University increases enforcement of campus photography policy

The University recently stepped up enforcement of its photography policy, leaving photographers uncertain about whether they are technically allowed to photograph Stanford landmarks. Security guards patrolling the Main Quad and other campus landmarks have been instructed to question the intent of individuals with professional camera equipment.

Jeff Keller, a local photography enthusiast, was tweaking the settings of his professional-grade camera atop a tripod in the Main Quad on Feb. 9 when he was approached by two security personnel and asked to leave. Keller runs “The Digital Camera Resource Page” (DCRP), a photography review website. He took photos in the quad to test the image quality of his new camera and later posted the test results online.

“I take the same picture in the hallway of the Main Quad with different cameras, at the same time, with the same conditions, and I’ve been doing it for at least 10 years,” Keller said.   By taking photos from the exact same spots and controlling for external factors, Keller allows his website visitors to accurately compare the resolutions of different digital cameras. The Main Quad shots and those taken from four other locations around campus have been DCRP’s hallmark method of comparison for over a decade.

The security guards who stopped Keller instructed him to contact associate director of University Communications Kate Chesley for questions regarding the policy. The policy states “commercial [photography] requests are not compatible with the teaching and research missions of the university and with its non-profit status.”

In a letter to Chesley, Keller requested permission to continue taking photos on Stanford’s campus, arguing “these photos are never resold” and are not of commercial value. Chesley rejected his request.

“Although you are not selling the photographs, your site is of a commercial nature,” Chesley wrote in an e-mail to Keller. Chesley emphasized that the photo policy is not new, but that enforcement had increased recently.

“The amount of commercial photography we have been experiencing recently simply has become unsustainable, especially given Stanford’s strict privacy policies,” she said.

Lisa Lapin, associate vice president of communications, said Stanford has a “simple, compelling legal reason” to prevent commercial photography and that photographers have become a “nuisance.”

As a private trademark, Stanford “wants to protect its brand, image and identity from unauthorized use,” Lapin said.

“Stanford has become unbelievably popular,” she added. “Now we have all sorts of entities trying to affiliate themselves with Stanford. We don’t want anyone to profit from a perceived affiliation with us.”

Similarly, the University does not want to be negatively impacted by appearing to endorse institutions that reflect poorly on it. The photo policy also seeks to protect the privacy of the students and faculty, some of whom might be exploited by photographers.

“The Main Quad is not a public park,” Lapin said.

Controversy surrounding the policy does not chiefly revolve around the ban on commercial photography per se, but how “commerciality” is defined.

Keller acknowledged that Stanford, as a private institution, reserves the right to prohibit any kind of photography. But he rejected the notion that his photos present a threat to Stanford’s image or its academic mission.

“Enforcement is uneven,” Keller said. “Stanford needs a clear, more realistic way of determining what commercial photography is. If I didn’t have a tripod, I wouldn’t have been noticed.”

Keller also questioned how Stanford security guards could identify whether a person was shooting for commercial reasons. On the one hand, someone with a tripod and a high-end camera could simply be shooting photos for his own use. Someone with a point-and-shoot camera could post his photos on “a blog that generates money from advertisements,” Keller said.

“The bottom line is there is no shooting in the Quad or Memorial Court without permission, no matter what the purposes or who the sponsor or who you are,” said Megan Miller, communications manager at the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (SICA). “It just isn’t allowed.”

In an e-mail sent to the Stanford photography mailing list, Miller warned students against violating the photo policy. List members responded with concerns about the policy’s legitimacy, one joking that he would file a request to take a picture with his iPhone.

“After a debriefing with some communications staff, I felt responsible to let everyone know about the policy, so they wouldn’t get in trouble,” Miller said.

So who really can photograph in the Main Quad?

Technically, every person needs permission, but security personnel do not prevent tourists and students with small personal cameras from taking snapshots. Everyone else—including news agencies, commercial photographers, students shooting for academic purposes and people with professional-grade equipment—must file requests.

Requests are sometimes granted.

But commercial requests will nearly always be denied, with several notable exceptions. If a Stanford alumnus, faculty member or student wants to get married, professional photographers may document the wedding; weddings with non-Stanford affiliated individuals are barred.

That way, it makes it more meaningful for the brides and grooms that do have an affiliation,” Lapin said.

  • masaru

    I got the e-mail mentioned. I didn’t realize this also applied to “students shooting for academic purposes and people with professional-grade equipment.” How laughable. Now even The Daily isn’t supposed to take pictures of The Quad…

  • This is unbelievable

    This new policy means that students have even fewer rights than tourists to our campus have. So “students shooting for academic purposes” cannot take photos without permission, but tourists will generally be allowed to do so? Since when did tourists have more freedom than the students at this school?

    What is this, North Korea?

  • Gman

    If Stanford receives ONE dime of State or Federal money then it is NOT a private institution.

  • rick

    well said Gman.

  • Re: Gman

    That is not even the slightest bit true.

  • alumnus

    If you’re upset with the policy, and especially if you’re an alumnus, write to Kate Chesley and let her know. If you’ve donated to the university in the past and are sufficiently upset with the policy, you might consider a decision not to donate again in the future.

  • @Gman

    By that logic, most private schools in the country are not actually private, because most of them receive at least some federal/state funding in the form of research grants. So Harvard, Stanford, MIT, etc. are all public schools, yes?

  • stanford ’11

    I’m on the film majors/minors mailing list, and we just got notice a bit back that we’re not supposed to film in the quad, even if it’s for a class project :/

  • ’06 alum

    Frankly, a ridiculous policy like this does more to hurt the Stanford “brand” than any number of people taking random pictures around campus. Is this a university or an athletic shoe company? I mean, I know Nike paid for the new business school, but really?!

  • Photographer

    There’s no other way to describe this policy other than it sucks. Paranoidal bureaucratic restrictions from idiotic staff. The given reasons for this don’t make sense. Shame on Stanford.

  • Heimo

    As a professional photojournalist, I have to mention that one should make a difference between

    a) journalistic, fine art, test photos (like Jeff is doing) etc., and

    b) corporate, advertising, PR etc. photos.

    The latter are usually being paid much higher rates and serving big corporations, whereas the former are merely allowing us photographers to make a decent living and are a real service to the general public.

    Type a should be generally allowed everywhere, type b should of course be decided upon by the owner of a premise.

    Just my 2 cents ;-)

  • Huffy

    Wow, Stanford is really shooting itself in the foot with this one. Flash photography mob, anyone?

  • Oreste Drapaca

    I have looked at Mr Jeff Keller’s digital photography website reviews [dcresource.com] since 2002 and noticed the location of Stanford University just as much as I would have noticed “Bill’s bait and tackle shop” – for the effect on the cameras’ photo sensor. The University are taking themselves so seriously – there is such a lack of generosity and discernment in a presumed place of higher learning and ideals that it makes one nauseated.

  • Ronald McDonald

    Well, the Stanford of the east, otherwise known as Harvard, would not be so picky and given that the cameras of today are so sophisticated, this policy and the enforcement of it seems like a gigantic waste of time and money.