IS THE FREEDOM TO TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS A RIGHT?


Canon 7 with 50mm f0.95 lensThere has been a tremendous amount to hoo ha on the net and in the press about photographers being harassed by the powers-that-be through legislation,  security guards and the police.

While most of this has emanated from the United Kingdom where some seriously strange, and repressive, laws have been enacted in the wake of the Subway bombings, the same behaviour is cropping up in other countries too.

The justification, if there is a valid one, is the war against terrorism.

I abhor the concept of terrorism in all its manifestations – my wife worked near Harrods, and was in the habit of shopping there and when it was bombed by the IRA, I spent an anxious couple of hours until I knew she was safe, so I have some little experience of its effect – for it is a selfish, cowardly. inhumane way to achieve one’s ends.

But we need a sense of proportion about how this war is fought.  Hasty action leads to fiascos such as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan. People dying on both sides for so little gain, and justified on by such shaky grounds.  A notion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and the suspect belief that the Twin Towers attack was masterminded in Afghanistan.

The US, Britain, France, India, China, Pakistan, North Korea and perhaps, Israel all have weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – but where is the call to go to war with any of them? 9/11 may have been hatched on London or New York for all we really know. On past form I wouldn’t take the word of the “Intelligence” agencies for anything.

Terrorists aim to interfere, intimidate and disrupt as well as killing and maiming. So by causing the authorities to suspect  photographers simply because they may be photographing a potential terrorist target such as a bus station or  Christmas lights seems to indicate that the terrorists are winning. Every time such an event occurs it eats away at everything we value in a democratic state.

A few minutes reflection on the part of politicians and police would lead to the inevitable conclusion that photographs, locations, drawings (and plans) of most potential targets are in the public domain and a few minutes in Google, or almost any library, would provide all the information a terrorist needed without drawing attention to him or her self. by visiting the target and photographing it.

Indeed, why photograph a power station with a long lens when a public relations company will send you nice close up glossies for free … for a school project or to accompany an article in The Daily Terrorist? Or are school projects on the banned list, too?

Heavy handedness is counter productive rather than counter-intelligent.  Every time a photographer is stopped and questioned, be it a tourist or a press photographer, the event is widely reported at home and abroad.

Already the British police have made themselves the laughing-stock of the world (how many shots of Christmas Lights is too many) but they are raising the hackles of a lot of perfectly law-abiding citizens driving them to join mass protests outside of Scotland Yard and launching web sites to campaign against the woolly laws that led to this and against the police charged with implementing them.

Some people are predicting the death of street photography in the UK. That would be a real shame, as so much of what we know of the past since 1839 has come from ordinary photographers documenting the world around them. To lose the viewpoint of the street photographer in the Twenty-First Century would be appalling. Remember this whole thing effects the Cartier-Bressons of this world, as much as it does you and me.

Taking the repression of photography a little further … in the Vietnam War almost anything went and photojournalists operated with great freedom. often on their own. Now, in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are “embedded” with particular units and their movements restricted and their output subject to military approval. Why do you think we don’t see the dead on TV and in the newspapers? The victims of an earthquake, or African atrocity are shown in all their gore, but not victims of our wars?

Now this control of what we can and cannot photograph is being extended, none too subtly, into our everyday lives. Today a professional photographer stopped for photographing St Paul’s, tomorrow a drainage ditch in the suburbs, and the day after no pics of politicians except under carefully controlled conditions, and subject to the approval of the minders. The day after that no photographs of pollies at all, as they may be terrorist targets.

If all of this is deliberate intent on the part of those in power, George Orwell was right in his predictions of the future. He just got the date wrong.

If it is not deliberate, it is the reprehensible result of panic on the part of some very tiny minded politicians. Either way a police state is just around the corner, or one so smothered in hastily concocted legislation that it is unworkable.

The British invented the “Silly Season” and they seem to be paying for it. Although non-Brits shouldn’t snigger. There have been some strange events in the United States of America as well, but at least that has resulted in some clear-cut directions on what is, and what is not, acceptable. However individual cops still have too much say in the process

In Australia too, there have been some strange cases such as the Victorian Camera Club warned not to photograph “industrial sites”. However despite seeming police ignorance of them the laws relating to photography, and especially street photography, are quite clear.

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