Photography: Respecting the Location


One of these days I’m going to get back into shape. Then I’m going to fly to Nepal. Then I’m going to hire a Sherpa to guide me on an arduous journey up into the highest reaches of the Himalayas. Along the way he’ll teach me his language, as well as the customs of his people. By the time we arrive at the summit, we will have saved each others’ lives several times, binding our fates together for all eternity. Sitting atop the apex of the world (beneath a sign that says, “No Flash Photography Allowed”) will be a shriveled old man with a long beard who will explain to me the sorcery and wonder behind the algorithm that determines what’s going to show up as a “suggested post” on my Facebook news feed.

Seems like a long way to go for an answer, but you go where the truth takes you.

Anyway, earlier today I stumbled across this suggested post from a place called the Farmington Historic Plantation. I initially stopped because I grew up near a place called Farmington, but we didn’t exactly have plantations in Detroit. As it turns out, the Farmington Historic Plantation is a small museum and art gallery in Louisville, Kentucky, and is one of three properties that make up Louisville’s Historic Homes Foundation— all three of which are very popular locations for local photographers. It seems, though, that a lot of these photographers can’t follow directions very well, and have– at least temporarily– really messed things up for those who can.

I’ll let their Facebook post speak for itself.

farmington-historic-plantation-diyphotography-001So, apparently photographers tend to do what they want, where and when they want to do it, despite warnings and instructions to the contrary. Does this sound like you or anyone you know? I’ll be the first to admit that I occasionally interpret “No Trespassing” signs as suggestions, rather than directions, but when I do so the only person to face any repercussions is me. When I ignored all the signs so I could sneak into an abandoned prison here in Atlanta, the police officers who showed up would have been well within their rights to arrest me. They didn’t, thankfully, but if they had I would have been the only one affected. Louisville, on the other hand, appears to be running rampant with packs of out-of-control photographers– on the grounds of historic homes, of all places!

I get that we’re all on an eternal quest for “The Shot.” I get that finding or creating something truly meaningful and original gets increasingly difficult. I even get that trying to explain the golden hour, shooting angles, and composition to the two-person staff at the Farmington Historic Plantation is an exercise in futility. But we still need to respect the rules of the places where we like to shoot. Ignoring warnings, moving the furniture, ignoring “off limits” signs, and being an all-around pain in the ass do not forge a path for creative cooperation. Unlike urban exploration and street photography, where you are pretty much the only person who will suffer for your actions, ignoring the rules at popular photography locations screws every photographer looking to create something within that setting.

It would be awesome if our cameras came with laminated cards that granted us magical access to…well…everything. Off the top of my head, I can think of LOTS of places I’d love to shoot. A camera, though, isn’t a license to treat the world like it’s your own personal photographic playground. As truly sad as this realization might be, it’s reality. What it all boils down to is respect. Respect for the location. Respect for the rules. Respect for other photographers. We all know those photographers who refuse to share their super-top-secret locations. For what it’s worth, I find attitudes like that to be narrow-minded, and totally lacking in self-confidence. If you’re that worried about the images I’ll be able to create in your super-top-secret location, you might be in the wrong business.

But I digress. Where was I?

Oh yeah– your camera isn’t your golden ticket into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Like I said– it’s all about respect. I’m sure we’ve all done some crazy stuff along the way for a great shot.  We sneak into places we don’t belong. We ignore warning signs. We taunt the gods of photography, safety, and common sense, daring them to mess with us. And that’s okay, to a certain degree. But when our actions have a negative impact on other photographers and their ability to work, we need to step back and take a professional, objective view of what we’re doing. Local photography communities tend to be rather tight-knit, at least in the sense that word travels fast. The very last person in the world you want to be is the pompous ass who shut down a location for the entire community.

While I’m on the topic of obeying the signs, let me throw in my own two cents about railroad tracks. You know what railroad tracks are for? Railroads! Multi-ton steel behemoths that cannot possibly slow down in time to avoid killing whatever happens to be in their way. Even if they seem abandoned. Even if you don’t see or hear a train. I’m tired of seeing stories in the news about people getting killed on railroad tracks during photo shoots. And yes– it does happen more often than you think. Besides– that pensive, moody railroad track portrait has become a cliche, and you’re better than that.

Read the signs. Respect the location and your colleagues. And stay safe.

  • Renato Murakami

    Who knows? The two-person staff there might even compose of one photographer, or someone who could perfectly understand golden hour, shooting angles or composition… nothing hard about it.
    Doesn’t mean that understanding those would make them any more acceptant of people who use photography as an excuse to behave like douchebags.
    What people going there have to realize is that the staff probably has to deal with too much of it in a daily or at least weekly basis. Anyone would snap at some point.
    Actions like that usually comes with a full background of horrible cases that had to happen for the prohibition to be considered.
    In any case, these days depending on how important and where I’m going to take photos and whatnot, the best idea is just planning. Call the place first, ask for permition, see what sort of rules they have in place. And just in general, don’t act like an asshole.
    People seem lacking of common sense these days. You go to a fucking museum or art site, no matter how big or small, you don’t go pulling chairs, placing tripods, climbing benches, moving tables around, stepping on lawns, closing down venues and lanes among other stuff you know will cause problems for others without previously getting permission. And if staff came around just to ask you to stop doing whatever you are doing, you fucking stop. Specially if it’s a place as understaffed as that.
    Anything sounds like an excuse to become devoid of critical sense and reasoning these days… unfortunately, photography seems to be a big one.
    You are not entitled to it, even if you paid a ticket for entrance – it’s for entrance, not to own the place. And no, having an expensive dSLR or whatever doesn’t give you any priorities over the folks with cheap smartphone cams and whatnot – this is one thing that pisses me off. If you wanna pull that sort of crap, book first and pay for the entire day traffic if necessary. If you are in some location, public or private, were you didn’t pay for usage and you are not working for the location benefit itself, you have no priority over other people using the same place, no matter what the purpose is.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Excellent points, Renato. Thanks!

  • Wil Fry

    Personally, I’ve seen about the same percentage of douchebags among photographers as I’ve seen among the general population. Perhaps the photographers are more obvious because of the big cameras around their necks.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      I think that may be part of it, Wil, but I still think it has something to do with our attitudes. Most of the time when you ask a non-photographer to stop what they’re doing I think they comply. Too many of us, on the other hand, view it as a challenge.

      • Wil Fry

        Perhaps. There is also the attitude of “I planned to photograph here, so I’m damn well going to do that”. I know I’ve felt that way when entering museums before, but didn’t act on the feelings. :-) (Now I’ve learned to check ahead of time whether sites allow photography, and just avoid the ones that prohibit it if I can.)

        Further, I know some photographers who think of themselves as “photojournalists” even if they’re not with a news organization, and believe that gives them special rights on private property. It is certainly food for thought.

  • Tyler

    Jeff, this is something I see all the time working in the railroad industry (both as a photographer and a railroader). You’re damn right in your criticism of photographers shooting on tracks. Railroading is dangerous enough for us, much less the idiots who walk out on the tracks with no idea what they’re doing. Every career railroader I know has several fatal trespasser strikes under their belt and weighing on their conscience, and already I’ve had a close call which almost knocked me off a moving train.

    A photographer gave me a scare last year when I was shooting for a railroad. I was riding in the locomotive wearing a retroreflective vest and safety glasses, he was standing in the weeds on the inside of a blind curve wearing dark clothes and a bluetooth headset…at night! I spotted him less than ten seconds before we passed him, and nobody else in the cab saw him at all.

    Unless you have the training and authorization to be there, stay off the tracks. I really don’t want to kill you.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Tyler– I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone raise this issue from the viewpoint of the person who sees this happening and is powerless to do anything about it. Thanks for that insight, and thanks for joining the conversation.

  • Kent LaPorte

    Photographers must be respectful of the law and observe the wishes of owners of private property. In this regard there is very little debate. However, the world has been consumed with protecting itself from liability, avoiding anything it defines as an imposition and making sure its value is commoditized. This is the natural consequence of when people become self aware of what they posses and when limited resources are in demand. This is easy when we talk about an iPhones or a car but how does it relate to a experience or a place. Some may call this free market in action, although most free markets rarely behave as such. It demonstrates to our kids that everything has a price and has to happen on our terms. Children complain about sharing their toys, Adults understand they we take nothing with us and that our legacy is in what we give back to others.
    I appreciate that this farm is having a challenge with inappreciative photographers and it is unfortunate that a few bad eggs are spoiling it for the rest of us. The correct response would be to create a free permit system which holds visiting photographers accountable. However, I am slightly suspicious that this farm’s true goal is to only allow paid events on the property. This may or may not be their prerogative, but they should also be careful about ruining their golden egg.
    I am now exhausted from my hyperbole. Have a great weekend and go take a picture for free.