Kansas City Pushes Back Against Photographers

Kansas City Pushes Back Against Photographers

If you photograph portraits, chances are you have a preferred public (perhaps private) space that captures your imagination. But what if your favorite spot didn't want you there anymore?

Business owners in the historic West Bottoms district of Kansas City are standing up against what they deem intrusive, uninvited photographers who use their storefronts and lobbies as backdrops for their photo shoots.

Several buildings in the area with preserved historic doorways have posted "No Trespassing" signs with "No Photography" written on the signs' blank slates below. One particular sign has "No Basic Photographers" written in, which is clearly an insult as well as a warning to the aspiring artists who have been burdening them. I couldn't help but chuckle when I saw that one in the video posted by Fox 4 KC.

If you think those restricting photographer traffic are being unfair, take a step back and imagine having a storefront. One day, you hear voices near the entrance to your warehouse or shop, so you make your way there to discover a family, photographer, and assistant with full props and lighting set up in your lobby, snapping away like it's their own private studio. You tell them to leave and post a "No Trespassing/Photographers" sign. It happens again, but this time, the group is posted outside your door instead, blocking both foot traffic and street traffic to your business, which is on private property.

It's all a bit infuriating to me, even though I'm on the other end of the lens from these angry business owners. This boorish behavior gives photographers a bad name and shouldn't be tolerated by either side.

This isn't the first time Kansas City has restricted photography: I dug up more on the city's photography restrictions: Kansas City's Overland Park district requires photography permits (not uncommon across the United States), a Memorial Garden in the city also requiring permits and the Fox Article about West Bottoms, which mentions Burr Oaks woods and Kauffman Center also placing restrictions on commercial photography.

As a photographer, I like the idea of an accessible environment in which we have free rein to photograph; however, such freedoms cease to exist once you set foot on private property. Since there are already clear-cut laws on private property (such as a storefront), I'm interested in hearing opinions about photography restrictions in more public places in the comments section.

Lead photo by MabelAmber via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons. 

Scott Mason's picture

Scott Mason is a commercial photographer in Austin specializing in architectural imaging.

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What if you are shooting the storefronts themselves? I am currently (almost done) doing a 52 week project where I shoot the buildings of old squares and business districts of the surrounding towns in my area. Would a permit be required to shoot those buildings?

As far as I understand, if you're on public property you are free to shoot whatever you want. What I think has happened here is more about photographers being inside the stores (on private property) and shooting without asking for permission.

Thank you Michael and Jack for chiming in, and I agree with both of your comments. As long as you're not physically setting foot on the private property and/or not creating a disturbance, you should be fine. I would think there are some exceptions however, for example cases like "Peeping Tom" voyeurism.

Private property rights exist and people always enforce them. This shouldn’t really be a shock. However If the photographers are standing in a Public street or sidewalk, the store owners are SOL. Those songs won’t have any teeth.

The real issue to me is the overall subtraction of public space in cities. Every square inch in my town (Miami) is becoming more privyate by the day. And very often the lines are blurred as many parks, green spaces, plazas etc. that appear public at first glance, are often privately owned.

I'm in KC and never have problems. I've shot in the West Bottoms before but always do it after hours and with a minimal set up. I get it; there are lots of folks who take advantage of the good nature of these business owners. It's not difficult to stay out of the way and be mindful that you are an intrusion. Just be respectful, right?

What about asking for permission? Or, more shocking, rent the location?

When I speak to some people, the thought of having to pay for a location is completely foreign. I don't get it.

Being located near the KC area and having shot in the West Bottoms before (including this week), the main issue is photographers that are disrespecting the local businesses. It's not just blocking the storefronts, but doing damage to the location or making a mess. You'll see cake smash, confetti/glitter everywhere, people writing with chalk on walls, stairs, etc, there was even one photographer who did a paint splash shoot using the side of a building (it was water soluble paint, but still). 95% of the photographers that shoot there are respectful and cause no harm, but there is an alarming 5% that just don't seem to care about anyone else's property or buildings that are ruining it for the rest of us. We've already been run out of a few parks because of the same sort of issues, and now they're causing this district to be up in arms. There are many cool old buildings and graffiti and the perfect "grunginess" that works for so many different looks.

Matt, thanks for the insider commentary. It's good to hear that most photographers are being respectable, and it sounds like those outliers are being obnoxious. There is no excuse to trash a business or public space. I hope the immature shooters get the message.

I think its important for photographers to act responsibly, and not create a nuisance for other members of the community, but we should also be aware of and stand up for our 1st amendment rights.

Not long ago, I had a private security company employee approach me while I was shooting on the sidewalk along Larimer Square in Denver. I was using my tripod, but was very careful to position myself out of the way of foot traffic. I was told that the entire block, including the sidewalk was private property, and that I was trespassing and to leave. I balked, politely, but firmly and told them to call the police if they had an issue, but otherwise I was within my 1st amendment rights. The security company did actually call the police, but they never responded.... stating they were too busy at the time.
I was told by the security company that the entire block was part of a public/private management plan, where public property was placed under private management who then made improvements and could restrict access at their discretion to the sidewalk along the entire block. The security company told me that by taking and potentially profiting from images of their private investment, even from the public street, would actually be violating their rights.

This type of relationship between public and private entities has become much more common, frequently to create toll lanes on highways, reducing state and local government assets required to manage costly public improvement projects, while generating tax revenue for the city or state. These agreements also come with contracts guaranteeing the private entity contractual rights, including expectation of compensation, which can reduce or infringe upon the rights of the public to access the property under their control. These public/private leases are very commonly seen in the west where private livestock are seen grazing on public lands and the where the National Park Service contracts campground management to private entities.

Our 1st amendment guarantees are not absolute, meaning that you can be asked by authorities to move from a specific location, but state and local governments also cannot enact laws which violate those rights; the requirement obtain a permit to photograph a publicly viewable building from a public space sounds like it may be an over reach, although the requirement to obtain a permit before setting up equipment on a public right of way sounds perfectly reasonable.

Sadly this is happening everywhere! As a photographer, I understand the want (need) to get "that" shot, but it seems that fewer and fewer have any respect for others rights in that process. Our society has developed a sense of entitlement, and some photographers are among the worst. And unfortunately, even though it is a minority, all of us become guilty by association. In my hometown, restrictions on photographers have escalated substantially over the last few years. They, or their clients trample behind barriers, leave trash and debris behind (I've seen confetti or glitter used in a public park, and then left), even deface property by marking or drawing on buildings, or monuments. There was recently a case where a photographer booked an entire day of portrait shoots in a local city park. This person picked a spot, in a public park, and shot clients continually for several hours, blocking access to other photographers, and park patrons to one of the most scenic areas of the park. She then became livid when asked to allow others access, and saw nothing wrong with what she was doing. It's no wonder that there are permit requirements and time limits being placed, among other restrictions. It is a case of a few ruining it for the many!

It's about time this happened! I would trip over 10+ portrait sessions walking from my studio to the coffee shop. Hopefully it forces shooters to think broader than using the same locations over and over! THE CITY IS BIG PEOPLE!