It’s only a picture

As a photographer who travels a little and who likes to take photographs on the street of scenes and people interacting, I am fascinated by the huge amount of fuss which is being caused by the introduction of “Street View” – a photographic representation within the Google Earth interface – in the U.K. The new photographs from major British cities, which follow much less problematic introductions in other countries, is causing a huge amount of press due to the fact that so many people are complaining about security issues and about privacy rights.

I was stopped in a Dundee shopping centre last year and told that my photograph of the interior was a threat ot the security of the building. This, despite the fact that anyone who wanted to find out the layout of the interior for illegal or terrorist purposes could simply and easily visit the centre at any time, or even (incredibly) get detailed layout maps of the centre through the shopping centre website!

Street View has been criticized for showing photographs of members of the public going about their daily business, from a drunk man vomiting onto the pavement to people flashing their breasts or exiting an adults-only establishment. (The latter subject was probably annoyed at being caught.) All of these events took place in full view of the public, so I am curious as to why the _photograph_ of the event is the aspect under question. Surely these events and situations are either questionable or they’re not: the fact that there is a photograph of the event has nothing to do with anything. If a tree falls in a wood and kills a small animal, the fact that there’s no photo of it doesn’t mean that the animal isn’t dead.

The main point which interests me is why people feel so threatened by a simple photograph. Visits to Britain in the last couple of years have shown me that any person taking a photo is immediately accosted by the public or by security guards, who insist that any photograph of anything is a threat to national security. One is – officially or unofficially – not allowed to photographs inside shopping centres, on shopping streets, near council offices, in public parks, or (in some cases) at tourist locations. If a camera is vaguely pointed towards anyone in the open, whether they are near the photographer or not, the photographer is immediately accosted and demands are made. “Why are you taking my photo?” “What’s that photo for?” “What are you doing?” This, despite the fact that the law states that one is perfectly well allowed to take photographs in public places, provided that the taking does not infringe on trespassing or public decency laws, or doesn’t lead to a disturbance of the peace.

I am interested to know your opinion on this subject and hope to be able to share your feedback with other photographers in my group of friends and acquaintances. If you see someone taking a photo in which you will be visible, what would your reasoning be, if you were to object? Inappropriate photos are excluded, of course: protection of children against offenders is a necessity and it’s hardly reasonable to use a long lens to take obscene or intimate photographs of people without their permission.

Please leave your comments at the end of this blog post.

5 responses to “It’s only a picture”

  1. Sarah Howells avatar
    Sarah Howells

    I agree the whole Street View arguement is weird. People can walk or drive down your street and look at your house, what is the difference? I don’t get it. In fact, it irritates me. As I don’t watch/listen/read news, first I heard was when Mum told me at the weekend.

    As for being photographed in public, if you are worried about being photographed doing something you shouldn’t, don’t do it in the first place! Live a life without regrets.

  2. Mike Peters avatar

    I’m a photographer in the US, I shoot on the street using a big loud medium format camera with a normal to wide lens, usually standing anywhere between 4 to 12 feet from my subject. I never sneak photos and I rather like it when they look at me. Rarely does anyone object, although some ask what I’m shooting for and I say for a book, which is true.

    I had, in the past, entertained the thought of making photos in Europe, but in the past year or so have decided that it would not be possible due to the atmosphere that seems to be pervasive in the public and private sectors where it is becoming acceptable for law enforcement and citizens to harass street photographers using the justification that they might be terrorists.

    I say shame on the governments and the press for spreading this absurd idea that taking photographs is a terrorist act, and shame on the public for being so gullible. This is how it all starts people, the masses are gripped with fear that is spread by the governments with the help of the press, then they infringe on personal freedoms, and the citizens go along with it in the name of safety. It’s a slippery slope to becoming a totalitarian state.

  3. Nick Turpin avatar

    What is all this ‘privacy’ everyone speaks of? when you cross your door step you leave the privacy of your own home and enter the public domain where everything is, SUPRISE! Public.

    @Mike Peters love your work, come to Europe and shoot, its not as bad as the web would have you believe.

  4. Radu avatar

    Too bad there’s not too much input from someone truly belonging to the “other camp”.

    Personally I have mixed feelings about this: on one hand, I also think that being in public reduces one’s expectation of privacy, but on the other I don’t feel it gives someone else the right to take my photo AND publish it.

    I think the key point here might be WHAT is done with the photo, rather than whether it’s taken or not. A photograph, by its very nature, provides very little time-wise context, and this challenges a bit Sarah’s approach of “don’t do something you shouldn’t”. Maybe a far fetched example, but what may look like a person shoving another one in front of a bus could very well be that person trying to pull the other one away from the bus.

    When I think about someone taking a photo of me in the street, I do not object to the photo taking itself. I object to the lack of control I hold with respect to HOW that photo will be used. I suppose most countries’ law systems give someone some sort of mechanism to control how their image is used, but this comes AFTER some sort of publishing occurs, and potentially damage is done.

    To come back to your post Mark, why do you think taking a photo with a long lens is any different from taking it with a shorter one, after all, in both situations, the person is in a public place. Only difference, as I see it, is that the short lens gives them a chance to spot you and ask you what this is about. Maybe I misunderstood your comment, were you targeting photos taken from a public place but of a private one?

    1. Mark Howells-Mead avatar

      I was using a wide-angle lens. My point about the use of long lenses is that it gives a photographer comparative freedom to hide from his/her subject and photograph them in a compromising, offensive or perverse way. Photography put to this use is just as bad as using (for example) a mobile phone camera secretly, but the taking of photos in a public place shouldn’t be barred just because of the few who abuse the technology and law.

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