The perils of photography

by Chris Bertram on September 17, 2007

Eszter blogged a couple of days ago about the rather addictive project that she and I are engage in over at Flickr. There are lots of changes to my perception of the world, along the lines suggested by Dorothea Lange’s words “A camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera”. But not all of that change in awareness is perceptual. I’ve come to realise just how much petty harassment people suffer for pursuing a fairly innocent hobby. The worst I’ve had to put up with myself is being pestered by a security guard for photographing university buildings. But many people in London get stopped by the police and questioned under terrorism legislation. Generally, this isn’t much more than a minor annoyance, but there are places where it is much much worse. One guy, who was present at our last Flickr meet in Bristol, is a teacher working in Thessaloniki, Greece. He was brave enough to take some pictures of the Greek police on a demonstration. This earned him a dislocated shoulder, fractured nose, multiple bruising and smashed glasses. Story and pictures “here”: .



thag 09.17.07 at 11:20 pm

Criminy. Very sorry to hear about your Greek friend.

That story seems to indicate that “a camera is an instrument that teaches people that it’s a lot less hazardous to life and limb to see without a camera”.


Eszter 09.17.07 at 11:31 pm

Yikes, that sounds scary. So far I’ve been lucky. Or maybe I’m less adventurous. But I don’t think that’s the case. I have, after all, taken pictures of police (granted, from a distance), of people on a subway, at train stations and airports, things in stores, food in restaurants, etc.

I do, however, get laughed at by my friends quite a bit. Oh well, small price to pay for a hobby. And then, of course, more often than not they’re happy I had the guts to pull out my camera so at least someone captured the images.


Matt Weiner 09.18.07 at 1:06 am

This is a classic.


swampcracker 09.18.07 at 1:54 am

Even with a 600 mm lens, I encounter hazardous gators, snakes, and chalk lines (a stream of white liquid excrement left by irate birds). Rule of thumb: Use a telephoto lens from a distance when shooting demonstrations attended by the gendarmerie. Short focal length lens are just too ‘in your face.’


jaytee 09.18.07 at 4:15 am

#3: Thanks for linking to that. I’m reminded of the rule of thumb for traveling in tyrannical regimes: do not take any pictures of infrastructure, government buildings, airports, etc., because apparently tyranny and paranoia go hand in hand. This story isn’t quite Idi Amin’s Uganda, but it is far too close for my comfort.


Harald Korneliussen 09.18.07 at 6:30 am

There is one thing I would like to take pictures of and post to flickr, if I was brave enough: “Photography strictly forbidden”-signs. Saw them at the local airport recently.

Security circus and soup nazis offend me.


Reginald 09.18.07 at 8:36 am

A camera is an instrument that teaches most people to close their eyes to the beauty around them. Too much time obsessing about the right shot and too little time enjoying the moment and soaking up the views.


jaywalker 09.18.07 at 8:43 am

One place where photography restrictions have been lifted in recent times are museums. It used to be extremely difficult to take legal pictures. As postcards are geared towards the median buyer, one had to resort to sneaky ways to get a picture of the more special objects.

Now, most museums tolerate non-flash amateur photography (I hate the flashing morons). Only special exhibitions prohibit them to safeguard those “vital” copyrights.


john b 09.18.07 at 12:36 pm

Re #6, I’d very much like a photograph of a sign my friend saw in ?Boston in ?2004, which read something like “it is illegal to mock the security procedures in operation in this airport”.


Eszter 09.18.07 at 1:39 pm

A camera is an instrument that teaches most people to close their eyes to the beauty around them.

If you’ve been following the experiences Chris and I have been describing here then you may have learned that if anything, it is precisely the opposite of this that frequent use of our cameras has let us do. We notice way more around us than we used to before, we appreciate simple scenes for things we would never have glanced at twice earlier. So it depends on your uses and approach.


Watson Aname 09.18.07 at 4:04 pm

Reginald, in my experience that take on it (#7) is deeply mistaken. The process of learning to take photographs well is a process of learning to really look around you. People may briefly fall into a pattern such as you describe, but that is a neophyte error, and all but a very few will progress beyond it quickly.

Of all the people I know, the ones who are most perceptive about the world around them are invariable photographers or artists (or both).


Slocum 09.18.07 at 7:20 pm

Allies in unexpected places?

I’ve argued in the past that other police activities should be recorded, particularly SWAT-style raids that involve forced entry into private homes.

But it shouldn’t end there. Legislators need to repeal laws explicitly forbidding the recording, photographing or videotaping of police officers. And to the extent that more generalized wiretapping laws meant for the general public also apply to the police, they should be amended to allow private citizens to record officers while they’re on duty.

This isn’t to say police don’t have the same privacy rights as everyone else. They do — when they aren’t on duty, in possession of a sidearm and carrying with them the authority that comes with enforcing the law of the state.

But while they’re on duty, they serve the public. And the public, their employer, should have every right to keep them accountable.,2933,284075,00.html

So there you have the dark side of “privacy” — the law aimed at protecting privacy ends up quite improperly restricting people’s liberty, and people’s ability to protect themselves against police misconduct.


JJ 09.19.07 at 11:01 am

yes, it appears that what happened in Greece happens in the States and UK often enough as well.


Seth Edenbaum 09.20.07 at 7:10 am

Having been photographed twice by people [both German] who did not understand me shaking my head, saying “no, nein, ne” and finally putting up a hand to block the lens, the next time someone ignores my request I’ll have have the same response as the Greek policemen.


Watson Aname 09.20.07 at 6:21 pm

Seth: Not that I support taking photographs of someone against their stated will, but legally in most places I know of, you haven’t a leg to stand on so long as you are both in a public space. Which means you’re quite likely to be trading off the lose-lose situation of either getting your ass kicked (with them having a perfectly viable self defence claim) or facing battery charges yourself. Something to think about, anyway.


seth e 09.21.07 at 1:29 am

I’m not talking about being caught in someones viewfinder but about being the chosen subject of repeated photographs in one instance by a german tourist in Spain who wanted to watch me up close as I worked outside a woodshop. The more I protested the more he clicked away as if the camera in front of his face was a defence.

If you don’t understand the relation of photography to voyeurism that’s your problem.8ut I had a photo teacher, a well known photographer, who began each semester with a lecture about one rule:never, never, take a photograph of a person even a homeless bum without his permission. I’ve mentioned this before here in relation to the mythologies of objectivity and journalism and other professions based on social observation and gotten the equivalent of blank stares in response.

The neoliberal imagination. What else to say?
Get my ass kicked? Doubtful but who knows.


seth e 09.21.07 at 1:33 am

On a more general note there’s a kinks song you should look up.


Watson Aname 09.21.07 at 4:52 pm

Seth, you’ve misread me and that makes some of what you said of-base, so I’ll just skip those bits. We agree entirely about what photographers should do, what I was bringing up was the fact (as I understand it, and law varies of course) that at least in many countries in a public place you are not legally entitled to deny someone photographing you, period. Without a model release there are limits on how they may use such photos, but not limits on actually taking them.

If you could claim actual voyeurism (not at all obvious from your original comment) it may be quite different, of course.

Thus the assed kicked thing, that was not a comment on the likelihood (as you say, who knows). The point was if you initiate a violent response you open yourself up to charges and you don’t have any protection because this person wasn’t doing anything they are not entitled by law to do. So if you `win’ the scuffle you are clearly legally in the wrong, whereas if you lose … well, you’ve lost and also probably have no legal recourse (for the beating, or the photos).

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