Photographers’ rights: time to make a stand

It seems to be increasingly difficult for working photographers and video makers to work freely in public places in the UK. A minority of police officers and other officials seem to believe that public order and anti-terrorism legislation can be used to prevent anyone taking pictures or video, without any real evidence of a threat to public safety. For some reason, professional photographers and photo or video journalists, as well as keen amateurs, seem to be at the sharp end of officials’ displeasure.

For a particularly extreme example, see Henry Porter’s piece in the Guardian following allegations of mis-treatment made by Kent amateur photographer Alex Turner.

Experiences, such as those reported by Turner, appear to be increasingly common. And there are serious implications for professional photographers who need to work in public places.

It is doubtful that the legislation cited to Turner, and used elsewhere against photographers, is meant to operate in this way. It is also strange to see so much attention being focused on professionals or people with professional-looking kit, when so many members of the public carry and use simple digital cameras or camera phones. It would have to be an extreme double bluff for those with nefarious intentions to go to the trouble of carrying complex, bulky and above all highly obvious professional equipment to capture images that might assist them in planning crimes, given the capabilities of a £50 pocket compact.

Whether or not Turner was sensible (rather than within his rights) not to identify himself to the officials in Kent is a mute point. Working journalists should — and usually do — carry recognised ID, either in the form of employers’ identification cards or the UK national press card (available, for example, through the NUJ or for video crews, BECTU). Professionals working at demonstration and other public order events often wear their press card where it is clearly on view to police and other officials.

Citizen journalists, bloggers and others who are not eligible for a staff or union card are in a more difficult position, as are amateurs and students. But there are a few guidelines that can help take the heat out of most day-to-day situations:

  • carry media ID, if you have it;
  • carry a business card (amateurs and part-timers can easily order cheap and professional-looking cards online);
  • sometimes it helps to ask permission — unless doing so prevents covering the story;
  • make sure you are in a public place — there are places, such as shopping centres, which are not;
  • in a public order situation or crime/accident scene, identify yourself to the officer in charge before taking pictures, unless it prevents you capturing the story
  • if you work in a specific area or beat, get to know the local police and PCSOs, as well as private security guards. Building trust always helps, and can provide a rich seam of tip offs.
  • know your rights and read the police guidance (such as this from the Met)
  • stay calm and polite even in the face of hostility

    Meanwhile, groups such as the NUJ, BECTU, and CPBF and the British Journal of Photography are actively working to raise awareness of the law and also for legislative change. Click here to contribute to the BJP’s online campaign on Flickr.

    If anyone working in new media (or old for that matter) wants to join the NUJ (you get a press card!) I am happy to propose or second. Just email me.

  • About stephenpritchard
    Freelance journalist specialising in business and technology, based in London (UK).

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