The Permission Problem

by ralph

Quite often, when I give a program at a camera club, particularly when I show stock photos, the question comes up about obtaining permission to gain access to restricted areas. Most people wonder if I have any special sort of permit.

Frankly the question of permission to shoot is one of the most worrisome problems confronting the professional photographer. It's not uncommon anymore that when a company hires a photographer, other persons in the same organization interfere with his or her execution of the job.

Over thirty years ago I embarked on a trip around the USA to shoot a significant body of stock photos of everything from scenics and cities to industry at work. My only accreditation was a letter from the stock photo agency that handled my work. Once I left the lawyerly confines of New York City (going in any direction), the degree of helpful cooperation I received was positively awesome. Vice presidents and even one president of major Midwestern industries like Fairbanks Morse, International Harvester and Cessna Aircraft, rolled out the red carpet and told me to go wherever I pleased and shoot whatever I wanted ? instructing the relevant departments to cooperate and even occasionally supplying personnel as models.

Times have changed and it's been a long downhill ride from those rosy days. It seems that suspicion and greed are the major factors at work nowadays. When a professional tries to gain access people seem to think he's going to make a million bucks and they want a part of it, or else they think he's a paparazzi and want no part of it. (My stock photos are speculative and 4 out of 5 never sell. The few that do have to pay the freight for the rest so several hundred to over a thousand $$ in royalties, spread over 10 or 20 years is not a large fortune).

Even government and quasi government agencies and private foundations have become fussily restrictive and bureaucratic. Dealing with such entities as 0ld Williamsburg, VA, Lincoln Center, NY, and the NY World Trade Center (Port Authority), and various federal government buildings has been a nightmare tangle of red tape and unreasonable fees. Curiously, these are some of the same places that cater to tourists -with all their cameras clicking away. Guards at such location seem to be well drilled about what constitutes professional gear. Any one 35mm or smaller camera or camcorder hardly earns a blink from them, but if you show up with two cameras (especially Nikons) and a big bag you will get stopped or even kicked out. Show up with anything on a tripod or any medium to large format and the reaction is even more immediate.

With this dichotomy in mind, in recent years I find it usually makes more sense to look and act like an amateur than a pro, slimming my stuff down to one camera and bag in the questionable situations. Even though I carry the ASMP press pass I often hide it and show my OCCC (Ocean County Camera Club-NJ) members card instead, to show I'm a "bona fide amateur". I once held off a dubious guard with it while shooting the Supreme Court building (in Washington) with a 4x5 on a tripod.

Trying to deal with officialdumb on their level, adopting the premise that they have some justification for their obstructionism is pretty disillusioning. Private and corporate bureaucracies can be even more thickheaded than government ones. I have often taken interior views of shopping malls to fill those midday hours of dull sunlight. Recently, when stopped by a guard in a mall in Los Angeles I decided to pursue the matter of getting permission all the way to the top. The top turned out to be some sort of security office. When the chief was questioned why photography was verboten she blustered, "We have to protect the store's copyrights". When I asked how I could possible affect them she became even more defensive and flustered but had no answer.

I wasted some time in the office of the Old
illiamsburg foundation, trying to get permission to shoot interiors (with tripod). It turned out they wanted to micro-manage their image by approving every single appearance of their images in every media -- and all applications for such use are only considered during a two week period each May ( Duh !!).

Thirty years ago, in order to take a picture of the Capitol in Washington one had to ask their Office of the Capitol Architect for a short term permit. On the permit, the applicant had to state the picture was for non commercial purposes, obviously a charade which was routinely ignored. Nowadays three permits are required, one from the capitol architect and one each from the senate and house wings -- and they feel no need to assign the same dates to the permits.

I also tried to "go all the way to the top" to get permits to shoot in Lincoln Center and the NY World Trade Center. The respective offices were willing to grant them but either fee was about $450, adequate in their ossified brains, to cover the disruption of a TV or movie crew , but no allowance was made for a single, unobtrusive, speculative photographer.

Is it any wonder then that one would develop nothing but contempt for all those mindless, self important persons and offices that define their reason for being as blocking photographers from making a living. I find that my best policy is to shoot first, get the shots quickly, ask questions only when necessary, and save my large cameras only for wide open and problem free areas.

Of course all of the foregoing does not apply to photos of people or their property where I still diligently pursue getting signed releases, and most people are still willing to oblige.