privacy laws

German Privacy Laws

While visiting Berlin over New Years I was excited to embark on a project that I had had in mind for some time. The idea was to photograph people on the subway with my iPhone as I travelled across the city to show the change in demographics as one goes from west to east. Having grown up partially in Germany, I don't really think of it as a foreign country and didn't expect privacy laws to differ greatly from those in the U.S. However, I was surprised to encounter hostility and suspicion not only while taking photos on the subway but also when doing general street photography. I realized I needed to inform myself better about the local laws and also about the general mentality of the people regarding photography.

An internet search revealed that German privacy laws are much stricter than those in the U.S. Simply put, you are not allowed to publish a photo of anyone without their permission. Okay, but what about general street photography and photos taken with my phone not obviously intended for publication? In the U.S., when shooting for a newspaper, I've often had people ask me not to use photos I've taken of them, which I'm happy to accommodate, but why were people in Germany so concerned not only that I not use the images for anything but that I show them that I had deleted them from my memory card? After speaking with a few friends in the city I began to get a better idea of what was going on. 

Berlin is a city, which not all that long ago was located right in the middle of communist East Germany. If you lived in the east, you pretty much assumed you were under surveillance; your phone could easily be tapped. Many people in Germany today remember this all to well and are still very suspicious of being photographed. Another photographer I emailed also had this to add: "People in Germany seem especially sensitive right now about having their photos taken -- especially by an American -- since all of the NSA surveillance stuff and recent controversies about Google's unauthorized photos of peoples homes for Google Earth. I think they see it as even more than a civil rights issue; it smacks of colonialism, and as you have probably already noticed, American culture and language have already made big inroads here. Many people greatly resent this American invasion of their cultural space."

The problem I then faced was how to continue with my project while still being respectful. In the end decided that I would continue to take photos of people in the subway without their knowledge but that I would then let them know I had done so and ask whether that was ok with them. If not I would offer to delete the photo immediately. This way I could still get the candid images I was after while being respectful of people who didn't want to be photographed. This slowed me down somewhat but worked surprisingly well. Most people didn't mind having their picture used for my project and the few who did seemed happy enough when I offered to delete the images.