Originally published July 17, 2017 in Rangefinder Magazine.
Here’s a worst case scenario:
You’re hired to photograph a dream wedding, at an all-inclusive resort on an island off the coast of Thailand. The client is paying for everything: your airfare, hotel room, all your meals, a ton of events. You’re basically a wedding guest, except that alongside enjoying the beach and the mai-tais, you’re also taking pictures of everything with professional-grade photography equipment, and being paid very well to do it. You’re stoked.
But then, disaster. After a long flight from LA to Bangkok, you’re selected for a random search in Customs. You’re pulled into a room with a Customs officer, who asks you why you’ve come to Thailand, and you respond that you’re a guest at a wedding. The Customs officer opens your bags and sees some very high-end photography equipment. He Googles your name and sees that you’re a professional photographer, and that you’ve shot location weddings overseas before. Before you realize what’s happening, you’ve been “blacklisted” from Thai immigration - not only can you not go to the wedding, you can never go to Thailand again. You’re told that you have to board the soonest flight out of the country, at your expense.
What happened? Simple - you made a mistake, and didn’t know that you needed a work visa to photograph the wedding. The thought probably never even occurred to you - after all, you were only going to be there for a few days. You imagined that work visas were only necessary for more long-term employment. What’s more, the client paid you in the U.S, and no Thai nationals would be involved; no money would exchange hands in Thailand. But nevertheless, taking photographs is work, and when you told the Customs Officer that you were just a wedding guest, you lied to a government official.
So how can you avoid a fiasco like this when you’ve been hired for an international location shoot? Consider a quick chat with a lawyer before you get on the plane - as far in advance as possible. Not every country you travel to will require a work visa for a location shoot, and some countries may allow you to apply for a short work visa at the border, while others will require visa applications sent up to six months in advance.
Other issues could arise beyond an invalid visa. Some countries have restrictions on the dollar value of equipment imported, which means that you could be stopped at the border because your camera is too expensive. A lawyer can be helpful here also, to make sure that you’re aware of import value limits and whether there are proper forms that might get your equipment in the country without steep import taxes.
Consider also precisely what sort of “work” you’re doing, and whether it can legitimately be called work. Photographers and other artists often attend conferences abroad, for example - is it “work” to attend a conference? It may be, depending on what you do there. Are you advertising, or merely networking? Are you attending talks, or giving them? Furthermore, say you take a vacation to Italy, and take number of high-quality photographs while you’re there; when you get back, you sell them. Was your vacation work? Probably not, unless you went to Italy expressly to take pictures and deducted your expenses from your taxes.
And of course, other countries have different cultures around taking photographs altogether, and there may even be laws regarding what can and cannot be photographed. This is unlikely to be an issue for a wedding photographer, but it may be for other types of location shoots. Remember that in the U.S., the 1st Amendment generally means that you can take pictures of almost anything you like, but other countries may not have such robust protections, and there may be times or places where photography is unlawful or requires a permit. A lawyer can help you make sure you know your limits and whether you may need permits for your shoot.
Traveling abroad is always a tricky legal affair, and unfortunately working abroad makes it even trickier. Don’t be afraid to check with an attorney before making plans to travel for a location shoot.