It's hard to push back against the tide of the photograph. By one estimate, humans upload more than a trillion digital images to the web annually. That means more images of more people and more places. Every Day. Despite the ubiquity of the casual smartphone photo, some locations still steadfastly refuse to permit photography.
Whether from tradition, safety, or good old-fashioned commercial interests–these spots prohibit or severely limit photography by visitors.
In addition, many of the prohibitions are rooted in a respect for subject matter, to say nothing of fellow attendees. Places of worship and locations where the dead are entombed or buried are often looked upon as demanding a level of solemnity and reverence for the surroundings.
The issue of safety rounds out the major categorical prohibition of photography. Military installations, airports, schools, and certain government facilities would naturally view detailed photographs–and the photographer–with suspicion. Not the “Look at the ignorant tourist and his social faux pas!” suspicion that I receive like a fish taking to water. I'm talking about the type of suspicion that will make you believe Jack Bauer is going to hunt you down and cram a butter knife under your patella until you talk. And you will talk. No digital image is worth that.
Except for two locations on the list, most of the prohibitions involve interior spaces. Not exterior images.
1. Westminster Abbey
The Abbey's statement on prohibiting photography is typically of many churches and other sights that promote reverence:
Photography is not permitted inside Westminster Abbey. We believe that the unique beauty and history of the Abbey are difficult to enjoy with the distractions which widespread photography would bring; and that photography would diminish the sacred and intimate atmosphere of a building which is, first and foremost, a living, working church.
When I visited more than 20 years ago, the Abbey had a special section that encouraged brass rubbings, using a crayon and paper. It was a unique keepsake. It certainly didn't give you the freedom of photography, but it allowed you to look back on more than your own fuzzy memories to recall some of the spirit of the interior. Alas, the Abbey's website no longer mentions this and several travel sites indicate this is a thing of the past.
Still, it's not as if the Abbey is a complete mystery. There are images downloadable for non-commercial use on its website.
2. The Great Pyramid of Giza
Also known as the Pyramid of Khufu, not only are photographs inside the Pyramid prohibited–cameras themselves are verboten. But it seems like you're not missing much. According to The Traveling Squid, it's pretty underwhelming inside. If you're looking for a scene from Indiana Jones, the author notes, you're better off at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Unable to get a photo of the inside of pyramid in Giza, and knowing that the whole area is far less tourist-safe than it should be, I'll stick with Vegas. Because ‘Merica.
3. The Eiffel Tower at Night
This might just be the one that surprised me the most when I first heard about it a year or two ago. Apparently, French authorities consider the lights on the tower at night to be an independent work of art–separate from the tower itself. As such, it is copyrighted. Mr. Eiffel is dead and more than 70 years have passed since he died. But the artists who designed the lights have not seen three score and ten since their deaths (if they've even died). Apparently EU countries can decide for themselves whether to have a “panorama” exception to architectural copyrighted works–which would essentially permit photos of city skylines and such, even for commercial photos. France chose not to employ this exception, and voila! No photos for you.
But I found a workaround if you really need an Eiffel Tower shot. You can use the replica at King's Island, the Cincinnati, Ohio area theme park. Google it. Trust me, nobody will know the difference:
4. The Taj Mahal
The easily-recognized white marble mausoleum near Agra, India is one of the most iconic man-made buildings in the world. It's considered a jewel of Muslim architectural design. There are many online images available of its interior archways, intricate patterns, carvings and tile-work. Somebody took those every one of those photos. Just not you.
5. The Biltmore
Asheville North Carolina's biggest tourist attraction, the grounds of the Biltmore are breathtaking. A testament to the gilded age of America, when industrialists amassed fortunes and paved the way for the industrial age, the Biltmore is the largest privately owned house in the United States at nearly 179,000 square feet. That is larger than the high school I attended. Built by the son of William H. Vanderbilt, who made his fortune in railroads, the Biltmore has hosted no fewer than 6 U.S. Presidents.
Of all the locations on this list, this one might be the least forgivable. Even though the entry fee is salty ($60-65 for an adult), this is understandable since it's privately owned and the house and grounds are likely expensive to maintain. But it's still a house. Not a church, a graveyard, or an art museum. As I recall, the library or the main floor is particularly awe-inspiring and I lament that I don't have an image of it. I went once nearly two decades ago. But as I've become more serious about photography, I just can't pay $60 to see something beautiful that I can't take a picture of.
6. The Sistine Chapel
Some 4 million visitors see the ceiling of the Chapel annually. You might think that its status as a place or reverence and spiritual contemplation is the foundation for its photo prohibition. But according to Mental Floss and other sources, the photo ban of the Sistine Chapel originates from more earthly concerns. The Japanese company that financed the restoration of the art in 1980 arranged to have an exclusive copyright on republication of the art. From this, it sold books and works detailing both the art and the restoration process. Even though these rights expired in 1997, the Vatican continues the prohibition.
7. The Alamo
No trip to San Antonio is complete without a visit to the Alamo. But don't expect to take any snapshots inside. The Alamo's Church has been designated a shrine by the State of Texas. It's also known primarily as a battleground, even though it is also a multi-location structure. Considering the number that died, that's not particularly surprising. It also claims that flash can be harmful to certain kinds of artifacts. Probably the ones in the basement. (!)
8. Rosslyn Chapel, Scotland
I've heard of art imitating life–and vice versa–but this may be a case of art intimidating life. The Chapel hadn't always banned photographs, but did so after the popularity of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, which made the Chapel a peculiar tourist spot.
9. Lenin’s Mausoleum
Vladamir Lenin died in January of 1924. His body was embalmed and remains on display at the Mausoleum in Red Square in Moscow. There is no admission charge. But in addition to banning photos, other required signs of respect include: refraining from talking, wearing hats (for men), or keeping hands in your pocket. That last one must be a cultural thing. I've never considered it particularly disrespectful to rest my hands in my pockets. But I suppose to a communist, he's the only one allowed to reach into your pocket.
10. The White House (partially)
While smartphones and compact cameras have been permitted since 2015, any camera with a detachable lens (Read: DSLRs) are out. So are camcorders, tablets, tripods, monopods, and selfie sticks. So even if your tour did pass by the Lincoln bedroom, forget about taking anything more than a quick snapshot. And no Facebook live with the crew back home, either. The White House also takes a dim view of any live streaming.
11. Grand Canyon Skywalk
For those who've never been to the Grand Canyon, let me explain the geometry. It's really wide. And it's really deep. If you're not rafting down the Colorado River or walking a mule down to camp, then you have one job–whether tourist or photographer. That job is to take pictures. Unless you get adventurous and take a helicopter ride, the vantage point of the pictures is not going to vary all that much. That is, until the Skywalk was completed in 2007. It is a giant U-shaped walkout with a plexiglass bottom. If you're scared of heights, you just might turn your breakfast eggs sunny side down while gazing at the Canyon 4,000 feet below. But don't worry, it's totally safe. The website promises that “[t]he Skywalk can support the weight of 71 fully loaded 747 airplanes.”
However, it must have a design quirk. Because its Achilles heel is your camera. Not only are photos not permitted, but cameras aren't allowed on the walkout at all. An honest approach to this restriction would be to say, “After charging you $80 to get in to see a fantastic and unique view of THE GRAND CANYON, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, we're going to take your camera away and charge you to buy our pictures.” But that's not what's happening, instead we get this gem of an explanation:
To protect the glass paneling from scratches, personal items including cameras and cellphones are not allowed on the Skywalk, but you can purchase a souvenir photo from a professional photographer.
There you have it. Scratches are the downfall of 1,000,000 pounds of steel and glass. Never mind the fact that they make you wear cloth footies to prevent scratching because, you know, you walk on your feet. But apparently, I want to drag my 14mm wide angle lens across a glass floor in the Arizona desert where a thousand tourists have been walking. Thankfully, the Grand Canyon Skywalk Committee for Rules, Regulations, and Bossypants are here to prevent such madness.
The Future is Photographed
The revolution may not be televised, but the future will surely be photographed. According to The Atlantic, we take about 1.8 billion images every day. That means that every two minutes, we take more photos than existed 150 years ago. And once the internet has something, it's there forever. So the Taj Mahal and the Biltmore can prohibit today's capture of an image, but cannot do much to stop the publication of the image taken yesterday, however questionable its legitimacy.
That's not to say that photo prohibitions are unfair, illegitimate or even illogical. It's not a sign of backward thinking to want to treat spiritual locations as holy and set apart, or to honor the dead by restricting behavior of visitors. It can be a sign of great respect. I hope the wave of the future doesn't wash it away.