Yesterday the campaigning group I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist! held a mass photographic gathering in Trafalgar Square in defence of street photography.
Over the last several years both professional and amateur photographers have become aware of what appears to be a semi-official campaign of intimidation against photographers in public spaces. Section 44 of the Terrorism Act allows police to stop and search photographers if they have reasonable suspicion that the photographic activity might be reconnaissance for terrorist activity.
The difficulty with the legislation is that it is vague and ambiguous, leaving individual policemen on the ground confused. The natural tendency is then to take no chances and apply the law to its fullest extent, regardless of common sense. The police work closely with private security guards, who are even more likely to act aggressively. Unfortunately, once they call the police a train is set in motion which cannot be stopped and the incident escalates into a very frightening, humiliating and time-consuming experience for the innocent photographer. 36,000 photographers were stopped and searched last year. It would be interesting to know how many of these turned out to be actual reconnoitering terrorists.
Last year we’ve had reports of a BBC photographer being stopped photographing the sunset over St Paul’s Cathedral (from across the river); a Guardian journalist being stopped photographing London’s iconic Gherkin building (30 St Mary Axe); an Austrian tourist and his son being arrested taking photos at Vauxhall bus station; an arrest of someone taking a snap of a fish-and-chips shop in Kent; someone stopped for taking photographs of Brighton’s Christmas lights; and tourists having their cameras confiscated for taking pictures of the Royal family at Sandringham. As laughable as these incidents are, it is more worrying that press photographers have actually been arrested for doing their jobs. The implications for civil liberties and the rule of law are even more highlighted by the fact that the public photographic evidence of police hitting Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests (the head of the IPCC reported on Channel 4 news that “none” of the CCTV in the area was operational) could be regarded as illegal under Section 44, which forbids photographing the police.
Even celebrities get stopped - take a look at what happened to Dave Gorman when he took a photograph of the derelict Battersea Power Station.
One of my professional photographer friends has called London the most photographically unfriendly city in the world. Pyonyang take note.
There have always been issues with London because so much of the city is only notionally public. Photography in Trafalgar Square for example - seemingly the very epitome of public space - is strictly controlled. If you have what a PCSO regards as a professional camera (basically, any DSLR camera) you may be challenged.
My experience with the security guards at the Gherkin fell into this category - I was challenged (and stopped) the moment I stepped across the pavement’s line of bollards. I was then on private property, you see. I accepted the guard’s prohibition and continued shooting the building from the pavement - luckily for me the police weren’t called.
Photography on the tube is allowed (without flash or tripod) for personal use and I’ve never had trouble on the tube itself - just recently however I was challenged by a tube security person for taking a photo of Clapham South tube station from the street. I held my ground and remained polite and the incident ended in stalemate. He did tell me I shouldn’t do it because the police don’t like it.
The irony is, even a tube station like Clapham South - a suburban London station of likely interest only to tube geeks and/or architecture geeks - is still very well represented in Google images, so official injunctions against photography bring to mind Canute lecturing the incoming tide.
So, so far I haven’t had any contact with the police but I fully expect to in the future, as one of my interests is architectural photography and anyone taking photos of London’s iconic landmarks is now classed as suspicious.
I was very keen to become a fan of I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist! on facebook and attend the gathering in Trafalgar Square yesterday. It was a gathering rather than an official protest. The police were aware of the event but kept a very low key presence.
It was a cold miserable January day in London, so it was great that so many made the effort to come. The atmosphere was friendly but people were obviously concerned and angry about the state’s attack on civil liberties. I estimate that there were slightly in excess of 2,000 photographers present.
My view is that as a society we need to be aware of the terrorist threat. But London has faced terrorism since the 70s. We should be able to do this in an intelligent and effective manner. This war on photography is just going to make the police look ridiculous, create a wedge between the police and state and the citizenry, and possibly affect London’s competitiveness in the international tourism market if word spreads. It won’t catch or deter terrorists.
There were so many different types at the gathering - pros and amateurs, old and young, men and women. Just quietly determined that we should continue to exercise our rights in a peaceful and lawful manner. Interesting that photo geeks are pretty savvy to the new media and connected - twitter, facebook, flickr, blogging, etc. This gives me heart that we can effectively campaign to get the state to see sense.
Facebook campaign: I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist!
The British Journal of Photography supports the gathering
Press Reports: BBC News; The Guardian, Sky News, Amateur Photographer; CNN
LibDem Voice: MEP Sarah Ludford and photographer Grant Smith interviewed at the gathering
Blogger report: Pink Sauce
My photos of the Mass Photographic Gathering on flickr
flickr Mass Photographic Gathering collective
Related - Amateur Photographer: Met Police Watchdog oversees complaints