View Full Version : Question About Photgraphing Gov't Buildings In US

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04-24-2005, 07:43 PM
Evening all..had a rather interesting encounter yesterday evening. The sky's were clear, front had passed through and the light was very nice..so around 7:00 pm drove into town to make some exposures of main branch of the PO in Ft. Worth. This is a grand old building with columns across the front and I had 'seen' the image in my mind and decided to go for it.

Got to down, evening light was perfect - golden hour stuff - took a quick meter reading to see if the light was indeed good, set the camera up and walk into an area in between the streets and started setting up. As always, I was aware of traffic and the different sounds around me while under the dark cloth, when I heard the jingle of keys...looked up and a gentleman was crossing the street from the direction of the post office. I smiled and greeted him, but was met with a glare and 'What are doing?'..explained that I was taking a picture of the grand old building, which was cut short with -'You can't do that, it's a government building'. I explained my position, that is was indeed a govt building, but also a 'public' building, which only seemed to agitate the gentlemen. He said he could call someone to come out and explain to me that it was illegal, at which point I said fine..did not agree with him, but would leave..he could call whom ever he needed to.

Since then I have done several searches and can not find anything that states that it is illegal to make a photograph of a Post Office...does anyone know if this is true? or is this just more mis-information effects from 9-11. The gentleman seemed quite upset, and told me that since 9-11 I was breaking the law...which is possible, but can't seem to find any information on this.

I have sent an email to the USPS inquiring if a permit or anything is needed to photograph one of their buildings. I explained that I was interested in the historic old building and that I would be using a camera (5x7) on a tripod and that it might draw attention, and would they need me to fill out any paper work, or such. As noted here before, sometimes it is better to ask forgiveness rather than permission...and with 5 minutes longer, that's what would have happened. So, no image, no exposure...just frustration.

Dave Parker
04-24-2005, 07:48 PM
Who was the guy that confronted you? was he a guard, or postal employee?

Just wondering.


04-24-2005, 07:53 PM
Good point Dave..he was a postal employee. Asking just because in this post 9-11 era nothing is for certain anymore. Admit it irritated me to know end, but I know some buildings are off-limits, but this did not seem quite right..more like something that someone thinks is fact, but isn't.

Dave Parker
04-24-2005, 07:54 PM

I just found a page, that explains different activities that are considered suspious under different security levels...it is located at:


Located down the page a ways, under the Yellow Level.

Here is another one, wrote by a stock photog about what he experianced..



04-24-2005, 07:59 PM
My gut reaction is: It most certainly is not illegal to photograph a public/government building from a public place in the USA....and if it is, then this country is truely, no longer the home of the free. Outrageous!

04-24-2005, 08:07 PM
But suspicous and illegal are fsar different. I had experienced something similar while doing some video work for a documentary about the VCU French Film Festival (one of the largest in the world outside France). A function took place at the Virginia Museum and I had to argue my way in. The guards said it was against policy and required the museums permission. I explained that I was part of the function and documenting that function was my job. Eventually they relented but I had a permanent "shadow" for the evening.

In the fall I wanted to shoot some of the museums buildings, which include a chapel built for Civil War Veterans in the 1880's. This time I called the museum, spoke with the head of security, told him about the issues in the Spring and was assured that I was completely within my rights to photograph public buildings. But the head of security is a far cry from one of the guards.

Interestingly enough I was at the museum last weekend for the last day of a Latin American Exhibit from the permanent collection. I spent over an hour looking at six Bravo's, one Rivera and 3 Orozco's. After 30 minutes I again had a shadow for the rest of the time. I think that bending over and looking up at the Bravo's to check for spotting must've been suspicious.

04-24-2005, 08:15 PM
Mike, do what I did... call the police.

I was hasseled by a security guard because I was taking a picture of "his building." He told me I couldn't take pictures and I, very calmly, told him I was on public property taking a picture of a building that was viewable from said public property. His reply was that he was going to call the police, so I whipped out my cell phone and dialed 911. When they answered I told them I was being harassed by a security guard while taking a picture of a building from a public sidewalk--then I handed him the phone, he said "uh huh" a couple of times, apologized and then went back inside.

Too bad the picture I took sucked, but the afternoon was fun :)

Dave Parker
04-24-2005, 08:19 PM

If you go to google and search for the terms 'photographing government buildings' there are quite a few articles pertaining to this subject.


04-24-2005, 08:20 PM
This is a subject that has been discussed extensively on the web - both by those who are relatively knowlegable and by those who are not burdoned by any factual information. In fact, there is even a forum that is devoted exclusively to discussion of the rights of photographers, and how those rights are being challenged inappropriately by both government officials and the general public.

I don't believe that it is inherently illegal to photograph a post office. But given today's paranoia, it would not be unusual to be challenged. This is especially the case if you are photographing a major post office in a large city, and even more if the building also contains other government offices and courts.

In the US, you can legally photograph anything you can see while standing on the sidewalk or other public property. Of course you have to be careful about what constitutes public property - shopping malls, for example, are private property.

There are a few notorious instances where local jurisdictions have created regulations against photographing of certain public facilities. In New York, there are signs on all bridges declaring that photography is illegal, and the New York Transit Authority wants to make photography illegal in the subways. It remains to be seen whether those ban will be held up on appeal. In some places (New York City and Washington, DC, for example) it is illegal to use a tripod on public property without a permit - this is supposed to be in the interest of public safety or to control potential public nuisance - frankly, there is some validity to that argument, but it is also possible that it is being carried to a ridiculous extreme.

There are those who believe that the Patriot Act includes provisions against photographing certain public buildings, bridges, etc. I haven't done the research myself, but I saw a posting by one individual who claimed to have studied the Patriot Act and found that there is no reference to photography AT ALL in that law.

The best available information on what is legal (and conversely, what is not) in this area can be found on Bert Krages web site, http://www.krages.com/lvaserv.htm.

04-24-2005, 08:23 PM
I always blindfold myself and 'feel' my way into the post office when I have to mail a letter.
That way I avoid looking suspicious.

04-24-2005, 08:37 PM
mike -

the same thing happened to me when i wanted to photograph the ri supreme court, but it was courthouse police who told me it was illegal. it was a good thing i was taking a portrait of the chief justice :) ....

04-24-2005, 09:21 PM
It is funny that a thousand people a day could surreptitiously take pictures of every detail of these buildings from every angle with their cell phones without drawing a glance and yet when some guy openly sets up a film camera on a tripod a half a block away in plain sight in the middle of the day to take the same picture that you can buy on a postcard in any dime store on Main Street and it's time to call out the home guard.

04-25-2005, 07:10 AM
It is funny that a thousand people a day could surreptitiously take pictures of every detail of these buildings from every angle with their cell phones without drawing a glance and yet when some guy openly sets up a film camera on a tripod a half a block away in plain sight in the middle of the day to take the same picture that you can buy on a postcard in any dime store on Main Street and it's time to call out the home guard.

Last week, I wandered into a number of art galleries on Cape Cod that has posted signs on their doors stating "No food, drink, pets or cell phones".

I suspect that is a recognition that traditional photograph is an obvious activity, and if it is inappropriate, can be discretely managed. But cell phones can be used so surrepticiously that no one would ever know what is happening.

Seems to me that those who are concerned about security should be far more worried about guys wandering around appearing to talk on cell phones while trying to merge into the woodwork than they are about photographers with big cameras on tripods.

Les McLean
04-25-2005, 08:09 AM
Had a similar experience in the railway station in Brighton, England last summer. I was leading a workshop on street photography that I have done for the past 7 years and always started it in Brighton railway station. I was approached by the Transport Police and told that photographs where not allowed because we may have been taking them for use by terrorists. When I pointed out that we were 17 strong and had at least 50,000 of highly visible camera equipment hung about our bodies and unlikely to be terrorists the sergeant was less that understanding.

04-25-2005, 08:16 AM
Surely one of the things that makes all these rules completely stupid is that in most cases you can go down to a public library and get photographs of all public buildings from their archives? Also lets face it a terrorist is going to use a point and shoot digital if they want to target anything or even buy a postcard. Maybe the power crazed officials are still thinking with the cold war mentality, in which case may ye gods protect us :(

04-25-2005, 08:23 AM
Thanks for the comments, and related tales - at least it helps to know we are a special bunch! Reply for the USPS is already in, boy that was quick - they just suggested that I contact the local Postmaster and see what THEIR policy is on photographing the building. Leads me to believe that 1. there is no law that prohibits taking photos of government buildings 2. the local postmaster is allowed to make the call..which again means it not law (unless they can get the local city/county/state to pass an something).

Appreciate the input, sure hate to see this..it just means that the terrorist have managed to not disrupt normal activities (like photography), but have managed to make some folks way to paranoid. Sigh!!

04-25-2005, 08:35 AM
When my in-laws were growing up, it was illegal to photograph government buildings of any kind, trains, planes, and even parades. They grew up in Nazi occupied Holland.

Andy K
04-25-2005, 08:59 AM
So if I was to visit the US on holiday (vacation) and photographed the Whitehouse (or any other 'tourist-interesting' building) I would/could be arrested?

It puzzles me how little you can photograph in the US these days, I also seem to remember a thread, not long ago, about people not being permitted to photograph Monument Valley due to something to do with Native American rights, is this true?

04-25-2005, 09:08 AM
Not sure about the Whitehouse, but probably..if you used at tripod. Doen not make sense to me you can handhold a camera, in plain site or hidden and photograph just about anything...pull out a tripod and boom...no one wants you to take a picture then.

About the Indian Lands..some do allow photography, others do not, always best to check with the locals...Monument Valley...pretty sure you can photograph, just can't get off the road (in other words you need a guide - check out Mark's artilce in the Artilces section, it's pretty good)

Jim Chinn
04-25-2005, 09:42 AM
A lot of this has to do with CYA. Police, security gaurds and building officials probably do not know the specific rights of the public with regards to photography. Better to stop the photographer and not get into trouble and lose your job if they think it is illeagal to photograph the building. I don't think it is illeagal to photograph anything from a public right of way. On the specific site is a different matter.

Pre-9/11 I was with a friend on a county road just off the property of Offutt Air Force Base in Bellvue, NE. We were photographing the comings and going of aircraft during an airshow. A vehicle showed up with two base security officers. They asked to look at our cameras and in our vehicles. We complied and after deciding we were pretty harmless, told us to have fun and left. I assume the outcome would be different today so I have not been back.