Saturday, 2 January 2010

Those ever-so-dangerous photographers

It was a glorious day again in London: clear blue skies and bright sunshine. As such, I decided that the time was ripe to take my new lens for a workout.

And given that it's such a specific lens – an aspherical ultra-wide angle – I thought that the best way to put it through its paces would be to go back to one of my favourite photographic haunts and see how it coped with some of my favourite architectural subjects. In other words, the City of London, with particular visits to the 'Gherkin' and Lloyd's.

I haven't done much photography in London for a while. There are a number of reasons, but the behaviour of the police toward photographers has been in the back of my mind. An increasing number of photographers – amateur and professional – have been stopped in recent months by over-zealous police who don't actually understand the law that they frequently claim to be using – Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 – and who don't seem capable of using anything approaching common sense.

Last month, a photographer, standing on a public pavement, was harrassed by police for taking photographs of a Christopher Wren church. Another photographer was approached because he was snapping away at St Paul's Cathedral.

And it gets 'better'. Another case recently came to light, which saw an artist, painting near City of London airport, twice stopped because "no one paints factories", as he was told by one clearly very well educated copper. The artist, Liam O'Farrell, mentioned LS Lowry. But this didn't appear to go down too well.

Truly terrifying stuff.

Police are, it seems, convinced that people taking photographs of landmarks that have been pictured millions of times already are doing so for the purposes of terrorism – or that terrorists will get some sort of information from these new pictures that they can't already find on Flickr and God alone knows how many other picture hosting sites and from who knows how many other sources.

Photographing the 'Gherkin' can get you stopped too – well, obviously there are no pictures available already of that iconic building for al-Qaida to check out what it looks like, so they need someone to take some. And then they send in TV crews from a major national broadcaster, so they have to be stopped too.

I have no particular desire to find myself confronted by braindead idiots in uniform who seem incapable of understanding that a camera is not a bomb – or even of understanding and inwardly digesting the instructions of their own senior officers, who seem to be getting just the teeniest bit embarrassed by all this idiocy, so this was the first time I've headed that way in a while.

I had no problem with the police today – you do wonder if they 'think' that they can stop every single individual who carries a camera. In one of the biggest cities in the world. Full of tourists as well as residents. Yet on the radio this afternoon I even caught word of a story about some suggestion that everyone taking pictures in London should have a permit. How the hell would that work with over 30m tourists visiting the city every year? Will mobile phones – most of which now have cameras in them as standard – be included? Did anyone even consider switching their brain on before coming up with such patent nonsense?

Then, of course, there are the little tin-pot dictators who race out from 'their' buildings to tell you that you can't photograph there because the owner doesn't like it. Durr ... when you build a bloody big, horizon-altering structure, expect it to get photographed. When you build a monstrosity of a shopping centre (the external sort that someone can wander around, outside) expect it to be pictured. Or perhaps such things are simply excuses for inadequates in uniform to get a power kick?

I was photographing at Broadgate Tower this afternoon – the exterior concourse flows straight onto the pavement; other people were wandering around too – when a jobsworth got up from his desk inside the main tower and headed for the door just as I set up a shot. I turned and sauntered away, having already got a couple of decent pictures and in no mood for some sort of a scene.

Anyway – nothing else untoward occurred. But it's ludicrous that people actually stop doing something as perfectly innocent as photography because of something like this. And it's ludicrous that, when I go out with a camera, I feel the need to be aware of my rights and of what the police are and are not allowed to ask or order me to do, because some of them cannot be trusted to know.

Was the piece of legislation in question deliberately intended to attack civil liberties? Or was it just the sloppy actions of a government that panics in the face of terrorism and then does some of the terrorists' work for them? Looking at the current government, I'm not sure.

But it is absurd – and deeply worrying in terms of its ramifications – when taking a photograph evolves into feeling like some sort of political act of defiance.

* I'm a photographer, not a terrorist is a campaign that has been set up to defend photographers and campaign against the current attitude and behaviour of some within the police force.

1 comment:

  1. My daughter work s in a shop in the centre of Leeds and she tells me that her manager once called the police when she saw someone taking photos in the precinct outside, she had been told that you needed a permit to photograph in Leeds centre - it never stopped me taking my reference photos of buildings, then again I'm very much a point and snap sort of person as I only use them to count the number of windows etc :)

    I'd love to see what would happen if I set up an easel and canvas on the public road outside The Gherkin