouble in a small town! :) We tend to be suspicious of outsiders! :)

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I was once accosted by several shopkeepers at once in a small town, anxious about what I was doing there. I was glad to have my two large dogs on the leash with me.

  6. marcusterrypeddle Avatar

    Try being a visible minority. A number of years ago, someone driving down the road reported me for photographing the barbed wire on top of a four-metre brick wall surrounding a police training centre. A police car showed up a couple of minutes later, but luckily I knew the officer and he knew that photography is my hobby. And a white guy with a medium format camera slung around his neck, a photo vest stuffed with big lenses and film, and a huge tripod hanging off his shoulder isn’t exactly spy material. I told the officer what I had photographed and why and he was fine with it. He didn’t even warn me to be careful in the future, though I was.
    Sometimes people in markets get angry with me if I take a picture. They probably figure I’m going to report them for dodgy business practices. Middle-aged men in SUVS sometimes slow down when I’m out with a camera and look at me suspiciously. On a number of occasions they’ve stopped, gotten out of their vehicles, and stared at me with arms folded. But they beat a hasty retreat when I start walking towards them to ask what they’re looking at.

  7. seatacphoto1951 Avatar

    I am careful about shooting on private property. Even on the Street, if I want to capture an image of an automobile I will check to see if the owner is around. People are very sensitive about their cars here, especially with the amount of smash and grab that goes on.

  8. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    Interesting post and comments….people do seem to be more nervous now, and they certainly engage in different ways when I am out with my camera. I don’t do a lot of street photography, and I do try to have a conversation with folks if I am wanting to photograph them – it is usually connected in some way with an activity which they are usually very happy to talk about.

  9. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    One option: a 4×5,” camera. By the time you have set up, used the dark cloth, measured light, inserted film holders, most viewers, even suspicious ones, figure out you are harmless. However, there are dodgy neighborhoods (i.e., increasing nos. of towns in USA) where I don’t want to spend that much time on one frame.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      In dodgy neighborhoods I tend to photograph from the driver’s seat of my car, and then speed out of there!

  10. Fairy Qu33n Avatar

    There’s something interesting about the parking lots. Every machine can tell about a life, a pain, an event. They are those places where nothing speaks yet everything says. Every car tells a story. Here in Italy, I live in Italy, if you print cars you have to obscure all the license plates because a man never stays with his lover instead of being in the office. 😆

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s a heightened need for privacy for sure!!

  11. J P Avatar

    What you need is to wear a sandwich board with “NERD PHOTOGRAPHER” in big letters on both sides.

    When I shoot cars, if I plan an interior shot I take that one first, then do exterior views. What’s interesting is that people expect you to take pictures of cars that are clearly cool. But if you shoot a nice middle-aged Buick or Honda, owners think you must be up to something.

    Maybe it’s my profession, but I worry less about people calling the cops for something I’m allowed to do. But then again, I’m a non-threatening aging white guy.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      For sure, I get less attention as a middle-aged white guy than I would as a 30-year-old African-American doing the same thing.

      I’ve stopped photographing car interiors when I bump into parked classics. I wouldn’t want someone photographing the interior of my car. Who knows what personal items I’ve left out?

      And: I’m a nerd photographer for sure.

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