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Landscape photographers, including you, are losing rights

By Ross Barnett - posted Monday, 29 March 2010

Landscape photography in Australia has had a long and proud history of supporting the conservation and preservation of our natural environment.

In 1859 some of the very earliest Australian photographs were taken in the Grose Valley of central New South Wales. That area is now preserved as part of the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains National Park.

Images that the Lithuanian-born photographer Olegas Truchanas created of wild places such as the original Lake Pedder in Tasmania, remind us of what has been lost of our natural environment, while the photography of his protégé Peter Dombrovskis played a vital role in the ultimately successful campaign to save the Franklin River in the early 1980s.


All of these images were made by photographers who were able to access natural areas without the hindrance of red tape or bewildering regulations that have now been imposed in increasing numbers of national parks across our country.

In the United States, the country which pioneered the concept of national parks, landscape photographers enjoy much greater freedoms than their Australian counterparts. In the US, landscape photographers whose work does not involve the use of either models or props brought into a national park or similar location, have rights that were put into law by Congress in May 2000. These photographers do not have to pay fees, obtain permits or hold public liability insurance.

Yet in Australia, landscape photographers can find themselves in breach of the law and potentially subject to fines which can run into the thousands of dollars.

In New South Wales, for instance, a landscape photographer could be slugged with a $3,300 fine for undertaking “commercial photography” without a permit in a National Parks Wildlife Service (NPWS) reserve. According to NPWS’ Filming and Photography Policy, endorsed in October 2001, commercial filming and photography means “any filming or photography principally intended for public viewing which may or may not be undertaken for financial gain”.

This definition is so broad it would include photography done by keen amateurs who wanted to upload their images to photo-sharing websites such as Flickr or Ipernity, or even to Facebook. And it is not a definition of “commercial photography” that is used by the photographic industry itself. Here commercial photography is considered as work that is carried out for corporate clients and is largely done for advertising usage.

To test how ill-thought-through the NPWS definition is, I contacted the Commercial Permits Officer for the NSW NPWS about the following scenario. I have ancestors who lived in the town of Hill End during the Gold Rush-era of the 19th century. Today, Hill End is an Historic Site that is administered by the NPWS. So would I need a permit and have to pay substantial fees if I wanted to take pictures around the town, even though they were only going to appear in a family history book?


The answer was yes, even including making a payment to the NPWS for taking pictures of my great-great-grandfather’s grave site. Needless to say, I did not go ahead with that project: the licence fee alone was $275 with the need for a security deposit of $220 - public liability insurance costs would have seen the total outlay push well past an amount of $1,000 for what was supposed to be a very limited edition.

Similar policies on “commercial photography” can be found in the national park bureaucracies of Queensland, South Australia and Victoria. In South Australia for instance, the annual charge for a commercial photography permit within their national parks appears to be $265. In Victoria what is described as an “Annual Landscape Photography Licence Fee” costs $335 and applies to anyone whose photography might be used in public displays, journals, magazines, postcards, textbooks and websites.

Of course, such regulations do not apply to journalists and writers when they visit Victoria’s national parks in a professional capacity. This is no doubt because newspapers like The Age would take up a campaign against Parks Victoria if such a policy was introduced. Yet Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Australia is a signatory, states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

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About the Author

Ross Barnett is a Sydney-based travel writer and photographer.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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