Monday, 10 October 2011
Taking a photo of your wee girl? That's terrorism, sir!
In the news today is the scarcely believable but sadly very true story of the father prevented from taking photographs of his daughter eating an ice cream in Braehead Shopping Centre.
The basic fact is that a 45 year old man was innocently taking pictures of his young girl on his mobile before being approached by security personnel and police officers who advised him that his activities were illegal and that his mobile phone could be confiscated under the terms of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Braehead has issued a rather patronising and contradictory statement in which it argued that "Retail staff at an ice cream stall in Braehead became suspicious after they saw a male shopper taking photographs of a child sitting at their counter. The staff thought the man had also been taking photographs of them and they alerted one of the centre’s security staff...Like most shopping centres, we have a ‘no photography’ policy in the mall for two reasons: to protect the privacy of staff and shoppers and [because] we live in a world of potential threats from terrorists and everyone is being urged by the police to be vigilant at all times. However, it is not our intention to - and we do not - stop innocent family members taking pictures."
I am a professional photographer. I often take photographs in public places. Last year I snapped some rather inventive images of Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street, capturing the vibrancy and energy of the place throughout the course of a day. Obviously it would have been very difficult to request permissions from each of the persons who happened to appear in the pictures, and taking this kind of photograph without the public being featured within them would have been both impossible and defeating the purpose of my project. Similarly I took several pictures at the recent Lib Dem conference in which many ordinary delegates may have been inadvertently snapped. I've heard this argument time and again; that it should be illegal to take photographs in a public place. But the truth is that it isn't - and so long as no improper pictures are being taken there really shouldn't be an issue. If taking photographs in public places was a crime the fascinating art of lomography, not to mention the city scenes and event photography so vital to maintaining a photographic history of our proud nation, would be lost to future generations.
As the law stands, "there are no legal restrictions on photography in a public place and no presumption of privacy for individuals in a public place" (House of Lords, 16th July 2008). The Bureau of Freelance Photographers also confirms that "individuals do not have a legal right to stop a photographer from [taking] photographs in a public place."
Braehead may claim that initially they thought that the man at the centre of this - Chris White - was acting "suspiciously" and may have been taking pictures of staff. In fact, the pictures he took of his daughter (which can be seen here) did not feature anyone else - either staff or customers of the shopping centre. A polite request to have a look at the pictures would have surely been enough to dispel any such suspicion.
Of course, Braehead point to the fact that there are signs up prohibiting photography within the shopping centre. Legally speaking, as the centre is private property they can request this although I suspect it would be rather difficult enforcing a conviction and it seemed unnecessary to involve the police. What they can not do is threaten to confiscate photographic equipment. Braehead also admits in its statement that "it is not our intention to - and we do not - stop innocent family members taking pictures." But they did. And they have since been utterly unapologetic.
After unnecessary and apparently intense interrogation Mr White was ordered by security staff to leave Braehead and is now barred from the premises. Braehead should admit that they were wrong to have taken the actions they did against Mr White. His treatment was deplorable and the claim that he was dealt with in this way due to a suspected terrorist risk is so facile as to be laughable. If it's got to the stage that a father can't take a photograph of his daughter eating an ice cream without anti-terrorist measures being employed then the terrorists really have won.
I have been in conversation on twitter with some people who felt that the staff reporting Mr White to security services were only doing their job. Perhaps; I certainly have some sympathy for them. But they might have been doing a more effective job in serving the public if they had politely asked to see Mr White's photographs to ensure their suspicions were groundless while reminding him of the no photography policy. I suspect there was nothing in their job descriptions requiring them to turn a trivial event into a national incident. The fact that the staff initially made a poor judgement is understandable and forgivable. The authoritarian response that followed in combination with what passes for public relations from Braehead are definitely not.
Mr White has written a letter to the Evening Times describing what was obviously a personal ordeal for both himself and his daughter. As Scott Douglas, writing for CIPR, observes: "First he was detained by security staff and made to feel like a pervert. Next he was questioned by police and made to feel like a terrorist. Thirdly he was interviewed by traditional media and portrayed as a victim. Now he is being championed by social media and becoming a cause celebre."
All this could have been preventable. Braehead must offer a sincere apology to Mr White and review the ban on photography which, according to their own statement, is clearly unworkable and not enforced in most cases. Braehead also must recognise the reality that for many people, especially families, visiting shopping centres can be in itself a social activity which they may want to capture with images to upload to facebook, twitter and so on. In fact it must embrace new consumer habits rather than show utter contempt for those who are enjoying the freedoms modern technologies bring. People want to use their mobile phones and other basic equipment to take quick snaps. The plain truth is that this situation was a product of Braehead's mistaken and dangerous assumption that photography is by nature intrusive and objectionable (except where staff choose to use "discretion"). This is the wrong way to look at the situation: Braehead should adopt a new policy whereby people are not deterred from taking photographs while allowing staff to use their discretion to deal with genuinely suspicious behaviour in an appropriate way.
There was no need for Braehead to act in such an overbearing and authoritarian way - either towards Mr White or the facebook users whose furious comments were apparently deleted in an act of almost Stalinesque censorship. Braehead should firstly apologise. Secondly, it should reconsider its photographic ban in light of changing consumer habits (and the law) and, thirdly, bring its PR department kicking and screaming into the 21st century.