In Paris, this photo is illegal

It is 101°F today in Paris in the peak of tourist season and illegal activity is going on at every turn in this city.  Not that most of the perpetrators of these crimes are aware that what they are doing is against the law; no doubt, they imagined coming to France and behaving like tourists — spending money, taking pictures in the crowds in front of the Notre Dame, sitting at a sidewalk table at the Flore — would be a welcome contribution in a moment of economic crisis.  But I took the photograph above at a cafe near the Canal Saint-Martin yesterday and, technically, it’s illegal.  So is this one, taken in the République Metro station:

What makes them illegal?  According to Article 9 of the French civil code everyone has a right to a private life; in practice, this protects their right not to be photographed in the streets when they would be recognizable in the published image:

Chacun a droit au respect de sa vie privée.

Les juges peuvent, sans préjudice de la réparation du dommage subi, prescrire toutes mesures, telles que séquestre, saisie et autres, propres à empêcher ou faire cesser une atteinte à l’intimité de la vie privée : ces mesures peuvent, s’il y a urgence, être ordonnées en référé.

It is ironic that street photography is against the law in the place in which it was born.  I will grant that this sounds like the kind of thing ginned up in the darker corners of red-state America to make the French sound ridiculous, but it is taken very seriously here.  Sometimes, that very seriousness is ridiculous.  Last night around 11.00pm I was taking a photograph from a bridge over the Canal Saint-Martin of the crowds lining the banks.  It was dark, the people were a minimum of a hundred feet away, and the exposure times ran from five to ten seconds; in other words, every face would be blurred by motion and infinitesimally small in the sweeping landscape of the image.  Nevertheless, a West African man dressed like a Mormon in a white short-sleeve shirt and narrow black tie came up onto the bridge to berate me for taking what he insisted on calling ‘his’ photograph.  His body coiled with rage, his fists clenched by his side, as he vowed, “If I see my face published anywhere, even the USA, I will get you.  It will be finished for you.”

Well, I thought, what universe of vanity does this man live in that his background presence in a public space should preclude the many thousands of other people there from documenting the scene?  But he was adamant and no promise would allay his outrage.  No wonder, then, that the Google car going around recording images for its Street View function has caused such controversy in Europe.  In the US, the prevailing sentiment is that one incurs a basic level of exposure by occupying a public space and as long as no damage is done the law is not there to shield you from that exposure.  Not in France.

So remember that, tourists, when you try to replicate your favorite Eugène Atget or Robert Doisneau images for the loved ones back home: you can take them, just don’t try to publish them anywhere.  And if you felt cheated when you learned Doisneau’s famous kiss photo in front of the Hotel de Ville was staged, consider how sad it is that it was only because he staged it that he won the lawsuit against him claiming he’d taken the image illegally.


Google Street View caught me a couple years ago — you can see that image here — on a bench in Reggio-Emilia, Italy.  Was I outraged?  I was not.  But perhaps there is a lawsuit in there somewhere…


Also, if you are wondering why the images above are so small, it is so that you can’t recognize any of the people in them.  I am making a point about freedom of expression, not trying to intrude on the private life of the good citizens of Paris.


And by delicious irony, a few minutes before taking that picture above in the Metro station I took this one of the French rallying to the cause of freedom of expression in Russia:

The punk band Pussy Riot was just convicted of ‘religious hatred’ and earned a two-year jail stint for demonstrating in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.  What the band members did was vastly more egregious, one would think, than taking a night photo on a canal: they dressed in balaclavas and sang lewd songs in a holy space.  But it’s Russia, so the French are on their side.



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