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Page last updated at 16:45 GMT, Thursday, 17 April 2008 17:45 UK

Innocent photographer or terrorist?

A photographer

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Misplaced fears about terror, privacy and child protection are preventing amateur photographers from enjoying their hobby, say campaigners.

Phil Smith thought ex-EastEnder Letitia Dean turning on the Christmas lights in Ipswich would make a good snap for his collection.

The 49-year-old started by firing off a few shots of the warm-up act on stage. But before the main attraction showed up, Mr Smith was challenged by a police officer who asked if he had a licence for the camera.

After explaining he didn't need one, he was taken down a side-street for a formal "stop and search", then asked to delete the photos and ordered not take any more. So he slunk home with his camera.

Phil Smith
To be pulled out of a crowd is very daunting and I wasn't aware of my rights
Phil Smith

"People were still taking photos with mobile phones and pocket cameras, so maybe it was because mine looked like a professional camera with a flash on top," he says.

"I wasn't very pleased because I was taken through the crowd and through the barriers at the front and people were probably thinking 'I wonder what he was doing.'

"To be pulled out of a crowd is very daunting and I wasn't aware of my rights.

"It's a sad state of affairs today if an amateur photographer can't stand in the street taking photographs."

'Crazy' officials

But he's not the only snapper to fall foul of the authorities while innocently pursuing a hobby or working.

Austin Mitchell
There's a general alarm about terrorism and about paedophiles, two heady cocktails
Austin Mitchell MP

Austin Mitchell MP has tabled a motion in the Commons that has drawn on cross-party support from 150 other MPs, calling on the Home Office and the police to educate officers about photographers' rights.

Mr Mitchell, himself a keen photographer, was challenged twice, once by a lock-keeper while photographing a barge on the Leeds to Liverpool canal and once on the beach at Cleethorpes.

"There's a general alarm about terrorism and about paedophiles, two heady cocktails, and police and PCSOs [police community support officers] and wardens and authorities generally seem to be worried about this."

Photographers have every right to take photos in a public place, he says, and it's crazy for officials to challenge them when there are so many security cameras around and so many people now have cameras on phones. But it's usually inexperienced officers responsible.

"If a decision is made to crack down on photographers, it should be made at the top. It's a general officiousness and a desire to interfere with people going about their legitimate business."

Furtive photos

Steve Carroll was another hapless victim of this growing suspicion. Police seized the film from his camera while he was out taking snaps in a Hull shopping centre. They later returned it but a police investigation found they had acted correctly because he appeared to be taking photographs covertly.

Be aware of people taking photos - the Met's latest campaign.

And photography enthusiast Adam Jones has started an online petition on the Downing Street website urging the prime minister to clarify the law. It has gained hundreds of supporters.

He says it has become increasingly difficult to take photos in public places because of terrorism fears.

Holidaymakers to some overseas destinations will be familiar with this sort of attitude - travel guides frequently caution readers that innocently posing for a snapshot outside a government building could lead to some stern questions from local law enforcers.

But in Britain this sort of attitude is new. So what is the law?

"If you are a normal person going about your business and you see something you want to take a picture of, then you are fine unless you're taking picture of something inherently private," says Hanna Basha, partner at solicitors Carter-Ruck. "But if it's the London Marathon or something, you're fine."

Everyone in the photographic world has become so concerned we're mounting campaigns
Stewart Gibson
Bureau of Freelance Photographers

There are also restrictions around some public buildings, like those involved in national defence.

And under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, police officers may randomly stop someone without reasonable suspicion, providing the area has been designated a likely target for an attack.

Child protection has been an issue for years, says Stewart Gibson of the Bureau of Freelance Photographers, but what's happened recently is a rather odd interpretation of privacy and heightened fears about terrorism.

"They [police, park wardens, security guards] seem to think you can't take pictures of people in public places. It's reached a point where everyone in the photographic world has become so concerned we're mounting campaigns and trying to publicise this."

It seems to be increasing, he says.

"There's a great deal of paranoia around but the police are on alert for anything that vaguely resembles terrorism. It's difficult because the more professional a photographer, paradoxically, the more likely they are to be stopped or questioned.

"If people were using photos for terrorism purposes they would be using the smallest camera possible."


The National Union of Journalists has staged a demo to highlight how media photographers are wrongly challenged by police.

In May last year, Thames Valley Police overturned a caution issued to photographer Andy Handley of the MK News in Milton Keynes, after he took pictures at the scene of a road accident.

Guidelines agreed between senior police and the media were adopted by all forces in England and Wales last year. They state that police have no power to prevent the media taking photos.

They state that "once images are recorded, [the police] have no power to delete or confiscate them without a court order, even if [the police] think they contain damaging or useful evidence."

And in the case of Phil Smith, an official complaint about the Christmas lights incident helped sort matters out. Not only did he receive a written apology from Suffolk Police, but also a visit from an inspector, who explained that the officer, a special constable, had acted wrongly.

And there was one consolation for Mr Smith as he trudged home while lamenting the shots of Letitia Dean that never were - she didn't turn up anyway.

Here is a selection of your comments.

My hobby is walking around cities taking photos of interesting places that never make it on to the postcards. Only last weekend I photographed Postman's Park and the Gherkin (looking up from the ground). It just struck me that taking those photos could be seen as somehow dodgy - and that's wrong. Why has an activity that thousands of people do, and take pleasure in, and become good at, become something suspicious because a terrorist took a few snaps? And let's face it, most terrorist targets are the kind of thing that gets displayed on postcards anyway. Have a camera should not automatically make someone a criminal.
Nona, London

In the modern world, it is possible to take thousands of snaps with camera phones or more discreet cameras, so why would any aspiring terrorist need to use an obvious camera? And as the information on most 'target' buildings are freely available on the internet, why would they bother with taking photographs anyway? This seems like another misdirected exercise in providing "visual proof" that the police force are tackling terrorism.
Heather, Willenhall

I was stopped (quite nicely but firmly) by some private security staff from photographing a well-known London landmark building at night. Bizarrely, I was told that I was ok to photograph so long as I didn't use a tripod (because using one meant I was a professional). I actually got some pretty nice photos laid down on the ground. Haysie, UK

Take some photos of the police who are trying to stop you taking photos. Then tell them you are within your rights to do so and you will not delete them and if they arrest you then you will pursue a case of wrongful arrest. They really hate that.
Graham, Reading

Cartier-Bresson must be spinning in his grave. Media-fuelled public paranoia about potential paedophiles is destroying the ability of innocent photographers documenting everyday life in this country. Licence to take photographs? How fascist is that sort of inquisition? We need to defend our freedoms more carefully, to the point of seeming awkward. The state is there to serve us, not to control us.
Tim, Warwick

How pathetic has this country become that a person who wishes to take a photograph, comes under suspicion of "terrorism." I'm pretty sure that terrorists didn't bomb London and New York with a few photographs.
Mike, Watford, Hertfordshire

I think that our appointed authorities should get a grip on reality and realise that we live in an information-rich world, where all of us can claim our 15 minutes of broadcast fame. And what happens when there is an incident? Well, we are all asked if anyone was out there taking photographs that might assist the authorities with their enquiries!
Jochim Mittwoch, East Grinstead

This sort of attitude by the authorities smacks of the over fearful attitudes of Communist governments who prevented people taking photos of any municipal building. As visitors to Poland in 1990, we were disallowed of taking photos of anything of interest by the ever present authoritative figure. When will the government get rid of the generally irrational fear of all things that might be connected to child abuse or terrorism?

I have been challenged by a parent from the other team for taking snaps of my 13-year-old son playing football, even though the coach verified that it was my son playing. I have also been asked whether I should be taking pictures of my 15-year-old son playing guitar in his band at a school performance. Yet in the same town I am allowed to take my video camera in to my nine-year-old daughter's annual dance show, where girls aged four-18 dressed in leotards perform. You can even buy an official DVD of the show afterwards.
Ian, Cirencester, Gloucestershire

It's good that this being highlighted. If something or someone is in public, they have no right not to be photographed. We are all recorded on CCTV cameras every time we leave our homes.
Steve R, London

I was stopped by police when photographing the motorway at night - trying to practice getting those trailblazing shots is hard enough but when a policeman taps you on the shoulder and you almost throw your camera over the edge of the walkway makes it that little bit more difficult. He was interested in what I was doing and also impressed with what I had done but then turned and told me to finish up and walk away!
Rowan Troy, Gravesend

I see odd people taking photos all the time, I think they are called tourists!
Nick, Perth

As a keen amateur photographer myself, I've heard many stories about people being stopped at searched/questioned and generally harassed by security guards and law enforcement officials! To help me if I ever come across issues, I've now got a small handy print out of what rights I have a photographer kept in my camera bag - so if someone challenges me I can refer to that if need be.
Matt Morris, Bristol

Even if it were legal, it would still be idiotic for police to target those with big, obvious cameras. If terrorists want shots of buildings for nefarious purposes, they would probably do it subtly with a camera phone.
David, Sussex

There are forms that a few photographers have put together forms, (which every keen photographer should carry at all times in their bag), explaining what police can and cannot do under the Prevention of Terrorism rules. Liberty also has helped with what procedures you should follow if stopped.
Andrew Cook, Ipswich

This certainly explains what I saw in London recently. Waiting for the tube at an underground station was another passenger who was taking some shots of the tunnel, track etc. I'm a photographer and could understand why - interesting shapes etc. He was approached by a member of staff who told him to stop. Another day a passenger on an underground train took a photo, looked sheepish and explained to me (I hadn't asked for an explanation) that she was just taking a photo of the caps the group were wearing (bright green). Certainly paranoia regarding photos seems to be growing. Especially if you use a 'real' camera!
Pauline R, Scotland

I've been fortunate not to have this happen. That said recently in London I was taking photos of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, and I couldn't help notice a rather threatening look from some of the police officers, because I had a big black camera. It wasn't as if I was taking close up shots, they were with my 50mm lens! This put me off as I was very aware of what they were thinking. It's just a hobby, it's better than me sniffing crack and being a gobby mare at the weekends causing trouble after kicking out time.
Vicky Lamburn, Worthing

If the police were to stop everyone who wanders around Oxford waving a camera, they'd never get anything else done! I usually get snapped about six times just walking form work to the supermarket at lunchtime...
Kate, Oxford

You should see what it's like in the US. I almost got shot for taking a photo of the outside of the Pentagon. Quizzed about my visit with passport and camera confiscated. And it wasn't even a decent photo.
Kevin Graham, London

In 2007, when I was on holiday in Los Angeles, my family and I were taking pictures in Victoria Gardens where there was a huge Christmas tree when a police officer approached us and warned us to stop taking pictures as we could be arrested as suspects for scouting for terrorists. I found it ridiculous.
Sandra, Malaysia

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