Last week the Citizen ran an article in which it reported the plight of a family of Welsh tourists visiting our fair city. Apparently, they were stopped and questioned by the police under anti-terror laws for the heinous crime of photographing the old Regal cinema, now a Wetherspoons pub.
Reading through the comments to the story I was surprised that the people who, like me, were concerned and/ or outraged by this turn of events were largely outnumbered by those who thought that the police were in the right. They seemed happy to believe that our lives are made safer by the random harassment of innocent tourist/ photographers.
Obviously I have a vested interest here: I am currently working on my third book about the city of Gloucester and all of these have required quite extensive photography around the city.
On my photographic travels around the city I’m pleased to say that, thankfully, I have never attracted the attention of the police. I have attracted quizzical glances from passers-by and even, on the odd occasion, ridicule or abuse, but the police have always seemed blissfully uninterested in my activities.
The only time that I have come close to such an experience was a few years ago when the ice rink was at King’s Square. I decided, perhaps naively, that the sight of people enjoying themselves on the ice rink would make for interesting candid photographs. It wasn’t long before an official came along and politely but firmly told me to sling my hook. As I was uncertain about whether the area qualified as public or private land I meekly complied.
The law used to be fairly clear: as long you are on public land, you can pretty much take pictures of whatever or whoever you want to. Then the atrocities of 11 September 2001 happened and suddenly people were seeing terrorists everywhere.
Now, under the auspices of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the police, PSCOs and private security people all thought they had carte blanche to go around harassing anyone ‘looking suspicious’ with a camera. The trouble is, if you are not interested in photography, architecture or local history, anyone pointing a camera at a seemingly random building comes under the category of ‘suspicious’.
The problem got so bad (and there were some true horror stories of the misuse of these powers) that the National Union of Journalists started making a fuss. The movement spread, spawning an organisation called “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist” and thankfully the European Court of Human Rights eventually ruled that Section 44 was unlawful. Unfortunately this hasn’t stopped the suspicion against, and harassment of, photographers going about their lawful business.
In the case of the Kitchens, the aggrieved Welsh family in the Citizen story, I suspect they were either extremely unlucky in meeting an over-zealous police officer or they looked unusually suspicious. In either event the story may have been blown out of proportion. I do have sympathy though; my experience at the ice-rink was polite and non-confrontational, but it still left me feeling angry and embarrassed. Being assumed to be a terrorist and/ or paedophile until proven innocent is not pleasant.
All of this may seem a trifle on the big scale of things, but it’s not. Several people replying to the Citizen article quoted Benjamin Franklin: “They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Wise and appropriate words I think.
Also, on a more mundane (and I admit self-serving) note, I feel that the world will be a poorer place if we are not allowed to photograph the world around us. Books of old photographs sell really well (and long may they do so!). The appeal is often not seeing the big tourist attractions, but pictures of the mundane streets that everyone is familiar with from their daily lives. It is interesting to see what the streets and shops looked like in bygone days and we enjoy looking at the fashions of the passers-by.
So next time you see someone stood in the middle of Gloucester taking pictures be nice to them. It might be me!