Photography under threat: The shooting party’s over…

Did you hear the one about the mother banned from taking a snapshot of her baby in the pool? Or the student prevented from photographing Tower Bridge at sunset? Be warned. The authorities now have the power to confiscate your camera — or even arrest you — for daring to take a picture in public

Stop and; search & photos: Know your rights

  1. If police stop and search you, the first thing you should ask is on what grounds they are conducting the search and under what powers.
  2. Police are able to conduct searches under a number of different pieces of legislation but they usually use either the Public Order Act, the Criminal Justice Act or under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000.
  3. Unless you are stopped while driving a car, you do NOT have to give your name or address.
  4. Police officers are obliged to ask for your given ethnicity. Once again, it is up to you whether you choose to answer or not.
  5. If police use Section 44 of the Terrorism Act they are entitled to view any images you have taken but they are NOT allowed to delete them. They can only do so with a court order.
  6. Under Section 58a of the Terrorism Act, police are only allowed to stop a photographer taking pictures of officers if they reasonably suspect the photos are intended to be used in connection with terrorism.
  7. Whether you are stopped and searched, or merely stopped and accounted for, the police officer should hand you a record of your stop.

Put that camera away. Yes, you, put it away right now. This is a public place, you can’t take pictures here. What right have you got to take photographs? People might not like it. Did they say you could take photographs? Did they? No. Are you some sort of paedo? A terrorist? Gimme that camera. Delete those images. Delete your rights, delete trust, delete innocence before guilt. You’re nicked.

Perhaps I exaggerate a little: nevertheless, the days when you could photograph freely in public spaces are disappearing fast. In the eyes of many, the camera has become an offensive weapon, as Peter Dunwell discovered when he travelled from Grimsby to London in January. Coming down by train with a work colleague, Dunwell planned to make a photo-journal of their trip. At King’s Cross he took out his Sony Handycam and started to photograph the arrivals board and station. Two police community-support officers approached and told him to stop. Sure, PCSOs are agents of the state whose job it is to stand by while others drown (as happened in the case of a 10-year-old boy) but intervene in anything none too dangerous. And yes, King’s Cross is sensitive to the threat of terrorism because the London bombers arrived there before going their separate ways on the Tube to murder 52 people in 2005. But Dunwell, a middle-aged man of middle build with middling-brown hair, doesn’t look much of a terrorist. He looks more like the manager of a Jessops camera shop, which is what he is. Though his colleague has dyed blonde hair and pierced ears, there’s no law against that, yet.

In fact, the PCSOs did not suspect him at all of plotting to blow King’s Cross to smithereens. They told him to put his camera away simply “because people don’t want you taking their photographs”. Kamera verboten.

Nobody had complained or objected. Authority had taken its own decision that the British public did not wish to appear in Dunwell’s photograph, even if only in the background. Dunwell was shocked and embarrassed. “It made me feel like I was a paedophile,” he says. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong or illegal. It says something about our attitudes, our freedoms and restrictions on life that you can’t even take a photograph.”

In the most spied-on country in the world, with an estimated 4.2m CCTV cameras tracking our moves, people are now suspicious if Joe Nikon presses his shutter button. In one way Dunwell’s incident was so bittersweet it was almost comical. He had come to London to attend a demonstration in Trafalgar Square about precisely this: the rising tide of restrictions on public photography. That day hundreds of photographers gathered in the square — where you can now only take a commercial photograph if you pay for a special permit — to protest that they are not terrorists, paedophiles or paparazzi invaders of privacy. They’re just enthusiasts pursuing life through a single-lens reflex. The protestors came in all shapes and sizes: tall, short, fish-eyed and wide-angled. Some were as tatty as their cameras, bandaged together with tape, others were in cashmere and corduroys with the latest kit. Among them was Jane Hobson, a photography student. Shortly before Christmas, Hobson was on a student exercise taking pictures in central London. Outside City Hall, security guards ordered her to stop. “They just said it wasn’t allowed, even though I was on a public highway. Another time I was stopped while taking pictures of Tower Bridge at twilight.”

Many photographers believe more is at stake than a few lost shots of iconic buildings. Eyeing up the fading light, they see darkness falling on personal freedoms and a whole strand of social history. “Look at the Victorians and Edwardians,” says Hobson. “Photographs tell us so much of what it was like then. We’re in danger of losing that.” And Simon Moran, a photographer who hosts the UK Photographers’ Rights Guide on his website, says: “Some of the greatest pieces of photographic art we have — reportage and street photography and cityscapes — wouldn’t be possible if people didn’t have the freedom to go around and take pictures without being stopped.”

One of the most beguiling properties of photographs is their ability to expand over time. When you capture an image, often spontaneously, it is a single moment framed in stillness. A child’s innocent smile, perhaps, a lover’s glance, a silhouette etherised against a sundown sky. Look again in 5, 10 or 50 years and that image will have grown far beyond a 7x5in print into a lost world all of its own: a life that might have been; a culture vanished; a childhood of happy, crazy days. Did we really wear those fashions? And look at that hair!

From animals daubed on cave walls to Martin Parr painting modern life with a camera, man has always recorded the world around him. It’s personal memory and public history, and, say photographers, it’s under threat.

If such claims seem alarmist, consider a famous image by Jimmy Sime from 1936. It shows a group of five boys standing by the road in Eton and brilliantly portrays the social divide of the time. Three are local boys in open-neck shirts and scruffy trousers or shorts, looking agog at the other two, who are Eton pupils immaculate in top hats, ties and waistcoats, walking canes in hand. The facial expressions still speak across the years. To capture such an image now, you would need the permission of all the boys, via their parents or the school. Without it, the pixel police step in, either in person or in the form of self-censorship. When a recent BBC programme filmed Eton pupils walking along the road outside the college, it blurred the faces of every one.

Photographing adults, even our most taxpayer-funded figureheads, is also becoming off limits. In December some of Her Majesty’s loyal peasants tried to snap the Queen and members of the royal family as they were going to church near Sandringham. A heinous crime obviously — so the police moved in and confiscated their cameras. Kate Middleton, a royal-in-waiting as Prince William’s on-off girlfriend, threatened legal action after being snapped at Christmas on a tennis court close to a public footpath. Her lawyers sought damages for invasion of privacy. At the time of writing the case was unresolved, but was expected to be settled in Middleton’s favour

Many photographers blame changes in the law for the antipathy that has developed towards them. One European court ruling, involving Princess Caroline of Monaco, judged that taking photographs of her was an invasion of her privacy even when she was in a public place. Yet other celebrities court such pictures. Some photographers complain they are now uncertain where the boundaries lie.

In photography journals and blogs, professionals and keen amateurs also take aim at the Terrorism Act of 2000. Section 44 of the act gave police more power to stop and search people in specified areas. That might sound reasonable — until you learn that large tracts of London, every big rail station in the UK and many other sites have been quietly designated specified areas. To make matters more confusing, details of which areas have been designated are often not disclosed in case it might help terrorists. It’s 1984 meets Catch-22. Previously the police had at least to cite reasonable grounds for suspicion in order to stop and search you; now they don’t. If you’re wearing a loud shirt, walking on the pavement cracks, or carrying a camera, you’re fair game.

The law also allows officers to view images in your phone or camera. Officers are not allowed to delete them — but they can seize and retain any item that an officer “reasonably suspects is intended for use in connection with terrorism”.

At the same time terrorism shares a powerful characteristic with paedophilia: they both fuel a climate of fear that spreads far beyond their immediate or likely victims. In the aftermath of the child murders of Sarah Payne in 2000 and Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham in 2002, local officials went to Defcon 2 on paedo-alert throughout the country. Pre-emptive bans and jobsworth enforcement have become the norm, as Kevin Yuill, a university lecturer, discovered when he picked up his daughter from a ballet class at a Durham leisure centre.

“She was 10, and for her to apply for the Royal Ballet School she had to have some pictures of certain poses,” recalled Yuill. “I’d arranged with her ballet teacher, a middle-aged woman, to help me with the poses while I took pictures. I was stopped by the manager of the centre and told I needed permission to take pictures. I said, ‘From who? Who exactly do I need permission from? I’m her father.’ She said I’d need to get central permission, from the council, to take pictures in a leisure centre of my own child.” Despite his protestations, the manager insisted Yuill took no photos. “It’s outrageous,” he says. “I’m not allowed to take pictures of my own child. And her ballet teacher, a 60-year-old woman, was there. She was outraged too. It’s not about protecting children, it’s about something else. I dislike the idea of government being the only people allowed to take pictures, which is what this appears to be.”

Age, gender and location make little difference. In Fareham, Hampshire, an older couple were stopped from taking pictures of their grandchildren in a shopping centre because photography was banned. They were ordered to leave. In a park in Oldham, a young couple were stopped from taking pictures of their 11-month-old baby when a warden told them it was “illegal”. In recent months a man was questioned by police for taking pictures of the Christmas lights in Brighton; and in Kent a man was arrested after he took pictures of Mick’s Plaice, a fish-and-chip shop. Haddock fundamentalism has yet to emerge as a major threat, but you never know.

Is it too high a price to pay for safety? Have we lost sight of common sense? Cheryl Hudson, a mother from Oxfordshire, thinks so. She wanted to record the moment when her son had his first swim. Like any parent, she wanted an image of the delight on his face. “We took him to a pool in Abingdon,” she recalls. “I was pregnant with our second child and I sat on the side. My husband took my son in — they were the only people in the pool. It was the first time my son had gone in with his little armbands to have a splash around. He was two, and I wanted to capture the memory for our family album.

“The lifeguard came over and said that it was against regulations to take photographs. I said ‘Why?’ He said other parents might not like it. I said, ‘There are no other parents. There are no other children here!’ He just said I couldn’t do it and he got quite forceful.” Hudson felt frustration, embarrassment, guilt and anger. The middle classes aren’t used to feeling like criminals for taking photographs of their children.

“It’s similar at my children’s nursery. If they are having any kind of special event that parents get invited to, every parent has to sign a release form to allow photographs. If one parent objects or doesn’t sign, then no one can take photographs.

“Parents are sensible people. They know the other parents. They know we are not paedophiles and I know they aren’t. It’s just horrible. These regulations seem to be there for their own sake. I think they are really there to cover the backs of the organisations. It’s stifling to any kind of childhood expression and being able to remember all the nice things your child did.”

In their defence, local-authority suits can argue that technological advances have given the public reason to be unsettled about photography. The spread of digital cameras allows secrecy previously unavailable to most photographers. These days images can go straight from your camera to your computer. Some 10 or 15 years ago, when most pictures were shot on film, photographers generally had their pictures developed by Boots or other firms. Outsiders could see your photographs and there was an element of informal policing. If you took pictures of your wife topless, you ran the risk that everyone would know. That is no longer the case.

It’s a fair point, though only half-convincing because any committed photographer was able to develop their own films at home before the arrival of digital systems. One can also argue that digital is a more open medium: a photographer can now instantly show images they have taken to their subjects or concerned individuals, something that could not be done with old-style film.

If there was a sense of informal policing, it has been replaced by pervasive public suspicion that now summons the real police. That’s what happened to Pericles Antoniou, a Greek photographer who made the mistake last year of using a camera on the Tube. A woman complained that she did not want him to take photographs that included her young daughter. Antoniou apologised and showed her the images. When that wasn’t enough, he deleted them. This was still not sufficient to placate the father of the child, who called the police, who arrested Antoniou, seized his camera and belongings and charged him with behaviour liable to cause “public harassment, alarm or distress”. When he appeared before magistrates, the case was dismissed after the police failed to offer any evidence.

Not surprisingly, professional photographers are now wary of shooting in public. Outside war zones and developing-world countries, few places are trickier to take street photographs than Belfast, for many years the scene of sectarian divisions. At the same time it is a city rich in opportunities for documenting social history and change. So Pauline Hadaway, director of the gallery Belfast Exposed, has a front-row seat in the debate on public attitudes to photography. “Yes, photography is contentious and it always has been,” she says. “Nobody wants to have a camera pushed into their face, and people do see their own privacy as important, and rightly so. But what’s interesting is that once you might have had a few people in the street say, ‘I don’t want my picture taken, clear off,’ now it’s become almost formalised, almost semi-legalised.”

The legal position remains badly focused. Case law on privacy is developing. Certain laws relating to private property can encompass photography — you might be pursued for trespass if you took a photograph on private property without permission. And taking photographs against a subject’s will could be held to be harassment.

The lack of any specific law banning photography in public places is little comfort. The uncertainty itself is insidious, says Hadaway. “There is this huge space for people to impose rules. The government and the police say that no, there’s no law that prevents you from taking photographs. But petty authority pushes for greater control.”

In Hadaway’s eyes, that antagonism reflects wider rents in the social fabric. “It’s not just about photography,” she says. “I think it’s about how we all relate to one another. We are losing the ability to negotiate with strangers. Everyone seems to be afraid of everyone else, particularly where child-ren are involved. I don’t think anyone would ever just walk out on the street now with a camera, as they might have done five or six years ago. It’s firmly planted in your head that you are doing something that is potentially problematic. Once it is in your mind, it becomes an issue.”

Students on courses run by the gallery are now taught how to negotiate problems with strangers who object to public photography. In Hadaway’s experience, patience and politeness go a long way. Despite all the problems, two of her students have forthcoming exhibitions of photographs documenting the lives of teenagers and children in some of the most close-knit communities in Northern Ireland. Both had to win the trust, and permission, of their subjects over many months.

“It gives you hope that if you get it right, you can keep doing things,” says Hadaway. But she, too, wonders how much we are at risk of losing. “It’s important to keep making the case for public photography. It’s important for people to be able to record the world around them.”

The Times

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