France has stringent privacy laws which English-speaking visitors really need to appreciate. If you’re coming to France this year and are planning to photograph street scenes, please consult the nearest French consulate prior to departure about your rights as photographer. It’s just possible they have a fact sheet. Please note that you are subject to French laws whilst in France; being a tourist is not a get-out-of-jail-free card (unless you’re an accredited member of the diplomatic corps). The following is offered as a general pointer and should in no way be considered professional legal advice. Thanks to Byron for prompting this with his excellent journal entry on photographers’ rights.
Here’s an easy one: you cannot use a tripod in public areas. They’re considered a nuisance and French police may require you to pack up your tripod. Use a monopod instead.
Common sense with a twist
Never argue or remonstrate with a police officer. There are several reasons:
- Insulting a police officer is a criminal offence and there is no habeas corpus in France
- Even the in-bred rejects of a failing French educational system who wind up in the police speak more English than most foreigners speak French – and they’ve all heard words like “fucker”, “asshole”, etc., etc., in movies. Words like “idiot” and “cretin” are the same in French, however accented your English…
- Seriously, the recent tragedy in South-Western France, plus elections and other security issues have put all police officers under considerable strain. It is particularly important to show restraint and courtesy with French police even – especially – if they appear not to themselves…
And now one you really need to know:
You need the subject’s consent to photograph him/her in public and private areas.
If an individual is the main subject and is easily identifiable, his/her consent is required. It is a criminal offence to use, store or share with the public (e.g. via the Internet) an image of a person taken in a public or private area without his or her consent. It is a criminal offence to use an image in any way that has been taken against the individual’s wishes. (Articles 226-1 and 226-2 of the French Criminal code).
Please note: these are criminal acts leading to a police record, fines and even imprisonment, not civil grievances, which can be settled out of court.
Another important note: it doesn’t matter what you do with the image afterwards (sell it on the bubble, etc., or keep it on your hard disk), you are still committing an offence if you photograph an individual in a recognisable way without obtaining his or her consent.
Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? It isn’t that bad. You don’t need the individual consent of all 10,000 spectators at a football match, but you do need the consent of parents if you’re photographing a cute kid in the street. It also means that if asked by an irate French person to delete an image in which s/he features prominently, you must comply. It is also permissible to photograph celebrities and performing artists in public areas without obtaining consent, but only if your work does not harm their reputation. That should sound alarm bells for anyone who’s had legal training.
French case law has been inconsistent in its preference for individual privacy over freedom of expression, but the overall trend has been to uphold the former.
Instead of filling your suitcase with hard copies of Google-translated release forms (which aren’t legally valid in France), it is better to learn the following sentence:
Me permettez-vous de vous prendre en photo ?
That usually does the trick.
Buildings, monuments and works of art
Simple things first: if you’re told “no flash” and you use it, don’t be surprised if they kick you out. IMO, you deserve the ignominy for not knowing how your camera works. Also, if you decide to run the gauntlet of a prohibition on photography with a quick snap, you have only yourself to blame for the consequences of getting caught.
I’ve spent many years photographing in museums, dealing with obtrusive tourists and hostile lighting and this is my considered opinion: if you really like something, buy the postcard – it was captured by a professional under much better conditions than you can hope for. Of course, every rule is made to be broken… If you can get a clear shot of the Mona Lisa (which is tiny and usually covered by gawping tourists), then go for it.
In theory, the owners/architects of landmarks have copyright over images, but I have never been asked to pay royalties on my images and I suspect no one is. As I often go to places with professional-looking kit, I have been asked to sign forms undertaking not to use my works for commercial aims (i.e., selling them).
In every case, common sense dictates that it would be unwise to argue with a bored security guard about the legality of photographing privately-owned buildings. Sarcasm never translates well, so don’t try it.
I hope I haven’t done the French Tourist Board any disservice. In the meantime,