Friday, January 22, 2010

When taking pictures becomes 'Hostile Surveillance'

‘Hostile Surveillance’… this was what I was told I would be doing if I decided to take pictures of a building the other day whilst out photographing

It was a chilly Sunday night and I was being unceremoniously evicted from a square close to Liverpool Street station for taking a picture with a tripod. ‘This is private property and you can’t film here’ were the words of the squat moustachioed security card who looked like the prison officer Mr MacKay from the 1970's sitcom Porridge (left). Apparently I needed a permit. Bit of a killjoy I thought but fair enough, it’s the law, however stupid it can be. I asked where the borders were of this private property (unaware as I was as to the extent of private estates owned by big business in our cities), he pointed to the road and I nodded, picking up tripod and starting to make my retreat. With a slight smirk and, thinking he’d anticipated my move, he quickly added that, ‘If you take pictures from the road we can call the police, it’s known as hostile surveillance’. I was, to say the least, slightly discombobulated by this statement. Hostile Surveillance? I asked how this was so and he merely repeated his same statement, he had no real answer just a fundamental belief in the facts; taking a picture of a private building from public property was an act of hostile surveillance, and that if I attempted to commit these heinous crime he’d call the police. Being that it was cold, I was tired an irritated I left the premises and resisted the urge to test his threats but in hind sight the whole scenario made my blood boil. Regardless of the fact that his assumption and accusation were plain offensive, they were downright ignorant and more importantly, utter bollocks. If every time someone took a picture of a private building or structure from a public space and some twit decided to call the police just so they could scratch their chins and decide whether it was hostile surveillance, or you know a snapshot to show the grand kids, London would be in ruddy chaos. I happened to be out snapping because I’m toying with a project and generally like night time shots of urban areas because of their absence of human presence and the strange beauty such places can have – now can you imagine trying to explain that to my fidgety little friend clutching his walkie talkie?! Let alone the reasoning that the company he provides security for are happy to film and follow me with their CCTV cameras without my consent, or even knowledge in most cases.
The type of picture I was taking that night (this was taken at a separate location)
Anyway the fight against such idiocy continues and I believe it’s never been more of an issue – recent stop and search laws such as section 44 or being used with increasing frequency and police – there have been a number of recent high profile incidents involve police and photographers such as Grant Smith’s stop and search whilst shooting St Pauls and the BBC’s photographer falling foul of the same stop and search laws. The guardian have an interesting clip and piece on the issue. Now with a lot of the clips that have been posted by members of the public, journalists and photographers there’s often an edge of hostility from the outset by the person being approached, and it’s understandable that they get on the defensive. My question would be is that if the security guard had called the police – would they have let me continue? Granted I have a press card that states I’m a photographer but who decides whether my ‘art’ project is legitimate or in fact a cover for a terrorist abuse – the law is understandably grey in this area (as the footage shows – police asking each other about what powers they do and don’t have) and therefore a large proportion of the outcome of such a scenario would be down to the opinion taken by the officer on the scene. I like to think most officers have enough common sense to let stuff go but as with all walks of life you get some bad apples – stopping, searching, and then deleting images by two Austrian tourists is a case in point.

Anyway if you want to know more about your rights view and print them off here. You may also be interested in attending a rally tomorrow (23rd Jan) in Trafalgar Square at 12 noon organised by the group I’m a photographer not a terrorist – details here.


Lam Thuy Vo said...
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Paulo Rodrigues said...

I'm hoping to be there tomorrow, though TBH I'll be very sad if I never get filled in section 44 form as I want to make one into a t-shirt

bds said...

did you go down? I did look out for you.. hope you're well