Innocent photographer or terrorist?
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.
To be pulled out of a crowd is very daunting and I wasn't aware of my rights
"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."
But he's not the only snapper to fall foul of the authorities while innocently pursuing a hobby or working.
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."
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.
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
Bureau of Freelance Photographers
There are also restrictions around some public buildings, like those involved in national defence.
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.