Wanted: Fairness on Federal Lands

Professional Photographers of America has been a defender of photographers’ rights throughout its 150-plus year history. Today, the organization is advocating the passage of a bill that would allow photographers to work on federal property without the burden of extra permits.

In recent years, individuals with large cameras or significant social media followings have been singled out on federal lands for not obtaining permits based on the assumption that their content is intended for commercial purposes. However, PPA CEO David Trust says the distinction between commercial and noncommercial purposes is irrelevant. “The critical factor should be the environmental impact of the activity. Photographers who visit federal lands and have no greater impact on the environment than an individual using a smartphone should not be required to apply for special permits.”

Recently introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives was the Federal Interior Land Media Act, better known as the FILM Act, which is supported by PPA.

According to PPA Government Affairs Manager Luc Boulet, “This bill makes it clear to federal agencies that they must assess impact rather than if you make money from your photography. Currently, agencies are selectively going after photographers who take for-profit photos in the park rather than looking at the measurable impact of individuals such as stopping the flow of visitors, reserving areas of the park for a photo shoot, etc.”

Under existing federal law, photographers may face imprisonment for up to six months if they photograph on federal property without a permit. PPA believes this poses an excessively burdensome risk to small businesses, particularly when those small-business owners engage in otherwise lawful activities.

“Photographers who visit federal lands and have no greater impact on the environment than an individual using a smartphone should not be required to apply for special permits.”

David Trust

“PPA has collaborated extensively with elected officials to ensure the concerns of photographers are well-represented, and we take pride in the progress we have made so far,” says Trust.

PPA has successfully advocated for changes to address the permitting issue in the recent past. One notable win has been the inclusion of photographers in the permits for activities that are already allowed. For instance, in some national parks, including Grand Teton, photographers were previously required to apply for separate permits even if their clients had already obtained permits for weddings in the park (“An Expression of Photographers’ Rights,” June 2022). This placed an unnecessary burden on photographers since the impact on the park was primarily due to the wedding itself, not the presence of a single photographer. This is one example of the changes PPA has achieved in collaboration with the sponsors of the FILM Act.

The bill needs to pass out of the House Natural Resources committee before it can be voted on by the full House in addition to passage by the full Senate. To support this legislation, PPA’s government affairs team has been lobbying on Capitol Hill.

Trust notes that professional photographers, especially those who capture images on federal lands, are dedicated stewards of the natural beauty they capture. “Therefore, we have diligently worked to enhance the FILM Act by shifting the focus from the mere act of capturing an image to the impact that specific activities have on the environment,” he says.

Photography has long been practiced on federal lands, even predating their designation as national parks or national forests, and it can be argued that it was the power of these photographs that led to their federal protection. “Preserving this right for the next generation of photographers is essential,” says Trust.