Illegal! Illegal? Really…?

Let me start a little discussion here today.

Brought on by a shoot cancelled because of “privacy reasons”, I had a discussion yesterday on an Internet pro photographer forum about photographing children. In short, this is frowned upon even when allowed (in a public place) – in my view, a worrying development for photographers and for anyone who likes freedom.

Apart from my cancelled shoot, this is in no way a personal argument – I do not go around photographing kids – but I am concerned that the general opinion in this discussion was that photographing children should be illegal, even in a public setting, and that this opinion seemed to be based not on fact, but on emotion.

Now don’t get me wrong: I know there are bad people in the world, and I am very sensitive to the need to protect children, and to parents’ wish to do just that. Goes without reason and should not even need saying.

But I had a problem with the majority opinion and the lack of nuance in translating the need to protect to the desired policy to achieve that. If I – hopefully correctly – paraphrase that majority opinion, it was:

  1. That photographing kids is dangerous to them.
  2. That whether it was legal or not, it was objectionable and should lead to police persecution, if not prosecution.
  3. That the law is irrelevant: kids matter, the law does not.
  4. That the wishes of the individual (e.g. a parent) overrule those of the photographer.

As happens regularly, in this case I was in the minority – a minority of one, in disagreeing with this.

Alas, the thread was deleted by the moderator (who was arguing against me – I have to think perhaps the deletion happened because he thought he was losing the argument? :-)). So I will try to recap my thoughts – this subject is important enough to be discussed extensively.

I disagree strongly with the position that photographing children should be de facto illegal. For the following reasons:

  1. I believe that there is no evidence to suggest that photography, or identifying children, does any significant harm. Child abuse is done in the vast majority of cases (over 98% I believe?) by people who know the child, not by weird stalking strangers. If there is any evidence to suggest that photography has caused any child abduction or abuse cases, I do not know of it. I have kids and want them to be safe – but let’s be evidence-based, not emotion-based. Evidence may well show that we should outlaw uncles, soccer coaches, and relatives, but not photography.
  2. The argument that people who photograph a child “obviously” do this for sexual reasons (“let them go away to masturbate”, was the phrase used”) is entirely unsupported by factual evidence.
  3. The argument, also made, that one must not be allowed to offend anyone or hurt their feelings is also a very weak one. Whatever we do, we will hurt someone’s feelings. Imagine if we allowed religious feelings to dictate policy – the sum total of all religions is against, and hence is offended, I am sure, by everything. Everything we do offends someone.
  4. A phrase similar to “photography of children should not be protected by the law” was used. (Forgive me if I do not recall the exact phrase: the thread, as said, was deleted). This shows a worrying lack of understanding of law. Unlike people who live in dictatorships (and I have worked in them), we do not live in a society where everything is forbidden except what is specifically allowed. Rather, the reverse, and I think we should keep it that way.
  5. With few exceptions, our law allows photographers on public property to photograph anyone on public property.
  6. The phrase “I do not care what the law says, it must not be allowed” (again, paraphrased) is also a worrying one. The whole point of having laws is that it does matter. If something is bad, prove it and make a law against it, and then it is no longer allowed. We do not regulate ourselves by random sentiments or opinions: the law ensures that all this clear, evidence-based, discussed openly, and agreed upon by a majority. History has shown amply that freedom restrictions by popular emotion are always a bad idea.
  7. Imagine if we outlawed photographing children. There are many issues with this seemingly simple law. Like “what about crowds?”. “What if they are your own”. “What if you are their uncle?”. “What about public events?”. “What if it is news?”. “What if the thing you are shooting is newsworthy but the criminal brings a child to avoid photography”. And so on. A simple idea, when thought through, would end up as many complex pages of law. Lawyers would be happy I imagine, but would we?
  8. There are already plenty of good laws against criminals. Stalking is already illegal – no need to make the act of photography itself illegal.

Meanwhile, often aided by our authorities, the general population increasingly thinks that photography is already illegal. And when photographers support this, rather than pushing back and insisting on evidence and law, we live in sad times. Again and again, it is easy to manipulate the vox populi.

So before you take a quick position, I recommend you think things through and try to be fact-based.

Sure we should be sensitive, but if photographers everywhere stopped shooting whenever anyone objects, or worse, did not start because someone might, we would end up doing little photography. Lawmakers and governments always want to increase their power by restricting our rights; since the magna charta, we have pushed back against this.

Remember: Photons are just photons and have no magic evil-powers when captured by a sensor instead of a retina.

But there is one good thing here: I am glad that people apparently feel that a photo can be powerful.

(You can comment by clicking below. Feel free! The first comment by any reader has to be approved, which I will do quickly – then you’re good from then on).

10 thoughts on “Illegal! Illegal? Really…?

  1. WOW! Well Said! Well thought out arguments. And I agree with all of them. It’s a shame that you were censored by the moderator. That is something that is happening more and more. We need to FIGHT and FIGHT HARD to keep our rights and freedoms, most importantly, the right to free, uncensored speech.

    The biggest threat to our society right now is the fact that it’s becoming, increasingly, unacceptable to be seen as intolerant. In the name of “tolerance”, we are “intolerant” of those who are not politically correct. You MUST be accepting and even welcoming of all opinions, not matter now much you disagree, or else you are considered to be “intolerant”, and therefore MUST be treated with intolerance. Hypocrisy?? Yes!

    If you don’t like my opinion, present your argument. Let’s dialogue. But, rather than discuss, or heaven forbid, agree to disagree, we simply say “you are intolerant”, thereby effectively shutting the other person up because there must be something wrong with them. People in Canada are being prosecuted and persecuted for daring to, unapologetically, voicing an idea or opinion that “may offend” someone.

    If this isn’t stopped, the next stop is communist dictatorship.

    • Thanks for the support, Sam. A Politically Correct dictatorship is no fun either, and unless we discuss argument, not emotion, we will have just that. Which we as photographers have a duty to prevent, I think.
      And indeed I am open to debate and discussion!

  2. Hi Michael,
    I can’t imagine people being so silly!! The law banning photography of children would be so long and complex. And what if is one’s own children? Do parents not appreciate the team photos from hockey, baseball, soccer, and class photos, etc.? How do they think they materialize?? Who takes those pictures?? What about birthday parties? Christmas with Santa at the mall? Amusement parks like Wonderland and Disney have photos taken while you are on the ride, and then ask later if you want a copy. Censorship is what this is, and it is an infringement on my rights living in what is supposed to be a free country. I think there is a difference if someone is lurking in bushes, behind trees, hiding in washrooms or change rooms, etc. That’s creepy, and we already have a law protecting EVERYONE from that behaviour. There is no expectation of privacy if you are out in public. If we don’t like it, stay home. This would even extend to professional sporting events. Would we ban filming/broadcasting of the Leafs because a child might be in the crowd?? Ludicrous!

  3. Facebook apparently has a form ( you can fill out to have photos of your less than 13 year old child taken down.

    The National Association of Professional Child Photographers ( seems to be promoting photography of children, at least by its members.

    I recall a story told while I was still in school, many long years ago, that some tribe was against having their photos taken because they thought the camera would steal their souls. Then, I was also told that the Egyptian paintings in pyramids show the person with both arms and both legs so that when the person depicted reaches the afterlife, they will have all their body parts.

    Corporations have been in court trying to restrict photos and paintings containing their trademarks, which leaves me wondering if photographers and artists should band together and start a class action suit to prevent corporations from displaying trademarks anywhere they might accidentally be photographed.

    In some parts of the world a woman is not allowed to be outside unless covered from head to toe, including her face, and in the company of a male family member.

    When I was a child we went out to play after lunch and came back around dinner time. We were somewhere in the neighbourhood, but usually we did not tell our parents exactly where we were. We would go to a friend’s house, then perhaps to another friend’s, then to the park, or the beach, or the schoolyard. Parents who wanted their child to come home in the middle of the afternoon would go outside and blow a whistle or yell their child’s name, and a while later the child would appear. Recently, a child who was banned from a school bus in the United States was told to walk to school, by his mother. The police picked him up waiting for a light to change at an intersection, then arrested the mother for child endangerment! The story was carried by Yahoo news which picked it up from some other news feed. I don’t know how it all turned out, but it is obvious that society now seems to feel your children should get fat sitting in front of a game console at home instead of getting fit playing outdoors.

    This is a little bit meandering. The summary is that in our world there are many ill informed people, and just as many people who are control freaks. Those in a free society must be ever vigilant and must act when necessary to ensure that freedom remains.

  4. I was a cop for many years and frequently had my picture taken, although I wasn’t always happy about it. The only time it was an issue was with undercover officers. I also spent time in media relations and found there was never a problem with media not using those photos.
    While some pictures were embarrassing, it was only when photogs got in the way that they were interfered with.
    In public I don’t expect an issue and certainly wouldn’t want to be interfered with myself.

  5. I had that same problem, only not with children but celebrities (same difference).
    I managed to unintentionally annoy Andy Richter (Conan O’Brien’s sidekick) by taking a close-up shot at the end of an appearance, he immediately left looking rather annoyed, and the student security guard asked me to leave.
    (Then Wikipedia took the uncropped photo version down because of a suspected copyright violation even though I took the photo myself, but that’s another story.)
    I again got flagged photographing Noam Chomsky at a different appearance, but they just asked me to put the camera away.

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