Point and Shoot: Is It Legal to Take Pictures of Factory Farms? Point and Shoot: Is It Legal to Take Pictures of Factory Farms?

Point and Shoot: Is It Legal to Take Pictures of Factory Farms?

by James Reeves

March 31, 2011

This logic is now being extended to our food. In Florida, a series of videos and photos recently captured the horrible things that corporate farms do to the animals we eat. Most of us are vaguely aware of the claustrophobia and brutality, the genetically deformed creatures tipped over in tiny cages; these videos simply illustrate the filth and slaughter of mechanized farming in detail. Senator Jim Norman responded to these upsetting images with a logical proposal: Ban photography on farms. Senate Bill 1246 would prohibit "entering onto a farm and making any audio record, photograph, or video record at the farm without the owner's written consent."

Although it's true that employees at most private companies can't take pictures of the intellectual property of their employer, if any industry demands utter transparency, it ought to be the one that feeds us. And what is a farm? Where does it begin and end? S.R. 1246 defines "farm" as "any tract of land cultivated for the purpose of agricultural production, the raising and breeding of domestic animals, or the storage of a commodity." That's a lot of land.

A couple of basic legal principles for all photographers:

1. You can photograph anything you like from public property, unless the subject has a reasonable expectation of privacy (i.e. no zoom lenses).

2. You can also shoot whatever you like when you're on private property; provided there is no expectation of privacy (e.g. you're on a driveway or in a field near the interstate). Trespassing and invasion of privacy are two separate legal issues (for more on this, you should consult Bert Krages's Legal Handbook for Photographers).

I pointed this out to the man in black sunglasses, but he wasn't impressed. He kept yelling. I got back in my rental car and drove away, feeling like a criminal rather than a photographer drawn to industrial scenes. What was that man afraid of? Why can't we point our lenses at our public servants and the producers of our food? They should welcome our attention.

When the McCarran Security Act was first introduced in 1949, Truman tried to kill it. "In a free country," he said, "we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have. And the reason this is so fundamental to freedom is not, as many suppose, that it protects the few unorthodox from suppression by the majority. To permit freedom of expression is primarily for the benefit of the majority because it protects criticism, and criticism leads to progress." His veto failed. The bill passed and it destroyed countless lives until it was slowly dismantled over the years as America recovered from the Red Scare.

Although frightening and wrongheaded, the authors of the McCarran Internal Security Act believed they were protecting us from a political threat and, under its most generous reading, from a nuclear war. What is the rationale for shielding farmers from public scrutiny?

James A. Reeves is a writer, designer, teacher, and partner at Civic Center, whose first book, The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir, will be published by W. W. Norton in July 2011. He goes to law school in New Orleans and worries about the American landscape on his blog, Big American Night.

Photos: (1) courtesy the author; (2) via PETA.

Recently on GOOD
Sign up to receive the best of GOOD delivered to your inbox each and every weekday
Point and Shoot: Is It Legal to Take Pictures of Factory Farms?