The Long Lens blog: Photography with added snaps, art and culture

The photography site for sore eyes. Featuring: Art, photography, performance and theatre. With extra writing because I'm also a writer.

Photographing in public places and the law, terrorism and the police

WARNING: Very long blog. 
This blog posting is for those of you who are afraid. Afraid to take photos in public, afraid of being accosted, afraid to get in close.

It’s easy to be afraid of taking photos in public – pictures of people who are not friends and family.

If you’ve any aspirations to produce documentary images, being able to take photographs of people you have never encountered before is, well, if you can’t pluck up the courage your career as a street photographer will be incredibly short.

Whether it’s a street scene with people in it or a close-up of strangers sat on sea-front bench, let me tell you taking pictures of people is not easy. It can be exhausting and fraught with anxiety.

Do I dare take a photograph of her? How will he react if I point my camera at him? Will that couple mind if I ask to take their picture? Sometimes, before you know it, the moment is gone. Welcome to the world of regret and frustration.

At any time you can be verbally abused. It can make you want to give up and go home. I read a brilliant interview in Amateur Photographer magazine with Polish photographer Maciej Dakowicz who takes photos of drunks in Cardiff. He goes home when his confidence is knocked. I know how he feels.

Then there is the You Can’t Photograph Here squad. Security guards can come out of nowhere and stop you taking photos. More primitive members of the public can become aggressive.

You can also be pleasantly surprised by people’s reactions, get into some great conversations and experience genuine warmth. But you just never know.

There is an increasing suspicion of photographers as paedophiles and terrorists. Both fears have been fuelled not by an individual’s own experience of photographers but by the media. What is written does have an impact on the nation’s thinking.

Those of you who have a more in-depth understanding of current photography issues will be aware of Section 43 and Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This has led to several unfortunate incidents between police and photographers.

The Section 44 clause of the act – a right of the police to stop and search any individual – was recently dropped by the Home Office (now they must suspect you of being a terrorist before searching you).

The ultimate fear of photographers is that taking an image which features people in it will lead to lawsuits under privacy laws which are currently ruining documentary work in France, where a similar law is now in place. The privacy law in this case was not meant to stop photographers but has been exploited for that reason.

It’s a little complex and a little scary but what all this means (the law, the media coverage, people’s suspicion) is that it is getting harder and harder to take photos of people, normal everyday people, living their ordinary lives. Whether this is walking to work, holidaying, shopping or enjoying their leisure time.

But fear not, I’m here to give you the confidence to take photographs of anything and anybody you want. Elsewhere on this blog there is advice on how to behave like a professional photographer (don’t be apologetic as you take photos, be willing to talk to people about what you’re doing and always be courteous even in the face of abuse).

In December (2009) I was photographing Christmassy things on London’s South Bank. I was on public property but that still didn’t stop a security guard from a nearby building to come over and tell me I could not take photographs.

I was confident enough in myself (and confident that he had not been swotting up on the latest Metropolitan Police guidelines) to tell him that, actually, I could take photographs (I wasn’t upsetting anyone). When I asked him why I could not photograph Christmas market sheds or people as they walked past, he didn’t have an answer.

Strictly speaking you are not allowed to photograph inside markets or shopping centres. I once travelled to a shopping centre near Bristol to photograph a disabled woman, only to be told by the venue’s management that I was not allowed. They wanted me to send them a fax or email. Being there and asking was not good enough. And I could have taken the picture without asking!

It is easy enough to get permission from most places. I spend a whole summer photographing inside Blackburn’s Three Day Market after writing a letter to their security ofice, but the Trafford Centre did demand I take out £10million public liability insurance before they let me on their premises with my camera. I did try to work out how I could do £10m-worth of damage, coming to the conclusion that it would be very hard.

I’ve also been chucked off Canary Wharf. It is a privately owned complex.

You can encounter many unexpected problems – but if you know your rights and can quote them if quizzed – you’ll be far better prepared to deal with any problems you might encounter from members of the public.

And this is what you need to know:
  • No-one can stop you taking photos of building and people in public places.
  • You can photograph police officers.
  • Police or security guards do not have the power to take your camera off you or force you to delete an image.
  • You cannot be searched by police on suspicion of terrorism if the only suspicion they have is that you are taking photographs.

After the law comes the common sense bits (and these are just important):

  • Don’t be rude to people no mater how they react to you.
  • Don’t invade people’s space if they look uncomfortable.
  • Ask permission to photograph if they see you coming.
  • Smile and gesture for their acceptance if you take their photograph before they realize you are there.
  • Don’t take photographs of children without a parent or guardian’s permission
  • When standing your ground with police or security do it calmly and in a friendly tone.
  • Apologise if you have taken photographs when not allowed, such as in a building or on private property.

In addition, I always offer to email people who are in my photographs a digital copy if they ask for one. I think it’s a fair swap.

This is the end of the lesson. Now it’s time to build up your confidence by getting out there and doing. It gets easier – not much – but it does get easier.

NOTE: All photographs taken in Blackpool of people I don’t know.

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