I've always been a big fan of horror movies, and one of my favorite series is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so when I discovered the house from the 2003 Michael Bay film was just one county away, I had to go see it. After a few minutes on Google, I found the exact location of the house and a few blog posts and videos from people that had already gone. The first thing that caught my attention was a sign that read, " PRIVATE PROPERTY & ROAD. KEEP OUT OR GO TO JAIL OR WORSE. REST IN PEACE". This is Texas. Here, that kind of thing needs to be taken very seriously. Still, I know my rights, and it is well within them for me to setup my camera from a public street and take pictures of that structure. Pretty much anything you see from public property is fair game when it comes to taking photos.
We decided to drive out to the property for a dusk photo shoot. As we drove up to the site, a tractor pulled into the driveway of the Hewitt House (the Hewitt's were the murderers in the film). A couple of our friends, Aaron and Breane Dooley, were shooting an old windmill across the street, so we parked off that side of the road, grabbed our cameras and hopped out. That's when the tractor came back out of the driveway, and pulled up next to us. The nice fellar aboard the farm equipment informed us that he was the caretaker, and that he knew why we were there. He went on to say that the house has been nothing but trouble for him, and that we would be shot if we stepped foot onto the property. We told him that we had no intentions of going on his land, and that we were simply there to take photos. He then started his tractor back up, and drove to the house, where he started moving around bails of hay.
Savannah and I talked with our friends for a few minutes, and began taking a few photos as we waited for the sun to set.
Exactly 28 minutes after we got there, a Williamson County Sheriff SUV pulled up, and we were approached by two deputies. They said they had received a phone call but didn't go into much more detail. I told them that we were there to take photos of the house, because it was used in the horror film. They claimed they had no idea the house was used in a movie, which I didn't buy for a second. One of the deputies asked to see our ID's, so we walked back to the vehicles. The caretaker then came back down the driveway and started talking with the other deputy at the end of the property. It was all very uneventful. The police ran our ID's, and agreed that we were well within our rights to shoot from the road, as long as we weren't impeading the flow of traffic (which as you can imagine, is plentiful off CR 336 in Granger, Texas).
I kept video rolling during the exchange, but there's really nothing there to see or hear. The other officer came back over as the caretaker once again drove back up to the house. The officer that had been talking with the caretaker then told us that there is an elderly woman living on the property, and that they have experienced trouble with vandals and people doing drugs. The caretaker conveniently left out the part where he confronted and threatened us. The sherrifs said there was nothing they could do about that, typical. He suggested that maybe it would be best to difuse the situation and for us to just leave. We agreed, mainly because the entire ordeal took up the 30 minutes of good light we had gone out there to shoot.
.That's when things got interesting. The deputies got into their vehicle and left. We began packing up our equipment as we figured out where to go shoot next. I was getting into our car when the caretaker drove back down the driveway, this time followed by a truck (no clue how many people were in it, or who it was). He then blocked our friend's vehicle in with his tractor. I walked back over to Aaron's vehicle, as he and the caretaker got into an arguement. I never said a word, and stood there just in case something happened. My camera was already packed up, wish I had it at that moment! The caretaker said that he was going to talk to his attorney, because the house is copyrighted by the movie producers, and that if we posted the photos online, we could expect a lawsuit. It was clear this man had no idea how copyright law works. After a few more choice words between the two, he started his tractor back up, again, and left.
We left the Hewitt house about an hour after we arrived. Since we didn't get to take any photos of the building at night, we decided to go to a nearby radar station for some night shots. We were actually approached by two park rangers at that location as well! Moral of this story is if you're in a small town with not much going on (or at least Granger, Texas), expect to be confronted by law enforcement every time you setup your tripod. The park rangers were really just checking to see what we were up to, and surprisingly did not site national security risks as a reason we couldn't photograph the radar station.
This wasn't the first time something like this has happened to me. With the type of photography I do, I often end up in places that perhaps I shouldn't be. I usually take a sign that says no trespassing more as a suggestion than anything, of course I take them a little more seriously when the threat of deadly force is included.
I have been approached by security guards and police on several occasions. Thankfully, I learned about photographer's rights extensively in photo school. Usually a quick explanation as to why I am there suffices, but what really helps me is that I know my rights better than most police and security guards know them.
So what are your rights as a photographer? Where is it legal to shoot from? When is it illegal to take someone's photo? How can you prevent yourself from getting into a bad situation, as more and more photographers have increasingly found themselves in? Here are some general rules to shoot by, how they apply to some situations you may encounter.
If you're on public property, you're good. That’s the general rule. If you are on public property (a street, sidewalk, public park, etc) you can take pictures of pretty much anything you see. This means that you are also free to take photos of private property, given you are not trespassing to get the shot.
Of course, it's never that simple. There are a few exceptions to the rule you need to know.
Does the subject of your photo opp expect privacy?
This is the big one. Even if you are on public property, you can not take photos of a person who has a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” It's pretty much common sense. This means it is illegal to take pictures of people in bathrooms, dressing rooms, or similar places. Ask yourself, “Would the average person expect privacy?” If so, don’t take a photo.
It's kind of creepy, but I feel I should say, don’t sneak photographs of people from bizarre angles. Basically, you can’t go around taking voyeuristic shots. Even if you’re on public property.
This exception also covers the scenario of shooting onto private property from public property. If you are photographing a home with a 35mm lens, you probably can't see anything that a person should expect to be private. However, if you have a 500mm lens on your camera and are taking photos of someone by zooming through their windows, that's another story. It's basically spying, and it could be deemed an invasion of privacy, in which you could be held legally accountable.
Could your photo compromise national security?
In most cases, the answer to this is no, regardless of what a security guard might tell you. However, military bases and nuclear facilities can restrict photographs, even from a public area. I have seen this on a couple occasions, once at Patrick AFB in Melbourne, Florida and another time at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Both places had signs clearly posted that prohibit photography. Even if you’re on public property, taking photos of these installations could be illegal. Not just misdemeanor illegal, in many cases felony illegal. You might even find yourself looking at serious prison time for simply taking a photo. Don't do it!
If your photo opp passes these three stages, it's most likely safe to take some photos. To give you some more information, let's take a look at more specific situations that you may find yourself taking photos.
• Photographing a non military government facility, commercial buildings, or infrastructure.
This one is simple. It is legal to take photographs in public places. This includes streets, sidewalks, and public parks. However, you cannot obstruct others, including traffic. It is legal to take photos of bridges and buildings, no matter what you are told by security guards or law enforcement.
• Photographing a couple walking in a public park.
You can photograph people in public places without consent, but remember the exceptions. If the potential subjects have a reasonable expectation of privacy, do not photograph them.
• Photographing a house from the road.
A person's house is private property. However, if it is visible from a public place that you are standing, you are legally allowed to take photos of it. Be sure to get permission if you plan to enter the driveway or yard, especially in Texas. In some cases, buildings can be copyrighted. However, you can bypass this by selling the photo for editorial or fine art purposes, rather than commercially (where it would be used for an advertisement).
• Photographing a house from the street. The occupant is visible through a window.
A person in their home has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Don't take a photo if you can see them from a window, and definitely do not use a zoom lens to photograph the inside of someone's home. You could be facing arrest or a lawsuit if you do.
• Photographing people in public. Your intention is to sell the photos through a stock photography website.
Of course you are free to take photos of people in public, but you do need a model release from anyone uniquely identifiable before trying to sell the photos for stock use. Companies that purchase images from stock photography websites use them for commercial purposes, and need a release to limit their liability. Otherwise, it's possible that they could be sued. Stock photography websites have their own rules governing model releases, and won't accept photos that do not meet these requirements, so check into what they need before you shoot.
• Photographing children in public. Your intention is to sell the images as fine art..
You do not need permission to photograph children in public. Fine art falls under editorial usage; so consent is not necessarily required. However, be aware that in this day and age, people are very suspicious of someone taking photos of children (and rightfully so). If you plan on doing this type of photography, I highly suggest talking to the parents and asking their permission first. This is one of the only situations where I would say it is NOT better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
• Photographing an arrest or accident scene from public property. Your intention is to sell a photo of it to a newspaper.
You have the right to take these kinds of photos from public property. Just be sure you don't hinder law enforcement officials or emergency workers. If they request you to move, do so. You may still take photos from another location. Newspapers use these types of photographs for editorial purposes; so no consent is needed.
• Photographing a concert or a professional sports game.
Many venues ban professional photography without a press pass. Restrictions should be posted. Check your ticket or call ahead for information.
Of course this list is not all inclusive, and you may run into some situations that you aren't prepared for. The best advice I can give you is to stay calm and in most cases cooperate with any reasonable request, and you will be just fine. If someone infringes on your rights, call the police. If it is an officer that is activing above their authority, ask to speak to a supervisor. Remember that NO ONE can make you delete images from your camera, and if it is not a law enforcement officer, nobody has the right to hold you against your will. Here is a good printable pocket guide. Print one out, and put it in your camera bag