Photographer – mostly harmless

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.

Photograph of moss on stone wall (JED2_9468_mossonwall)

Moss on top of a stone wall, Seaton Delaval Hall.

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.

Alnmouth beach (JED2_3659_Alnmouthbeach)

Alnmouth beach in the evening, September 2009.

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.

Detail of peeling paint on red telephone box, Alnmouth.

Detail of peeling paint on red telephone box, Alnmouth. Photographed by and © Janet E Davis, 2010.

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.

Photograph of wave crashing against sea wall.

Wave crashing against sea wall. Photographed by and © Janet E Davis, 2010.

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.


8 thoughts on “Photographer – mostly harmless

  1. Ken Eastwood

    Great post. I suspect many of us have had similar experiences.

    It is worrying that photography is increasingly perceived as some kind of terrorist or paedophillic menace.

    Also somewhat ironic when the state routinely takes so many images of everything we do and everywhere we go.

    I often feel self conscious what carrying/using my camera in public places. Why is that?

    I wonder if this will take another turn in due course. The number of people routinely capturing images on smart phones and posting directly to Flickr, Twitpic, Face book etc seems to be growing exponentially. In time I suspect we will come to accept and be far more comfortable with the recording and public sharing of images. Here’s hoping!

    1. Janet E Davis Post author

      That’s the irony of it – so many more people are taking photos than ever before that the professionals are worrying about their jobs. I have wondered from time to time whether I could change my career and become a professional photographer but it seems daft even to try when most people consider themselves to be photographers.
      Many snapshot photographers are unaware of IPR/copyright or other legislation. The real irony is that it is not usually the people with the noticeable SLR/DSLR camera and lon lenses that the public or security people should worry about. They tend to be the people who know something about the legislation.

  2. Laura Beech

    Hi Janet,
    I was alarmed to read in your blog about some of the reactions you experienced while taking photographs in a public place. I grew up with a father who was always taking pictures and as it was then, cine film.
    With the advent of cameras on phones and technology being more available to the general public, society and its views have changed dramatically. We are more paranoid of anyone capturing visual images
    and common sense has disappeared.

    I guess this has developed with the misuse of personal images especially on the world wide web and the lack of ethical and legal guidelines which you have mentioned. We need to clarify this in order for peole to feel safe again.
    As far as you being challenged for being a woman with a camera, that perplexes and angers me. The situation you described on the train with men sitting close by with SLR cameras feels like sexual prejudice. A woman with a compact camera is challenged (by another woman) and the men with the big lenses get left alone. I totally agree that we need to open debate it, and I like your idea of teaching the police officers so they may get a wider understanding of the subject.

    1. Janet E Davis Post author

      I think that the response at Peterborough may have been prompted partly by the type of workers who might be passing through Peterborough Station. There are a large number of agricultural workers in the Fenland fields who do not come from the UK. I think that the woman who shouted at me (she had a foreign accent, probably European) may have worried that I would photograph people who shouldn’t have been in Britain, or shouldn’t have been working in Britain.

  3. Tom Stoneham

    Hi Janet,

    Nice post. Your final comment about encouraging the police to become more photo-literate made me think. It seems that there are two different problems here relating to two different misunderstandings:

    1. When we take photos of things others don’t notice or think worth photographing.
    2. When we take photos of things others would prefer not to have recorded.

    We might be able to address 1) with greater awareness of visual arts, but we should not underestimate 2) when it has nothing to do with security, privacy or children. Think of how many close family members will react negatively to having candid photos taken of them or how friends react to what is discernible in the background of photos taken in their homes. This desire to make sure that photographic ‘records’ present the best appearance of us and our lives is very deep-seated and goes some way to explaining the tension between the millions of camera-phone snaps being posted online every day and the aggression towards photographers we find on the street.

    Parents will all remember the moment when their children become self-conscious and suddenly switch from an innocent joy in being photographed to camera shyness. But now we see that during the period of camera shyness, they are quite happy to be tagged in blurry party images on Facebook.

    I suspect that terrorists and pedophiles are used as an excuse by the public as much as the police to stop behaviour they find uncomfortable for reasons they are not yet aware of. Perhaps the most obvious example is security guards insisting that we need a ‘permit’ to photograph whatever it is they are guarding. This seems to be a displacement of their role to protect: they are there to control the public’s access both physically and visually. Whence the desire to control visual access to oneself or one’s possessions?

    Ooops, am I getting too philosophical?


    1. Janet E Davis Post author

      Thanks, Tom. No, you’re not getting too philosophical.
      It’s an interesting distinction you note between children’s camera shyness in front of parents and the Facebook party images. Makes me wonder whether the camera shyness starts when children become critical of and dissatisfied with their appearance. As a teenager, I avoided cameras, preferred to be the one photographing, but secretly desperately wanted a serious photographer to think I was worth photographing (even though I knew I was not).
      A few years ago, I was photographed by an internationally-renowned photographer, Martin Parr, although I did not recognise him at the time. A friend spotted the photo in an art magazine months after the event. When I saw it, I thought that I had just happened to be in the shot and that the photo was all about the family in front of me. Then I remembered how irritated I had been by the photographer who was taking – or trying to take – photographs for a long time as we waited in the queue under a hot sun. I was taking photographs of everything around me so had an SLR camera covering my face most of the time. The rest of the time, I was deliberately dodging being in shot.
      Knowing who the photographer was, and realising that he must have made a conscious decision to include my face, changed how I felt about that particular process of being photographed. I am still undecided about the interpretation of the image because of the interpretation of many of Parr’s photographs. I do, however, recognise and understand the aim of the image.
      I have only recently started photographing people a lot. Most of my photographs are of buildings and landscapes that are remarkably empty of people. I still feel rather shy of photographing people, although I started drawing people around me on trains or in the street when I was 10 or 11. Most people in the street think that one wants to photograph the view, so obligingly move out of shot. The really curious thing is that some men passing me in the street will pause to invite me to photograph them.
      As for the security guards who stop photographers – I think that they are just using any excuse to wield what power they have. Some of them are doing the job because of power rather than a desire to protect. But maybe I am too cynical about people in positions of power.

  4. Tom Stoneham


    I love the Martin Parr story! You don’t have a link to the image do you? Is it in one of the books?

    Almost immediately after writing this comment I realized it may have something to do with ‘personal space’. All those party shots of teenagers posted on Facebook are not seen by them as violations of personal space because they have already opened up in that party context.

    But this raises the interesting question of why someone recording the light that bounces off you can ever be seen as a violation of personal space. It is probably something to do with our sensitivity to being watched.

    And your cynicism about security guards and policemen doesn’t explain the particular irritation they show with photographers. Incidentally, I spent a week in Iran last month and everyone was really relaxed about photography – even in the busy bazaars.


    1. Janet E Davis Post author

      Hi Tom,
      I have just had another search but cannot find that photo online. I have a copy but cannot publish it openly on the Web because I don’t have permission. It appeared in the magazine Art Review September 2002 and also in a book about the Baltic published by the Baltic.

      You don’t think that the teenagers might have a false sense of security that only their friends bother to look at the photographs so that it feels like they are still within an enclosed space?
      I notice that amongst the people who have been on Twitter longest, there is a tendency (especially late at night) to forget that exchanges could be read by anyone (especially as ‘open’ tweets are archived by the Library of Congress). It’s like that false sense of privacy created by two or more sitting at a table in a café or similar. Most of the time, my work has involved communicating with the public or knowing that what I write will become part of the National Archive but even I get seduced by the apparent intimacy of social media.
      I am absolutely fascinated that you found people relaxed about photography in Iran. I wonder what the difference is?


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