Testing the right to photograph in public

Someone just sent me this YouTube video , featuring London Street Photography Festival’s fascinating experiment testing the limits to freedom in public space.

Six photographers went out to take photos in different areas of the city. The photographers were told to take photos in a normal manner. They are not aggressive, they were not behaving strangely, and they were polite and reasonable at all times. (This is important – other campaigners have carried out stunts defending their right to photograph while wearing masks, or otherwise making a point, which gives the action an artificial quality.)

The results of the experiment are worrying in the extreme. All six photographers were stopped; three of these encounters led to police action.

The exercise showed the menace of private security guards, now in every major building and public space. These individuals have no legal powers, but act as if they do.

Guard after guard told the photographers that they could not film the building, or them, or members of staff. Sometimes the photographers were told that the building was ‘private’ – even though the photographers were all on a public pavement – but often they were just told that it was ‘policy’ that they could not take photographs.

Security guards’ reasoning included: ‘It’s a private estate’; ‘We’re security and we don’t like our buildings being photographed unless there’s a reason for it’; ‘I’d rather you didn’t take pictures around here’; ‘From a security aspect, you can’t photograph members of staff coming into and out of the building’; ‘This building is private – and can I not be filmed please?’; ‘No photos can be taken of this building, we have a strict policy in this building’.

Security guards often went beyond the powers of actual police officers, asking the photographers – on a public pavement – for their details, or for explanations of what they were doing and why.

Questions included: ‘Do you have any ID on you?’; ‘Can we take some details from you just for security reasons?’; ‘What are you photographing?’; ‘What is the purpose of the photography?’; ‘Who are you doing it for?’; ‘We have to ascertain the reason why [you are taking photos], so we can decide if it’s something that needs to be reported’.

(To these questions, the photographers very sensibly answered, I am not doing it for anyone, I am a photographer but I am doing it for myself, because it interests me – so defending disinterested photography, just looking at the world, rather than holding up the authorisation of being on a particular assignment or brief.)

Security guards also invented their own pseudo-legal procedures and forms of clearance, stating that these were necessary in order that photography could continue. These included: ‘You need forms’; ‘You need some permission’; ‘You need to write to building manager’; ‘You need my permission to film me’.

Terrorism was the implicit justification for these enquiries, but it was rarely mentioned explicitly (only in trite asides such as ‘Obviously you know about bombs and stuff’). The normal and reasonable behaviour of these photographers would not have given any sensible person reason to suspect. Instead, it seems that there is a logic of security that has taken hold as an end in itself. Security guards (who perhaps do not have much else to do) see it as their job to challenge anybody photographing in the vicinity of their building.

In comparison, the police officers called on to the scene were the paragon of good sense. The officers asked a few questions, then all concluded that the photographers could continue: ‘If you’re not on private property, you’re allowed to take photographs and film what you like as far as I’m concerned’. Another said, ‘I don’t have a right to [ask to see your pictures], unless I have reasonable suspicion, and I don’t have reasonable suspicion’.

These results back up the experiment by Blueprint Magazine – which the Manifesto Club partnered – on the limits of public space in London. Volunteers tried playing football, having a picnic, or having a beer in the main public spaces in the capital. They were invariably stopped within minutes, generally by private security guards.

The numbers of security guards has boomed in recent years, currently around 150,000, and no doubt London has more than its fair share. Their role in policing public space needs to be carefully scrutinised.

Overall, though, the advice of the Street Photography video to ‘Stand your ground’ is quite right, and the comportment of these photographers is a good model for how to defend public freedoms.

Read on: see our report on the regulation of photography, ‘Policing the Public Gaze’, by Pauline Hadaway

UPDATE: The BSIA has just released guidelines for security guards, affirming the right to take photographs in public. Read these here: http://www.bsia.co.uk/web_images/Securit-e-News/November%202011/photography_guide_002.pdf