There has been a lot of discussion about photography in public places in the last year as people have been arrested for taking photographs. This is an issue that has been rumbling on less publicly for at least a decade. As someone who has been taking photographs since the age of about 8, I thought I should write something about it.
A couple of months ago, when visiting London for a few days, I was rather surprised when my parents expressed concern on the phone that I might get arrested for taking photographs. I laughed. I tried to reassure them that I was not intending to photograph anything controversial. I told them that the police would just look silly arresting a slightly scruffy but respectably-dressed, middle-aged woman who needs a walking stick to get more than a few yards.
My parents remained concerned until I left London. They had seen the news that someone had been arrested for photographing a building, from the public highway. I photograph buildings quite frequently.
North East England, one sunny day recently: I was taking some photographs of moss and lichens on a wall. A passing motorist sounded his horn at me several times as he sped past. Since I was not the only person strolling around that area, I gathered that his noisy attention-seeking was prompted by the sight of someone photographing a wall. I do not even pretend to understand quite why this should be anyone’s reaction to my taking photographs (from a public highway) of a wall bounding a historic property, lately taken over by the National Trust.
At the time, I just thought that maybe they were less used to the sight of people with cameras in that area. I had taken a few shots of the coast nearby during the previous hour, and had been regarded with some degree of suspicion by the dog-walkers.
A few days later, I was taking photographs further up the coast, in Alnmouth. There were lots of visitors (as there tend to be at weekends and on holidays during most of the year). I have visited Alnmouth quite regularly for over 25 years. I cannot remember ever visiting the place without a camera in hand.
I wandered up and down the street, taking photographs now and then. When people approached on the narrow pavements and streets, I moved out of their way to let them pass easily. Most of them did the polite thing of hesitating slightly, anxious not to get in the way of the camera, before passing. Most smiled and thanked me for getting out of their way.
As I was taking the last few shots before getting back into my car to enjoy a takeaway coffee before heading home, two men approached. I had noticed when parking my car by the weatherworn telephone box that it was visually interesting, and the light was hitting it at a good angle when I returned to the car. The men were in their early 30s, perhaps younger. As I stepped back to let them pass, the larger of the men came uncomfortably close to me to talk to me. He told me that he and his friend were professional photographers, and that they had been photographing a nearby landscape. It was such an emotional experience that it had brought tears to their eyes. He laughed.
It was clear that they were not professional (or serious amateur) photographers because they would have realised why I would find the telephone box worth photographing. They were mocking me. I felt quite threatened because when I had stepped back again to put more distance between us, he stepped nearer again so I was trapped against my car. I did not think that he intended to be physically intimidating, but that was the effect.
This last week, a small gaggle of boys said rude things about me, when I was photographing waves crashing against a wall. One covered his face with his hands, leaving gaps to see and to stick his tongue out at me as he walked past (I had stopped photographing the waves as soon as the boys came in clear sight). They were about 11 years old. I wondered what they had picked up from the media or adults around them that made them think it was acceptable to be rude to someone with a camera who was not photographing them.
I have been used to people staring at me with some suspicion when I have been carrying or using a camera. In some places, even a compact camera will cause staring and frowns from passers-by.
I was shouted at in the buffet on the platform at Peterborough Station a couple of years ago for simply taking my compact camera out of my bag. The woman almost ran from behind the counter to reprimand me. Not far away at that moment were a group of men with SLR or DSLR cameras with long lenses, on tripods (the usual group of trainspotters).
Is the reaction to my taking of photographs is better or worse because I am female? People have always seemed more surprised to see a woman with what looks like a serious professional photographer’s camera (mine is only classed as amateur equipment by camera companies and photography magazines). Generally, most people smile at me. Other boys aged around 11 have said that I was “really cool” because I used a “proper camera” to photograph an unofficial busker in the street. Some young men want me to take photographs of them. People ask me, in interested and friendly tones, if I am “a photographer” – a question that I stumble to answer. Photography is simply another medium for making visual art to me.
Should we be concerned that some of the police and private security guards on our streets automatically regard anyone with a SLR or DSLR camera as a potential threat to society? At the same time as we have closed circuit television cameras watching our every move in city/town centres? We do not even know who owns nor do we have any control over who sees those video images.
The ‘Terrorist or photographer’ debate at the Authority 2.0 conference in Birmingham on Wednesday, 30th April was very interesting. It was reassuring to hear senior police saying that we should be fine taking photographs in public places. It was scary to disturbing to hear about people being arrested for taking photographs.
Whilst watching the ‘Terrorist or photographer’ debate, I kept thinking that it could be useful to hold photography workshops for police and security guards, to teach them why people take photographs of things like buildings, pavements, sky… I would like to teach them how to take photographs, give them an assignment on a specific theme. Give awards (just a certificate with their name on, or maybe a voucher for printing out their photographs as posters) to encourage them to participate and compete with each other.
Those of us who are involved with using and creating images need to discuss these issues properly, and to discuss the issues with people who may consider them a threat. I think that a much better understanding of visual material and its creation would be helpful to our society. The growth in the production and publishing of visual images has grown faster than the knowledge about how images might be used and what the legal and ethical issues are.
Most photographers are harmless. Who knows, they might even be beneficial. I have a mad theory that having more professional and citizen photographers on the streets of our towns and cities might deter terrorists because there is more chance of being recorded.
One man did come and ask me when I was photographing pebbles on the beach if I were an artist or professional photographer. I asked him why he should think that. “Because you’re photographing things other people tend not to notice,” he replied. He is an artist, so understood.
Maybe people who notice and record things that look different, unusual, or odd could be very useful to society? Let us talk about it.