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In the eyes of the law

Phil Coomes | 08:51 UK time, Friday, 4 December 2009

Millennium Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral in London

I recently found an old article in a copy of a delightful magazine entitled The Miniature Camera, dated August 1938, that discusses a photographic club camera outing to a park in Warwick.

While there, the club members - all 54 of them - were approached by a policeman. The text of the article reads as follows:

"A policeman arrived soon after we had settled down, and we thought we were to be turned out; but he proved to be a most good natured representative of the force, and had merely come to remind us to 'be careful about the litter'.

"After he had been shot 67 times (photographically speaking) he departed wreathed in smiles, quite convinced we were all 'wanting', but quite prepared to believe we were harmless. As to his request, I hope and think it was acted on by all concerned."

Street photographer in 1951It seems that times have changed. Given the years that have passed since that article was published, it is hardly surprising - but could those club photographers have envisaged that, within their lifetime, photographing on the streets of the UK would become such a contentious issue?

There are two areas of concern. One is the use of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act by police to stop and question photographers, and the other the public's perception of photographers taking pictures of strangers - though perhaps the two are linked.

In recent months, there has been a number of stories of photographers being stopped by police officers. Andrew White was asked for his name and address while taking pictures of the Christmas lights in Brighton, and then last week my colleague, photographer Jeff Overs, was stopped as he took photographs of the Millennium Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral in London (see the picture at the top of this page). You can watch him talking about it on the Andrew Marr programme here.

Section 44 allows senior police officers to designate sections of their constabulary as stop-and-search areas. The exact location of these areas is not known to anyone but the Home Office, though it does cover all railway stations.

Jeff's picture is pleasant enough, but hardly one that "could be used in connection with terrorism", to quote the guidelines on the Metropolitan Police website.

To take Jeff's picture as an example, a quick internet image search yields more than 800,000 results for "millennium bridge London". A combination of high-resolution satellite images, Google Street View and the above internet search means that virtually everywhere in the country is now visible, and anywhere of any importance is probably viewable from every angle in the comfort of your home, so anyone up to no good has no reason to visit.

Jeff also points out that:

"Most citizens and tourists are carrying a camera phone and can snap anything they wish discretely as they pass. Keen amateurs and professionals need to achieve better quality and so are inevitably going to be standing around for a bit longer with more obvious equipment - that doesn't mean that we are criminals, or planning attacks - it actually implies the exact opposite."

Indeed, the Metropolitan Police told me they are well aware of the issues and in a statement said:

"We encourage officers and the public to be vigilant against terrorism but recognise the balance between effective policing to protect Londoners and respecting the rights of the media and the general public to take photographs. Guidance around the issue has been made clear to officers and PCSOs through briefings and internal communications."

Photographersprotest at Scotland Yard, 2009The guidelines can be seen on the Metropolitan Police website and clearly state: "Members of the public and the media do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places and police have no power to stop them filming or photographing incidents or police personnel."

This was reinforced by Chief Constable Andy Trotter of the Association of Chief Police Officers speaking on BBC Breakfast News this morning who said: "[T]hese powers should be used intelligently by officers... it is not an offence to take pictures in public."

Marc Vallee, one of the photographers who set up the I'm Photographer Not a Terrorist! campaign told me:

"[T]here are occasional discussions between various bodies such as the NUJ with senior police officers to look at these issues - which can be useful. The police and Home Office have issued new guidelines on public photography and the use of anti-terror laws and this is a step forward.

"But - and it's a big but - it is how the law is interpreted on the ground by officers. It's at street level that things need to change and soon.

"The use of Section 44 leads to the criminalisation of both amateurs enjoying their pastime and professionals like me.

"Does Section 44 stop terrorism? I don't think it does. It needs to go."

But is it this that drives some members of the public to take a poor view of photographers?

To those outside the industry, it must seem that all we do is manipulate reality. For many, their main interaction with pictures is through those that appear in the glossy magazines. Fashion models and film stars edited, slimmed and trimmed to perfection.

Combine that with the message that anyone taking a picture maybe involved in terrorism then maybe it's not surprising that many who see photographers casually snapping on the street are wary of what their aim is, or indeed mindful of where the picture might appear now everyone can publish to the internet.

Photographer Martin Parr told the audience at a recent event organised by the British Journal of Photography (BJP) that he believes it is possible that street photography could be banned in the UK within five years.

The Lst Resort by Martin ParrHe went on to talk to the BJP about the public's misconception about photography, saying: "[Y]ou can't photograph kids on the beach now, even in swim suits". His ground-breaking publication The Last Resort, shot in New Brighton in the 1980s, would be virtually impossible to shoot today.

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that many photographers self-censor and don't capture some of the pictures that street photographers from the last century would have pursued.

Personally, I've not had that many problems on the streets from either side; as long as one is courteous then most people react well, even if it's to tell you to go away, they can still do it politely.

To quote a comment from an earlier post, "[Y]ou do not own the light rays that bounce off your face" - at least, not yet.

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