So it happened. I have learned a much-needed lesson the hard way and I’m here to pass on my wisdom:
A couple weeks ago I was photographing a family photo shoot in a super popular park here in Colorado called Chautauqua Park (remember that name just in case you ever come here). As I’m photographing all 11 people, a Park Ranger comes up to me and asks if she can talk to me for a minute. I’m thinking “uh-oh, this can’t be good.” She asks me if I have a photography permit and I, being the good kid I am, start to freak out on the inside a little bit. I legitimately did not know that you have to have a permit if you’re going to photograph at some parks. I respond by saying “Oh, no I don’t. I wasn’t even aware that I needed one.” At this point I’m trying to focus on her words because I’m so embarrassed that I’m getting a ticket in front of my 11 clients, I can’t believe that I am in trouble because I NEVER get in trouble, and I’m wondering how much this is going to cost me. She collects my information to issue me my ticket and lets me continue with my shoot as long as I meet with her afterward. I turn around and all of my clients are looking at me like deer in headlights and begin to apologize. I try not to freak out and tell them not to worry about it. I explained to them that I have literally photographed there probably 10-15 times and have myself been photographed there so it was not their fault at all. I finish my shoot and look for the Park Ranger. I find her and she explains the ticket to me. “Because you were photographing without a permit I am issuing you a ticket which does require you to appear to mandatory court.” I’m thinking “MANDATORY COURT????? Whaaattttt?I’m going to court now? Dear God, am I a criminal?” I nod, trying to hide the fact that I might have a panic attack at any moment. A few minutes later she hands me my ticket and I get to leave. “Breathe Alicia, breathe.”
In the next few days, I do some research and find out that this ticket could cost me from $500-$1000. I felt so stressed out and overwhelmed I literally had to pray. I talked with some photography friends and they encouraged me to try to get a permit before going to court so that I can show the judge that I was being proactive and that I wasn’t going to let this happen again so I thought “yeah, that makes sense. I’ll show the judge that I’m a good kid and it was all a misunderstanding.” I go to the Boulder, Colorado website to fill out the paperwork and as soon as I open the PDF I find that in order to get a permit I will need proof of insurance which I don’t have. “Now I need to get business insurance too? For goodness sake!” I begin the process of finding the best, most affordable insurance I can find but run out of time before I have to meet the judge.
A few weeks later I show up to public court and sit in a room full of other regular citizens that also broke some kind of law and in silence, we wait for the judge. My heart is pounding so loud I feel like I can hear it in my ears. The judge enters, we “all rise”, sit, and then she explains what the process will be for the next couple of hours. “What should I do? I feel so lost. What am I suppose to even do in court? What if I mess up and talk when I’m not suppose to? Should I plead guilty? Will I go to jail?” My mind races but I regain focus because I don’t want to miss something important. Soon after, the mini trials begin and one by one she calls up each person in the room, explains the charges against them, and asks them if they want to plead guilty or if they want to talk to an attorney. “Alicia Lewin” she calls out. “Oh my gosh, it’s my turn. Ok, stand up, smile. Don’t make eye contact with anyone but the judge. I’M NOT A CRIMINAL, I PROMISE.” I stand at the podium and try to breathe. “Alicia, it looks here like you were photographing in open space without a permit, what would you like to do? Plead guilty or talk to an attorney?” I clear my throat, “I would like to plead guilty” I say in the sweetest voice I can. “Alicia, I commend you for owning up to your actions. You know, the attorneys might have some other options for you so you don’t have to pay this fine if you would like to talk to them” the judge says. “Would you like to do that?” “Sure! That would be great, thank you” I say. “You may sit back down and wait to be called by an attorney” she explains. “Thank you!” I turn around and feel a bit of relief. The hard part is over with. Now I sit and wait. Thirty minutes later a short older lady wearing a tan skirt suit with shoulder pads calls my name. I collect my things and follow her into the hall that leads to a side room. We sit and she says, “so Alicia, tell me about your situation.” I begin and explain to her that I’m newer to photography and had hardly even heard of photography permits before this situation. I explained how I didn’t see a sign posted at the park about needing a permit and how I didn’t even think to check the website. Honesty is the best policy so I tell every detail truthfully. She then responds with a story of a time when something similar happened to her with a booth she had at a fair (there’s a lot that goes into booths apparently). “Alicia, I’m going to let this one pass this time,” she says. “If this happens again and we see that we’ve cut you some slack before it won’t be so good.” I nod my head in complete understanding. This weight suddenly lifts, my lungs fill with max capacity air, and I can’t stop smiling. “Thank you so so much. I really, really appreciate it. This will not happen again.” We shake hands and I’m free to go. No fine, no jail (lol). “Yesssssss I’m free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty I’m free at last.”
So now that I have gotten a major slap on the wrist I want to educate ALL of my photography friends. No matter what city or state you live in be sure to check for permits because the fine is costly and the stress isn’t worth it.
Photography Awesomesauce has a ton of great resources about the legalities surrounding your business, including insurance, income taxes, sales taxes, permits, licensing, etc. There’s a great archive of blog posts about all those things and more, but there’s also a 6-week online class anyone can sign up for who wants to ensure they get this stuff down!