Photographers, Busybodies and the Police

I’m a bit tardy with this one – partly because I have been preoccupied and partly because dialup makes the Internet such a pain that I’ve been doing little more than downloading email this past week

I’ve been a keen amateur photographer since I bought my first Zenit SLR back in 1979. Since then, I’ve photographed thousands of places, people and things. While my preference is for landscape, I do have a penchant for macro work and will happily chase insects around the garden in the hope of a decent image. I also like, on occasion, to indulge in candid portraits – usually at family gatherings. When I go to the Isle of Man, then I’ll dig out the long lenses for a bit of sports photography. And, of course, cats. I’ve photographed lots of cats.

However, a combination of the paranoia that is building in this country – whether it is that whipped up by the likes of the tabloid press and its screaming headlines proclaiming that we are awash with paedophiles or the incessant chants of terrorism from the government – has created a backlash against the amateur photographer  as discussed in this article noted by both the Spy Blog and the Landed Underclass this week:

An amateur photographer is chased by the police after taking pictures on the seafront; another man is frogmarched away when using his camera in a town centre. Since when did carrying a camera in public provoke so much suspicion and hostility?

Sam Delaney’s article makes for depressing reading. All too often, the police when harassing photographers are responding to some petty, small-minded busybody who is too immature to recognise the blindingly obvious and keep their nose out of other people’s business. Oh, sorry, they are responsible citizens these days, aren’t they? Responding to “suspicious” activity and merely doing their bit. Suspicious activity my arse! The appropriate response to such “reports” is to tell them to fuck off and mind their own business. But, of course, all reports no matter how petty must be investigated. Never mind the blag going on down at the bank, let’s stop that suspicious photographer – he might be a paedo terrorist, Mrs Jones seems to thinks so. Okay, yes, I exaggerate, but the point stands; that such nonsense detracts from proper police work.

The accompanying story features the Metropolitan Police’s recent poster campaign, which invited members of the public to report suspicious-looking photographers. ‘Thousands of people take photos every day,’ shouted the poster. ‘What if one of them seems odd?’ The accompanying copy begins with the statement: ‘Terrorists use surveillance to plan attacks.’ With British authorities emphasising the link between photographers and terrorism, it’s little wonder that cameras have suddenly become an unwelcome sight on our streets.

That would be this nasty little snitches’ charter, I suppose. Without wishing to invoke Godwin and all that, I will pause to remind anyone reading that this is how the Gestapo operated. It is how the Stasi operated and it is how Stalin managed to maintain a grip on the USSR. Snitches are the slime of society; nasty, repellant, self-righteous busybodies who like to poke about in others’ affairs and take delight in causing them harm. It is a charter that is corrosive, devisive and a delight for control freaks everywhere.

I recall visiting Newcastle some years back on business. As I’d not visited before, I took the camera and tripod and, following the day’s work, wandered alongside the river taking pictures of the bridges against the setting sun. Several passers-by stopped to chew the fat and ask about my camera, the type of pictures I was getting or the sunset. It was all very civilised and what you would expect in a civil society. No one reported me to the police and I’d have been horrified if they had. Because, it is perfectly legal to walk along in a public place, camera and tripod in hand, taking pictures. At least, it is in a liberal democracy. In a totalitarian police state, it is another matter. Well, you would think so…

When Graham Rigg heard the wailing sirens and saw the flashing blue lights of the police car in his rear-view mirror he pulled over to let it pass. But when it performed a spectacular handbrake turn beside him, hemming his vehicle in, he realised it was him they were after. His mind raced: was it something about his driving? Was his tax disc out of date? Even if it was, why were the police hunting him down so dramatically? An officer got out of the car and called out to Rigg: ‘Switch off your engine and get out of the car slowly.’ The traffic on the South Shields one-way system slowed to a crawl as drivers watched the spectacle. ‘I felt like some sort of terrorist,’ Rigg remembers. Had the war on terror really come to this ordinarily quiet North-Eastern town? And if it had, why was this 51-year-old father and Neighbourhood Watch chairman its latest target? As Rigg tentatively approached the police officer, the picture started to become slightly clearer. ‘They told me to get my equipment out of the boot,’ he tells me. ‘They somehow knew I had a camera and they wanted to look at my pictures.’

I recall this story, as Graham commented here about it. However, it seems to be getting worse…

Last November, Phil Smith, 50, went to see the Christmas lights switched on in Ipswich Town Square. Keen to get a snap of Letitia Dean, the EastEnders actress who was scheduled to perform the ceremonial duties, he began to take preliminary shots of the stage. Almost immediately, he was approached by a police officer ordering him to stop.

‘I asked her why and she said it was because I was taking pictures of the crowd,’ he says. ‘I offered to show her the monitor on the back of my camera to prove I wasn’t up to anything. Then she demanded to see a licence. That was a new one on me!’ Soon, another PC arrived on the scene and asked him to step out of the crowd. He was led through a set of barriers and along the front of the crowd, flanked by the officers. ‘I felt a bit daunted by this stage,’ says Smith. ‘I had friends in the crowd and I kept wondering what they must have thought.’

He was led down an alley where the officers demanded to see his photographs. ‘I was dumfounded, scared,’ he recalls. ‘I offered to delete the photos which, I now realise, I needn’t have done. But I just wanted them to leave me alone.’ Eventually, he was told to put his camera equipment in his car; but he decided to go home. ‘I just felt embarrassed and didn’t want to be there anymore. Everyone had seen me being led away by the police and I thought they were judging me. People are quick to jump to conclusions.’

This seems to be another of the “paedophiles on every street corner” scares. Combined, that is, with ignorance of the law on the part of the police and compliance on the part of the photographer.

As a society, we have been conditioned into supporting and respecting our police force. However, that support and respect has to be constantly earned. When they make up law on the hoof, or, worse, wantonly break it then they earn nothing but contempt, and cooperation is certainly not something they should expect.

Back to the Telegraph article, reading it I learned something new that I shall find exceedingly useful should I find myself harassed by a police officer (real or plastic) who thinks that I am behaving suspiciously:

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) is unequivocal on the matter: ‘Police officers may not prevent someone from taking a photograph in public unless they suspect criminal or terrorist intent,’ they say in a statement. ‘Their powers are strictly regulated by law and once an image has been recorded, the police have no power to delete or confiscate it without a court order.’

So, no court order, no images. And:

Acpo has clear guidelines on how to conduct a random stop and search: ‘Officers are required by law to justify their actions to any individual they stop, citing: identification; the law under which they are stopped; and the reason for the search.’

So, if stopped, I shall expect a justification and if they ask for my pictures, I’ll be asking for their court order. I’ll also be wanting a solicitor present before I say anything to them. How that will pan out remains to be seen should it happen, but whatever happens, meek compliance is not part of the plan. If they ask politely – as did those folk in Newcastle – then I’ll respond in kind. Heavy handed anti-terror or anti-paedo type nonsense will meet a stubborn lack of cooperation. I’m good at a stubborn lack of cooperation with authority figures; I’ve half a century of practice. Besides, someone has to.


Update: I see that Tom Paine and DK have picked up on the issue, too. The video they link to demonstrates just how we should deal with these jobsworths.


  1. My problem is with people – most are barely reformed monkeys – who will go apeshit at the slightest excuse. What’s that saying again? “The police are the public and the public are the police.” – quite apt, the way both groups of people now act like thugs. Where’s my passport?

  2. The irony is that this sensitivity of officialdom to being photographed has come about when that same officialdom is diminishing privacy for the rest of society. I have lost count of the number of times that Labourites have accused me of being paranoid for objecting to ID Cards and the National Identity Register, saying that ‘if I have done nothing wrong then I should have nothing to fear’. But as soon as one of their own jobsworths has his privacy infringed then it is a serious criminal matter. The attitude of the police is appalling. They think it perfectly OK to film peaceful protestors but get all annoyed when our cameras are pointed in their direction. On the positive side, the Tory shadow Home Secretary Domnic Grieve was saying some pretty sound things about ID Cards on Breakfast TV this morning. I am no Tory but issues of civil liberties transcend ordinary party politics.

  3. I am no Tory but issues of civil liberties transcend ordinary party politics.

    Indeed so. It’s why I left the Labour party, it’s why I will consider a Tory vote (the best placed to remove our incumbent MP).

  4. Ah, well, the law, of course, doesn’t discriminate when it comes to matters of taste. Didn’t you make a similar point a few weeks back?

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