These days, it’s difficult to make photos without first having to ask permission from someone. Security is tighter at both public and private venues, and it’s likely you’ll encounter officials in many forms: gate attendants, receptionists, police officers, bureaucrats, teachers, secretaries, security guards. You’ll even encounter “unofficial officials”: janitors, ticket takers, bystanders, relatives of officials, and the like. My word of advice for these barriers — I mean, good people? Handle with care.
Example: You arrive at a high school football game to get photos of the opening kick-off for your stock file and an assignment. You’ll leave as soon as you get the pictures — so you have no reason to pay admission. You enter by a side gate and you are met by an attendant with an officious, “Where do you think you’re going?” expression.
You don’t want to allow this fellow to steal precious minutes from you, so you attempt to ignore him. You walk right past him. “Wait a minute!” he says, insulted that you have not recognized his importance. He has the right to detain you, and he does — long enough that you miss the kick-off shots.
Sound familiar? Here’s how to avoid this kind of situation:
1. Be courteous. No matter who presents her/himself as an “official,” be courteous and allot time to appease their “need” to detain you.
2. Ask for help. In the case of the football gate attendant, you say, “Could you help me? I need to get a picture of the kick-off (you look at your watch) for (your assignment or name of publication). Could you tell me the quickest way to the 50-yard line?”
3. Answer questions. If an official wants to know something about you — why you’re here, what the pictures will be used for — explain everything to the official, the same as you would to the corporate executive you might be planning to photograph. Answering questions is also a good way to cultivate officials who could have access to information helpful to your picture-taking assignment.
4. Bribe them — a little. When you encounter an official who isn’t cooperative, offer to give him/her a copy of the picture you’re going to take. But don’t take his/her name on a piece of paper. Such papers either get lost or add to your office work. Instead, offer him your business card and say, “Here’s my address. Write or e-mail me in about two weeks — the picture will be processed by then.” Experience says you’ll never hear from the official.
5. Secure a press card — for major events. For large, important events, written permission from headquarters is your best introduction to on-site officials (headquarters usually issues its own press cards, letters of introduction, tags, stickers, etc.).
6. Wear an extra camera around your neck. At 999 out of 1,000 events, officials don’t ask for a press card if you’re carrying two or more cameras around your neck. If you don’t have extra cameras, buy a couple professional-looking, inoperative ones at a flea market. They’ll be your passport to most any public event you want to photograph.
7. Try a different official. If an official demands, “Wait over there; fill out this form; stand in line; I’ll put you on ‘hold'; I have to check with my boss first” — then it’s time to try someone else. In the case of the football gate attendant, just walk away and find another gate. In the case of an uncooperative receptionist, wait till she goes on coffee break or lunch. The replacement might be more cooperative.
And what if no officials are on the scene? Don’t go out of your way to find someone to ask permission. Volunteers may have no authority (a waiter in a restaurant, an attendant at a conference). Rather than take no pictures because you don’t have permission, use your First Amendment rights and begin making photos. An official will usually come forward — and before he gives you his “routine,” you go into yours.