Photographers often say that France, with its particularly thorny privacy laws, is the trickiest place in the world for street photography. I suspect people who say that have never tried it in Monaco. While it has its showy side, Monaco is well-known as a safe haven for some of the world’s higher earners, and this is a reputation that the principality works hard to protect. Paparazzi photographers are about as unwelcome as a rabid stray dog at Crufts and, unfortunately, any roving photographer risks being tarred with the same brush. It’s not worth debating the rights and wrongs of photographers’ freedom here, or the irony that over 400 security cameras are constantly filming an area that covers less than a square mile. Monaco is Monaco. Photographers who want to shoot anywhere in the principality, for whatever purpose, need their License to Shoot.
I have fairly frequent assignments in Monaco. Whether as a press photographer for a choreographed event (see my post about photographing the Monaco royal wedding in 2011), going on commission to shoot a portrait like last month’s profile of überchef Joël Robuchon for the Sunday Telegraph’s Seven magazine, or on a travel or food photography assignment, I need to devote some quality time to arranging access beforehand. Right now I am planning a two day shoot for a forthcoming New York Times ‘36 Hours in Monaco‘ article and, at the end of the umpteenth telephone call and printing out my 4th authorisation certificate, I’m starting to lose the will to live. There is, alas, no such thing as a ‘cover-all’ photography permit.
Well, there is a general ‘OK, you can take pictures in Monaco’ document that is issued by the Department of the Interior. To apply for this, you have to ask for The Appropriate Form to be sent to you and fill it out at least 15 days in advance of the shoot, stipulating the equipment you intend to use, the make of car you drive and the colour of your underpants (alright, not quite the last one). However the magic piece of paper you receive in return probably doesn’t cover what you really need to photograph, if the iconic sites of Monaco are part of the brief.
Photography in the square in front of the Royal Palace, for example, needs an extra special level of authorisation (the Department of the Interior’s press office sends your request to the Royal Palace’s press office to mull over). Want to shoot in Casino Square? For that, one needs to apply to a different office altogether, the omnipotent Société des Bains de Mer.
The Société des Bains de Mer (S.B.M.) is a company (incidentally mostly owned by the Prince’s family and the Government of Monaco) that makes a few euros from many of Monte Carlo’s famous sites, such as Casino Square and gardens, the Casino itself, Café de Paris, Hôtel de Paris, Hermitage Hotel, Monte Carlo Beach Hotel and the Sporting. Any requests to photograph the interiors – or indeed exteriors – of any of the above need to be presented to the S.B.M. press office (with a cheque, if the images are intended for advertising purposes). Clients who ask me to capture ambiance and ‘people going about their business’ here may be disappointed; it is simply not allowed. Delta Airlines, in their recent SKY magazine feature about L’Avenue de Monte Carlo, had to make do with a seemingly unpopular, entirely empty Louis XV restaurant, and, at the Monte Carlo Casino, roulette tables at 10 am with neither chips nor glamorous punters.
To be able to photograph other buildings in Monaco, like the cathedral or a museum for example, one must contact the venue’s management – and / or Monaco’s town hall – for a separate permit (yes, you guessed it; applications to be made in writing, in advance). Oh, and the principality’s coat of arms is trademarked too, so one mustn’t portray it for anything other than editorial purposes…
Glossing over the small-print
Once you finally get your hard-earned permit/s, you may or may not choose to read the conditions attached. Clauses like “The photographer will ensure that nothing in the photographs taken could directly or indirectly prejudice, morally, materially or politically, the S.B.M. or Monaco Principality, or Monaco’s international relations, especially those with France and Italy” or S.B.M.’s demand for the photographer to send them copies of all photographs taken, granting the company full reproduction rights for their own purposes may raise eyebrows. But pragmatism seems to me to be a compatible bedfellow with wordy legislation. Monaco press officers are mostly nothing less than charming and efficient in my experience, so who am I to complain? Even if I did, I wouldn’t get very far, and certainly not back into Monaco next time.
Is it all really necessary?
You might now be wondering, as my clients sometimes do, whether making the effort to get these permits is overkill. Wouldn’t it be OK just to mingle in amongst camera-wielding tourists and wing it?
Definitely not. Firstly, Monaco has more policemen per inhabitant than any other country in the world. You’d be lucky to walk through town and not bump into several on the way. And secondly, the Monegasque police have a discerning eye. Without the means to sip a 12€ cappuccino in between frames, balancing elegantly on a pair of Jimmy Choos as I shoot, I get spotted quickly. These policemen are well trained to tell the professionals from the scores of amateurs photographing supercars in Casino Square.
I don’t know what happens if you can’t produce the permit/s required on demand, and who would champion my rights as a photographer in that instance, but I hope not to have to write a blog post about that.
Update December 2014
I recently found myself invited to the HQ of the Monaco Police’s surveillance operation. For more, see my new blog post about this recent and unusual experience for a photographer in Monaco – you’ll read some insider information to add to the official line on things…