When does a photographer’s liberty to take images of the world he sees around him need to be compromised in the name of security? With the Olympic Games in London this year a number of photographers and newspapers have been discussing this issue.
Photographers’ rights in the UK
First let’s take a look at the photographer’s rights in the UK. Amateur Photographer magazine’s handy wallet size printout reflects advice given to police offers by the metropolitan police dealing with photographers’ rights as follows:
- There is no restriction on people taking photographs in public places or of any building other than in very exceptional circumstances.
- There is no prohibition on photographing frontline uniform staff.
- The act of taking a photograph in itself is not usually sufficient to carry out a stop.
- Unless there is a very good reason, people taking photographs should not be stopped.
- Officers do not have the power to delete digital images, destroy film or to prevent photography in a public place under either power (sections 43 and 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000).
Personally I like this simple set of guidelines, but it does not address the issue of taking photographs on private land, and does not mention taking photographs of individuals, with, or without their knowledge and consent.
For a more in-depth look at photographers’ rights, you would do well to pick up a copy of “Know your rights” published as a fold out A3 guide that came free with Digital Camera magazine’s spring 2012 Issue. This guide has sections covering shooting from public vs private land, the issues surrounding the police vs security guards, the implications for personal and commercial photography, photographing people in public, copyrighting and trademarking your work, and capturing animals and plants.
In my view, the above referenced guidelines mean that if you are shooting on public land, even if the subject matter is a private building, you cannot be stopped for doing so by security guards, or police officers unless you are causing an obstruction.
The National Interest
Now let’s think about the need to protect the national interest and the population. What are the threats and how could a photographer risk the nation’s safety?
- Clearly a 7/7 or 9/11 style terrorist attack on an Olympic venue could be a distinct possibility at this summer’s London Olympics.
- Individuals and / or the public at large could be targeted in the run-up to the Olympics.
Any major terrorist attack would likely need to be planned in advance, and clearly reconnaissance photographs by members of a terrorist cell could be used in the planning of such attacks. So there is a chance that a photographer taking a shot of an Olympic venue or staff involved in the Olympics, whether from private land or public land, could be on a reconnaissance mission as part of planning for such attack.
Clearly it would be desirable that if such a reconnaissance mission were taking place, then the national security services, police services, and private security services had the ability and tools to identify and stop such an event. Stopping a terrorist from researching his attack is clearly in the national interest. How do you identify and separate the bad guys from the photographer following his or her hobby or profession?
Having a law restricting all photography of Olympic venues would most probably be ineffective, given the amount of visitors expected before and during the games. So what then is the correct balance? What rights should our security services, both private and public, have to help them perform their duties and protect the Olympics and the nation?
Finding the Balance
So is it right then that a balance between a photographer’s liberty and the need for security be found, even if just while high profile events such as the Olympics are taking place?
One argument often made is that, if a photographer going about his or her business is completely innocent of any terrorist activity, then why should they mind being asked a couple of questions by security staff and or police? Surely national pride would bring us all together to protect the nation by allowing Olympic venues and their visitors to be protected though a temporary right to screen individuals in the process of capturing images. It’s the old “if you have nothing to hide, what’s the issue” argument.
The counter argument has always been that any such infringement into the liberty of a photographer will be the beginning of a slippery slope with Orwellian 1984 overtones. I wonder what Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights organisation Liberty and regular panellist on the BBC’s question time show, would think.
If we did start giving law enforcement and security services the right to stop photographers taking pictures of Olympic venues from public spaces, who should have that right? Just the police, or should private security services protecting a venue also have that right?
One thought to inject here – The games are a national affair, they are largely paid for by the public purse, and they are produced by LOCOG on behalf of the government. The Olympics by their very nature are a public event. So, if we are taking photos of a public event from a public piece of land, perhaps this without question means that private security firms should not be allowed to hinder or inspect the photographer. The Guardian recently published an article looking at just this issue. The link can be found in the links section below.
Where do I stand as a photographer and ex security guard; a perspective right in the middle of the picture?
I will get straight to the point here. If I am on private land and I am taking photos of security operations, I have no issue with security staff or police asking me to stop. They are clearly acting in a manner to protect the venue. The crossing of the boundary onto public land only changes who should be able to stop me. At this point, I would feel it completely inappropriate for private security firms and individuals to have powers to stop me or even question me. However, I have no issue with their right to be vigilant and escalate a situation to the police. If the police were to get involved, I would also have no issue with needing to explain my reason for being somewhere, or why I was taking photos.
Now I’m sure a number of readers will be up in arms at this point; “How dare a photographer be willing give their rights away!” In reply, I believe there are times in life where we should think about the many and not the individual. There is a clear need to protect sensitive venues from a potential terrorist attack, so I have no issue with giving a bit of my personal liberty up to protect the public. However, ask to take my camera, or try and delete my images without my express permission, no matter what the situation, then I will not budge without a court order.
References and Links
The Guardian’s piece mentioned in this article can be found on their website here: Guardian article.
The Guardian article is referenced by Amateur Photographer Magazine in their narrative on these issues, which can be found here: Amateur Photographer article.
Amateur Photographer Magazine’s handy print out guide to photographers’ rights can be found here: Amateur Photographer Printout.
The image behind the story
The image used in this article was created by Ben Spencer, our resident photographer. In his article “Constructing an image using Photoshop and Lightroom”, he describes how he created the image, from the day of shooting to the post shoot editing. You can find the article on his photography blog here: Ben Spencer Photography.
About the Author
Matthew Richmond is a keen blogger, photographer, and ex security guard living in Essex.
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Laws made to protect the public, such as the Patriot Act, remove individual rights. It’s been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
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