Privacy Rights and Photography

If you struggle reading white on black…go here…

France has very strict privacy laws, so much so that it is actually an infringement of ones rights to publish or commercialise an image of a person without his authority. This may not be the general trend in Europe (where there are contradictions between human rights to privacy and rights to expression) and certainly the laws pertaining in the United Kingdom are at best rather vague on the point. In Zimbabwe, there is hardly any restriction and what you capture on camera may be published.

One only has to review Zimbabwe’s chronicles of unlawful arrest and detention of photographers to understand that discretion is the better part of valour in certain circumstances. The law, as it stands, does not deny the photographer to take any image of any subject in any public place. Restrictions may be imposed upon photographers taking photographs in private places, by the owners of those places; and the State has legislation in place in terms of the Defence Act, Electoral Regulations, the Official Secrets Act, Prisons Act, and Protected Places and Areas Act, amongst others.

Zimbabwe’s Access to Information and Privacy law are mute on the point of privacy rights outside those restrictions on disseminating information by a “public body”, as clearly defined and scheduled in the Act. This legislation was introduced, principally, to control the local and international media, rather than protect the privacy rights of people. However, reading between the lines of that legislation, there are snippets of moral consideration for the taking.


In this context the onus is upon individual photographers to police themselves, although there has been no attempt to introduce any code in Zimbabwe as such. Here we are at the mercy of standards of society and good old common sense. If we draw from the legislation we can see that in certain circumstances it is illegal for a public body (and a breach of journalistic privilege) to publish material which impairs one’s dignity, invades his or her privacy, injurious to reputation or amounts to criminal insult.

We do not need to revert to legislation for moral judgement. Taking images of scantily clad children is not criminal, but publishing them, even if not compromising, is perhaps very much against the grain of our moral obligation. Our moral perspective should be that of never seeking to impair the rights of others and protecting those who cannot protect themselves, but within reason. No harm is done by politely seeking authority from your subject and where possible using ‘model release’ to prevent future dispute.

To those who would rush at you demanding you respect their privacy, it should be understood that the act of taking a photograph is no violation, it’s the publishing which does the damage, if at all. Clearly, this leads the photographer into unnecessary conflict with the self-opinionated few, and withdrawal may be prudent. The photographer risks committing a criminal breach of the peace in defending himself and his rights; accused of being a journalist (which is a controlled profession); or may cross the boundaries of harassment by pursuing the take. That is where most photographers fall foul of the law.

Photographers need to adopt their own moral codes but must know their rights, and the rights of others, within the communities they work. They should also understand the techniques of tactical withdrawal in privacy sensitive and hostile communities. Be polite and co-operative, the image is never worth the hassle or loss of freedom.

6 thoughts on “Privacy Rights and Photography

  1. Thank you Andy. I enjoyed the article very much. Raised thoughtful points. I did struggle to read the article with small white writing on a black background.

  2. Some convoluted thinking here…….photography says it like is is…no scantily clad folk here… Zimbabwe not badly off………….the xenophobia in RSA says the opposite… they are there because if misgovernment!

  3. I consider anyone taking a photo of me as a violation of my rights. I am very careful when I take any images of people. I always ask permission first and offer to send them the pictures if they wish.
    Recently, I went to a gala at a local school and asked the deputy head if it was OK for me to take my camera inside. It was clear no one had ever asked before! Surely our schools should be more aware of the dangers of photographs and video of young children? At the very least they should be educating parents?
    What is a model release?

    1. Frankie… Thanks for your comments. Yes, it’s always a good idea to engage your subject and seek their permission… It a courtesy all photographers should observe, but not exactly practical in many circumstances. The photographer who does not seek permission is not acting outside the ethic. The photography of children should always include some form of permission seeking. Indeed schools seem oblivious to this need sometimes… I remember seeking permission to photograph school rugby, it was clear in this case too, they had never been asked before.
      A model release is a contract between the subject of your image (model) and the photographer whIch sets out the permissions to publish the work in various media generally or specifically.

    2. Thanks for your reply – Im very sensitive about this issue, because a whole load of photos were taken of me (at 18 years of age!!!) at a swimming pool in the Vic Falls. I didnt know about it until I was shown some of them by a ‘spotter’ I was livid. What happened to those photos, who looked at them etc has bugged me for years. If these images had been published what would my recourse have been without this ‘model release.’ I ask people if I can post their image on the internet. Is that adequate?

    3. I am not sure there is much you could do about it if the swimming pool was in a public place… even a private pool, after the fact. The owner of the private pool had the right to stop photography on his premises, but that is the extent of it. It is a great courtesy to ask before you publish but depending where the image was taken, it’s a moral obligation only.

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