Monday, December 14, 2009

Guilty until proven innocent

click photo to enlarge
It seems that Britain's photographers are guilty until proven innocent. How else can we explain the police continuing to interfere with people using their cameras on the streets of our country?

Over the past year the press has regularly carried articles about amateur and professional photographers, tourists and casual snappers being confronted by private security guards, police constables and police community support officers. In many cases the representatives of the law took action without the support of any legislation. In other incidents, particularly in London, the "catch all" Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 has been used. A Minister has stood up in the Houses of Parliament and said that this was never the intention of that legislation and has told police not to use the act against photographers. The Metropolitan Police has published advice to its officers along the same lines. And yet it continues.

Recently a man on his way to work in Brighton was stopped and asked for his name and address when he was taking photographs of the newly erected Christmas lights. In November a BBC photographer, Jeff Overs, was stopped and questioned when photographing the Millennium Footbridge and St Paul's Cathedral in London. That one sent a shiver down my spine because a couple of weeks earlier I'd photographed exactly that subject! Partly as a consequence of these events, and in the light of a recent memorandum sent to all 43 of the UK's police forces reminding them that no threat or offence is implied when someone takes a photograph in the street, a Guardian newspaper photographer decided he'd see if the persecution of photographers had stopped. He went to photograph "The Gherkin", the distinctive office building in Central London that is photographed daily by thousands of tourists. Within a couple of minutes a security guard had alerted the police and he was apprehended. You can read about his experience in his article, From snapshot to Special Branch: how my camera made me a terror suspect.

One of the pitfalls of street photography today is that some areas that we might think to be public places are actually privately owned. This applies to all shopping centres (malls) - as you might expect - but also to, for example, land around the base of "The Gherkin" and the whole of Canary Wharf. On private land the owner or his representative can sanction or forbid photography and can add detailed rules about the uses to which such images can be put. I was aware of this when I took today's photograph, but was also conscious that - to my knowledge - no one has been forbidden from photographing in Canary Wharf. And a good thing too. However, and this is the main point that the police refuse to grasp, there is no legislation forbidding the taking of photographs in public places. It shouldn't be necessary for a photographer to bring a civil action against the police for this persecution to stop - it would be a waste of public money - but it seems that nothing else is going to ensure that the law as it is written is properly upheld!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Lumix LX3
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 5.1mm (24mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f4
Shutter Speed: 1/500
ISO: 80
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On