Photographers’ rights and behaving properly

There’s currently a lot of fuss about photographers’ rights. Increasing numbers of photographers seem to be getting hassled for no good reason, and there’s little sign of it stopping. Obviously this a bit of a worry, but I want to make sure I understand all sides of the argument.

I try to look at the evidence skeptically, and the leaning I fight against is actually towards authority. In my experience the lone warriors battling against the injustices of authority are more likely to be jerks than heroes, so I look at their arguments first. And it’s often hard to find rationales amongst the fetishising of Orwell. Honestly, the way for the government to get rid of these people is to create an MMORPG of 19841. But if you ignore all the libertarian fantasies and slippery-slope talk there are lots of people asking a valid question: why shouldn’t people be allowed to take photographs in any public place?

The standard answer is, obviously, security. People who want to do Bad Things use photographs to help them plan. Ok. If they want to win me over, I need to be convinced that banning photography is a) effective and b) fair. Does it actually stop people Planning Things? Can I personally still apply for a permit to photograph inside St. Pancras? I think there’s a chance they may have a point, annoying to me as it may be, so I’ll at least hear them out.

Then along comes Bruce Schneier:

Since 9/11, there has been an increasing war on photography. Photographers have been harrassed, questioned, detained, arrested or worse, and declared to be unwelcome. We’ve been repeatedly told to watch out for photographers, especially suspicious ones. Clearly any terrorist is going to first photograph his target, so vigilance is required.

Except that it’s nonsense. The 9/11 terrorists didn’t photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn’t photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn’t photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren’t being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn’t known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about — the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6 — no photography.

Ok, you win. Banning photography on security grounds is clearly bollocks. See his post for his – very interesting – take on why governments go down this road.

Still. People do themselves no favours. Check out this much-lauded ‘documentary’. It’s an odd little thing, contrasting the director’s angry encounter with a Community Support Officer with an internet petition supporting photographers’ rights. The latter turned out to be massively exaggerating the impending legislative threat, but the former is presented as if to say ‘but look, isn’t it all dreadful’.

Here’s what happens. The guy’s filming ‘some ordinary street shots’ in the centre of London, in a heavy crowd, and he picks out a passing Community Support Officer. He tracks him with the camera for a few seconds, getting very close to the guy’s face (you’ll see how we know this in a minute). The CSO stops walking and asks him to stop filming, then reaches and puts his hand over the lens. Guy immediately launches into ‘you’ve assaulted me!’, and they have a competition to out-haughty each other over what right he has to carry on filming.

Now, the CSO is clearly out of line. There are no rules forbidding filming in a public place2. He does himself no favours. But I think there’s dickery on both sides of the camera.

I suspect it comes from the attitude of Me vs The Man. The CSO isn’t a person, he’s the embodiment of Authority, and so doesn’t get common courtesy. There are a lot of people who, if you shove a camera in their face, will get uppity and put a hand over the lens. Me, I could give a damn, but I’ve got friends my age who insist I keep Flickr photos on heavy-privacy settings. Lots of people get very funny about privacy, including most of the aforementioned Orwell nuts – look at all the fuss over Google Street View. No, the CSO shouldn’t have done it, but he’s an actual person, not an automaton, and people make mistakes.

Then, given that it’s happened, the sensible thing is not to launch into ‘you’ve assaulted me’. This is clearly is not going to help. Also – and forgive me if I’m misinterpreting the strength of his hand against the camera – but get a grip. He’s clearly saying it for show. Of course you should be assertive, but it’s possible to state your rights without going on the attack and turning the situation into a competition. How many disagreements have ever been resolved reasonably when both sides go all macho? Doesn’t happen. I’m not saying the guy should have apologised, but something along the lines of ‘what reason is there I can’t film here?’ should resolve the situation much more effectively. The CSO demands to see some ID, which is obviously not ok (and a red flag to a bull), and the guy tells him he has a perfect right to film and he needs to know the law better. The encounter isn’t going to recover from this. Getting all haughty and looking for an argument – I love the oh-so-affronted ‘what’ when the (admittedly totally out-of-line) CSO tells him to ‘shut up’ – isn’t helping anyone, it’s just advertising. How is the CSO going to react next time he sees someone filming? If the next guy is me, I’m going to have far less chance of a reasonable outcome because someone else didn’t behave properly.

I don’t think that video is a good example of anything. CSOs shouldn’t act like that, but neither should photographers. The guy filming possibly lost his cool in the situation, but I’m not sure it’s the best advert to put out there. I’d say there are very, very few situations where politeness isn’t the most effective solution, no matter how big a jerk you’re dealing with.

I don’t think photographers should put up with being hassled on the street. And we should campaign to point out the flaws in the arguments for doing so. But the us-and-them mentality isn’t productive either.

  1. you’d never win, of course []
  2. well, it’s possible you might need a permit in some situations, but not commercially []