Drop that camera now!

January 30, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

You know I’m a very amateur photographer. Every two weeks or so, I like to take my beloved Nikon D40 and roam around the streets of Newcastle or go to the nearest park or snap some birds on my balcony. I try not to take photos of people because of all the privacy-related issues and when in Rome last year, I was very careful not to take any photos of Government buildings as I’d likely have been hauled off by Italian police. I had a tussle last year at a certain hotel in the CBD in Sydney who refused permission to take a photo of some Art Deco features of some columns. Guess they thought I was casing the joint with the idea of blowing up said columns! So it’s getting harder for the amateur and professional photographer to enjoy their craft.

The dark shadow of the UK’s anti-terror laws swooped down on a local London photographer recently. Section 44 (Stop & Search Powers) of the Terrorism Act 2000 to be precise. Reuben Powell has been photographing and sketching life in London for 25 years. He is known in the area especially around the Elephant & Castle.  Powell was minding his business taking photos of the old HMSO print works when, like something out of Starsky & Hutch, a car sped up to him, screamed to a halt and out popped a police officer demanding to know what he was up to.

If this happened to me, I probably would have dropped my beloved Nikon D40! Powell answered that he was merely photographing the building but he was then searched (pursuant to the anti-terrorism laws), hauled off and placed in a cell for five hours. And here’s the really insidious bit – his DNA was taken and stored permanently on a genetic material database. I’ve blogged before about how UK police can swipe the DNA of anyone who is arrested.  Poor Powell might have languished in jail had it not been for the intervention of his local MP.

Tough luck if you make your living from photography in the UK. You’d be hauled off every week for a grilling and swiping of genetic material. UK officials glide by this intrusion on photographers innocently saying they cannot and will not prevent someone from taking a photo unless they suspect criminal or terrorist activity. But they can literally say that anyone looks suspicious or is up to suspicious activity. This happened recently to The Steam Boys – a bunch of really mean terrorists, oh sorry, a bunch of nerdy trainspotters armed with fancy photographic equipment who simply wished to snap a 1950s engine called The Great Marquess as it crossed the Forth Bridge. Armed police swooped on this poor unsuspecting group and frightened the bejesus out of them.

The Act in question that gives authority to the police to detain suspect characters actually says nothing about photographers.  Every photographer is not a terrorist or a member of one of the 45 international terrorist groups proscribed under the Act.

In fact the British Journal of Photography recently highlighted the new Practice Advice that has been issued to UK police on how to deal with photographers. It says in part:

“The Terrorism Act 2000 does not prohibit people from taking photographs or digital images in an area where an authority under section 44 is in place.  Officers should not prevent people taking photographs unless they are in an area where photography is prevented by other legislation.

“If officers reasonably suspect that photographs are being taken as part of hostile terrorist reconnaissance, a search under section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000 or an arrest should be considered. Film and memory cards may be seized as part of the search, but officers do not have a legal power to delete images or destroy film.”

Let’s hope the UK police take this Practice Advice and study it thoroughly otherwise freedom of expression is kaput in the UK. And if you happen to be a photographer or concerned about your rights in the UK when it comes to Stop and Search Powers, check out your rights here.

Now, I’m off to do some research into the Australian situation as I want to snap some buildings in Sydney over the next month. OMG!!!

Image credit: BBC News

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Entry filed under: Photography, Surveillance society. Tags: , , , .

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