I brought my camera into the city so I could take some photos of urban fragments – doors, windows, graffiti, urban art, abandoned and decaying stuff and so on. I don’t take photos of people as they don’t really interest me. So it’s not as though I was about to cruise the streets of Sydney a’la Google Street View, snapping the unsuspecting citizen on some street corner.
I was opposite a particular major hotel – I won’t name the hotel. I was focusing on some archways to the right of the hotel. I wasn’t even focusing on the hotel itself. This dude came over and asked: “what are you doing?”. I felt like saying: “playing a game of golf, what does it look like” but said: “I’m taking photos”. A back and forth conversation then began: why are you taking photos? what are you taking photos of? who are you?
Now, some of you might think I excelled in showing extraordinary patience with this dude. After all, I didn’t even know who he was. I finally lost said patience and asked who on earth are you? Turns out he was one of those dudes who open taxi doors for incoming guests of the hotel.
I then decided to go into the hotel itself and take some photos of windows, vases and so on. I thought it would probably be a smart move to make myself known to the concierge. I showed some ID and told him the truth: that I belong to several amateur photography clubs and wanted to take some photos of their art deco windows. He said “should be okay, but let me check”. A PR dude then materialised, asking the same set of questions.
Once I confirmed that I would not take any photos that would identify the hotel or of people in the foyer, I was told “nope, you can’t take any photos”. I asked: “See that window up there? the top part of it? how about that? It doesn’t show any identifying features”. Nope, was the answer and I was asked to leave.
Undettered, I set off for two well-known buildings in Sydney – both have lovely architectural details and both are major tourist attractions. Although privately owned, I’ve seen many a tourist happily taking videos and snapping away. First building – I was up the top level trying to get a perspective shot when a security guy came along. Same questions: who, what, why?
Standing about 12 metres to my right was a guy taking a video. I asked the security guy about this – if you’re asking me what I’m taking photos of, are you asking that dude too? And what about those two ladies over there taking photos of the ceiling?
Get ready for the reply: “Oh, they’re tourists”. Okay. So tourists (who of course could be terrorists masquerading) are allowed to take photos and videos but an average citizen can’t? Despite protestations that I’m simply taking photos of architectural features, I was turfed out.
Off to the next building, feeling a bit like an urban terrorist. Up on the top floor. All alone. This is good I think to myself; I should be able to take some good shots of balcony features. What I didn’t notice was the CCTV camera behind me (yeah, I know: me of all people not spotting CCTV). Just as I was about to snap away, another security dude materialised. Same questions; same outcome for me.
Now, I realise that security has tightened up since 9/11 and being a lawyer, I realise that buildings are private property. I’m told by photographer colleagues that they are well-prepared for interrogation, so they go armed with ID; a fluorescent jacket so they look “official” and therefore might avoid getting asked questions; they even take a photo album along to prove they are simply taking photos. Guess I’ll have to kit myself out in camouflage gear from now on!
So the humble, amateur photographer interested in exploring architecture and the textures and urban fragments of city life is reduced to taking photos like these:
Crap photos of public seats and fire hydrants because these urban features don’t seem to draw the attention of skittish security types. I would, however, think that a creative terrorist could think of something to do with public seats and fire hydrants!
Obviously, the hotel in question was also concerned about image: God forbid the hotel should be photographed by an amateur photographer. But I also drew some worrying glances from people on the street who saw me taking photos of things like fire hydrants, stuff abandoned on the street and so on. And I had to be particularly careful not to be in any way looking as though I was taking a street view with people in it. One dude asked me “why are you taking a photo of me?”, when I was taking a photo of peeling paint (he just wandered accidentally into the shot).
I’m always told when I carry on about surveillance and privacy that people don’t really care if their photo is taken as they wander down the street. People don’t mind if Google Street View snaps them or if a CCTV camera freeze frames them. My experience wandering the streets of Sydney tells me perhaps otherwise.
I realise that buildings imply security, hence the questioning. But tourists are allowed to take photos and amateur photographers aren’t? I was even bailed up by a city officer whilst trying to snap a public garbage bin. So I’m not sure what photos you can and can’t take these days. Guess it’s back to the flowers, the butterflies, the cats and the dogs (and make that street dogs and cats, because owners might even object to a candid shot of kitty being taken!).