Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Photography On Campus

So, today I will attempt to answer a question from my business plan:

Is it legal to photograph on Stanford campus without a permit?

Much of my business plan is built around the use of Stanford campus for location photography. Well, it turns out I was a little naive in my assumptions that Stanford would be an open studio for me, but all hope is not lost. For those of you who don't live near Stanford, this entry is still quite relevant because it relates to photography in any privately held area, especially university campuses.

The first place I looked was the Office of University Communications, which is responsible for coordinating interactions with the outside world, either disseminating Stanford information out into the world (like press releases and news) and controlling the outside world's intrusion into the university (controlling Stanford's image, websites, photography and videography of campus). For photography, all commercial photography must request permission to use the campus. Most of the relevant information is in the list of photography policies.

After looking at that page, I contacted the Communications Office to ask about whether I'd be likely to get permission and if blanket permission for a restricted set of activities would be possible. What ensued was e-mail tennis for much of the morning where it seemed like the woman I was chatting with was trying to evade my question. I know now that I had misread an important part of the policies but she was patient enough to get the message through. At one point I told her anything she said would be off the record, so I won't reproduce any of the conversation here.

What I will do is highlight the important statements on the Photography request policy page:
  • Exploitation of the Stanford name is prohibited. In other words, advertising that I specialize in photography on Stanford campus is a no-no and can get me sued. I can request permission to do so, but I doubt I'd get it. I'm better off advertising location photography in the Palo Alto area, and then if people ask, tell them that Stanford might be an option. There goes SUPhoto as my company name! No biggy. Really, this doesn't impact me much, except my blogspot name, stanfordphoto.blogspot.com. I'm going to look into changing the blog address without disrupting my (meager) traffic.
  • Videotaping, filming, commercial photography or professional wedding photography is prohibited without permission. Permission is rarely granted. This was what I missed my first, second, and third times reading through the page. Pretty much shuts down all hope of using Stanford for my commercial portrait shoots. Except...
  • Wedding photography is prohibited except for couples being married at Memorial Church or those with a Stanford connection, including alumni, students, faculty and staff. Ahh... An opening. If my clients are Stanford students or alumni, I might have a chance of getting permission because of the connection. Maybe not on a super-regular basis, but if I prove that I'm not out to make a lot of money or hurt the Stanford name, it will be allowed.
  • Requests for filming or photography must be made in writing at least five working days before proposed shooting. In other words, I need to request permission before every shoot. In writing. Not something I'll want to do a lot.
  • Non news-related requests must include the following information: ... Proof of adequate insurance coverage and indemnity. This is a whole new can of worms I need to add to my business plan. Not just for shoots on campus, but anywhere I shoot, if I do it for money, I need to have insurance for my equipment and in case anyone gets harmed. For Stanford, I expect the indemnity is to prevent Stanford from getting sued. This might be as simple as a clause on the contract removing any responsibility from Stanford (or me) if an injury occurs.

So, overall, it is not legal to shoot without a permit, unless I am not taking payment for my services. So doing my TFCD shoots on campus is perfectly within reason (as long as I don't make a nuisance of myself). But if I want to take paying customers, I should get insurance and get permission from the communications office before I take any pictures.

Overall, I need to adjust my business plan to focus less on Stanford and more on me as a photographer.

In the bigger picture, there are two take-home messages:

  1. On location photography is a hassle, especially since you need to worry about permission and insurance. That's why people pay extra for it.
  2. Running a photography business is less about the photography, and more about everything else. I've been hearing this for a while, but until I started wading into the realities of pricing, ordering prints, marketing, and permissions, it never really hit home.

This just in! While I was writing this entry, I was also corresponding with the communications office (again). Apparently I 'wore her down', and she has given me the OK to do paying shoots on Stanford campus as long as they are Stanford affiliates. If I start doing a lot of volume, then I'll need to contact the communications office and renogiate (mostly for insurance reasons).

That's good news and allows me to tap into my main market (of poor grad students), at least initially.

[Photo courtesy of my wife. Used with permission.]

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