‘Suspicious Acts’ in Society’s ‘Sensitive Places’: Consent and Constraint in Citizen Photography

‘Suspicious Acts’ in Society’s ‘Sensitive Places’: Consent and Constraint in Citizen Photography

A version of this short essay was originally written for Kiosk, the magazine of the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture at Kingston University, in response to the theme of ‘constraint’ in contemporary society and culture. It presents an overview of the ways in which the act of photography has become subject to increasing levels of control, both real and imagined, that reflect a growing unease in which as photographers we all come under suspicion.

Recently, I heard a rumour that an unidentified male had been seen acting suspiciously, hanging around a school and apparently taking photographs of the children as they played outside. Within minutes as the rumour spread, police were called and everyone in the vicinity was urged to be vigilant and to report immediately any further activity while the guilty party was tracked down. The over-reaction to what was in all probability an innocent attempt to document the environment reflects what has become a national phenomenon over the past couple of years as the practice of photography has become increasingly demonised. Working with students I continue to hear tales of everyday intimidation from authority figures determined to prevent the taking of pictures on their patch. From London’s streets and parks, through the consumer paradise of Westfield’s malls, the ‘sensitive areas’ of the square mile’s financial heartland and the glossy towers of Canary Wharf, to the transforming landscape of Stratford’s Olympic site, the guardians of these apparently public spaces have taken it upon themselves to uphold a series of rules and regulations through which the freedom of the citizen photographer is circumscribed, the victim of an ever-increasing burden of constraint.

Long a part of the medium’s tradition, ‘citizen photography’— reportage style photography undertaken in the public realm and usually without the consent of the myriad of subjects that might happen to pass in front of the camera’s lens—is under threat. Under the guise of the prevention of terrorism, we have seen a huge growth in cases in which anyone with a camera—student, professional, and tourist alike—has been routinely asked to move along, subjected to verbal warnings, stopped and searched, and even arrested and detained only to be released without charge.

Despite the authorities’ heavy-handed reactions these people are not acting illegally, although you’d be excused for thinking they were if you believed the message of the state-sponsored propaganda circulated in the wake of London’s 7/7 bombings. In the Met Police’s now notorious and much-parodied poster produced as part of its 2008 terrorism awareness campaign (remixed at http://boingboing.net/2008/03/05/remixing-the-london.html ), we are alerted to the fact that anyone with a camera is a potential criminal, and urged to inform on those engaged with what was termed ‘suspicious photography’. Amid a sea of cameras, one stands out, as the text poses the question:  ‘Thousands of people take photos every day. What if one of them seems odd?’

The campaign’s implicit racism aside, exactly what constitutes ‘oddness’ remains a little unclear. Certainly, some ill-informed law enforcers seem to be struggling with the concept, as in those instances of abuse of the stop and search powers invested in them by the (now unlawful) section 44 of the Terrorism Act. As a result, the government has been quick to restate their commitment to keeping photography free, and the police authorities to urge their officers to remember this. But the message does not seem to be hitting home, and for the public the issue of what constitutes ‘non-odd’ photography remains a murky area, in which suspicion breeds and the popular imagination runs riot. As doubt is cast over even the most innocent of photographer’s intentions, the practice of citizen photography is recast as one in which two of 21st century British society’s most feared acts of social deviance—terrorism and paedophilia—are potentially combined.

Widespread confusion over this ‘oddness’ is reflected in the media’s eager reporting of the diverse stories that have unfolded in the last couple of years, as blogs, broadsheets, the professional photographic journals and even the tabloids have found common ground in their condemnation of anti-photography incidents. We might think of MP Andrew Pelling’s experience of being stopped and searched for taking anodyne photos of a cycle path in Croydon, apparently a potential target for terror attacks; the parents escorted from their local park for taking pictures of their own toddler in an otherwise empty play area, or the pensioners scolded for photographing a completely deserted paddling pool in Southampton; the couple arrested for shooting a fish and chip shop in Chatham; or the man held for eight hours for what the arresting police officer described as ‘quite’ suspicious behaviour when trying to capture the Christmas lights in Accrington.

While the state attempts to defuse the spark lit by its own propaganda, the embers of suspicion continue to smoulder in the hotbed of public opinion. More often than not, these apparently anti-social behaviours are being diagnosed not by the police, but by those in positions with little actual power—from officious park wardens, over-vigilant teachers and self-aggrandising private security guards to the most ridiculed of public servants, the ultimately impotent Police Community Support Officer. Ill-informed in the legality or otherwise of the practice, the spurious and often laughable justifications given by these self-appointed guardians of the public’s moral and physical safety include the following: that photography is banned to protect ‘privacy laws’; that you need a (non-existent) ‘licence’ to use a camera; that photographing children is ‘banned to protect their safety’ or because it ‘contravenes the Data Protection Act’; more simply, because photography is ‘illegal’; or perhaps most ridiculously of all, because it might be used to aid in the theft of intellectual property, as in the case of a man banned from taking photographs of the Birmingham Bullring to prevent him copying its design.

It is easy to dismiss these cases as the confused over-reactions of misinformed jobsworths working to protect private interests wary of the threat of litigation or as the products of an overbearing nanny-state ‘gone mad’. But the zealous enforcement of these imagined constraints (perhaps carried out with the best of intentions) holds up a mirror to a more widespread unease among the population at large—one that certainly reveals a worryingly reactionary fear of the Other walking among us, but that also reflects a growing dissatisfaction with an ever-growing image culture based on an imbalance of power.

Our current fear of photography finds a precursor in an earlier stage of the medium’s history as it expanded in another moment of heightened stranger-danger. In the late nineteenth-century—when the expansion of urban populations uprooted the slow familiarity of community life and replaced it with the speedy impressions and chance encounters of metropolitan life—as Georg Simmel has suggested, modernity was a scary place. The commercialisation and institutionalisation of photographic portraiture during this period offered a means through which that new experience of metropolitan modernity could be ordered and its attendant anxiety relieved: whether composed against the stage-like spaces of the middle-class portrait studio or the carefully-arranged backdrops of the police bureau, the capturing of an individual’s likeness served a socially ameliorative function that as Allan Sekula has argued, worked both to honour and shore up a sense of the sitter’s unique self (in the form of the portrait), and repressively as a tool to enable the identification and arrest of the criminal body (in the form of the ‘mug-shot’). Although photography itself (as a potentially anarchic medium that could, if not controlled, bring down the rarified forms of high culture to the level of mass media) was considered at times to pose a threat to the interests of the self-serving bourgeoisie, its proliferation at all levels of society also served that ruling order’s disciplinary needs. Expanding alongside the popularity of pseudo-scientific systems such as physiognomy and phrenology that enabled the body’s surface to be read as a text, the widespread circulation of portraits and mug-shots involved the masses in the scrutiny and classification of the social body, engendering a photographic extension of the panoptic principle in which normative and deviant identities were more easily identified.

At the same time, as photography became increasingly industrialised, newly mechanised reproductive processes developed to meet the needs of commerce and the developing mass media. Hand in hand with philosophical debates about the constitution of the modern subject, ethical problems emerged that demanded the drawing up of laws to protect that newly-born ‘self’. As it was recognised that the right to be seen as such an individual with a secret, private dimension was threatened by the expansion of an image culture dominated by the endlessly reproducible and easily circulated photographic image, so the problems of consent and ownership needed to be addressed, resulting in the establishment of the individual’s ‘right to privacy’ that still circumscribes the production and use of photographic images today.

To take a photograph of someone else is always on some level an aggressive or at least intrusive act, and to consent to having one’s photograph taken involves the subject in an often unspoken contract. Long-recognised as an obstinate problem that haunts the amateur examples discussed here, and more widely in the professionalised practices of photo-journalism and documentary photography throughout the twentieth-century, perhaps today that implicit contract based on trust has been broken once and for all. As the privileging of the rights of the individual over the needs of the collective have come to dictate every aspect of our lives—from how we are sold a shampoo that reflects our own level of self-worth, to how we are sold the idea of paying for our own individual late-life personal care—the issues of consent and ownership won’t go away.

While the development of an ever more portable and accessible photographic technology seems to have reached its teleological destiny in the ubiquitous form of the all but throwaway digital camera phone, that, as has often been said, makes photographers of us all, the utopian vision of a photographic democracy still eludes us. Is it really any wonder that at a time when we in Britain are reportedly one of the most habitually photographed and surveyed populations on earth, that for some, enough is enough? As we are increasingly defined by something as immaterial as the digital file that translates an image of our face—ownership of which we unthinkingly hand over every day and over whose ultimate destination we have little control—it is perhaps not surprising that an almost hysterical desire to reclaim some power has emerged, one that has manifested itself as a generalised fear of photography in which the person behind the camera is the easy scapegoat, the embodied representation of a more abstract voyeuristic presence. So often have I heard the story that it is now common practice among paedophiles to Photoshop innocent images of children’s faces onto altogether less innocent bodies, it has surely become a contemporary urban myth, so farcical you couldn’t make it up. (Oh yes, Chris Morris already did, in Brass Eye’s paedophilia special from 2001.) An over-reaction, perhaps, but it reveals an anxiety about the power of the photographic gaze that threatens to return us to a pre-technological and atavistic fear of having our image ‘taken’, as if someone or something out there is determined to steal our soul.

One hundred years ago, as the interests of the collective were privileged over the concerns of the individual, it was considered a civic duty to be photographed so that history could wear a human face. Today, it is our civic duty to snitch on anyone with a camera whose behaviour might be deemed even a little out of the ordinary. The implications for the future are depressing, as the visual account of the early millennium will be recorded according to the dictates of private property, the concerns of the self-important individual and the hysterically fearful. Imagine Atget’s Parisian archive had he been routinely moved on by an over-zealous security guard, or legally obliged to get his rag-pickers to sign a consent form; consider Dorothea Lange’s images of the Depression had she been forced to compose her infant subjects according to current advice, the wretched children photographed only from the shoulders-up, or from the back, or with their features pixellated into indistinction. Thankfully, recent campaigns and demonstrations present a line of resistance. But just as we should all take up a camera in order to fight the ‘creeping constraints’ that infer guilt in every citizen and return the ever-watchful gaze of authority, so we should defend our right to look and to be looked at, by each other. As one blogger reminds us, we have little power over how, when and why we are photographed, but that, for now, the right to return that gaze remains free. As he puts it, none of us owns ‘the light rays that bounce off your face’. But maybe it is only a matter of time?

For further information and to join the I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist! campaign visit: http://photographernotaterrorist.org/

Further reading:

Pauline Hadaway, ‘Policing The Public Gaze: The Assault on Citizen Photography, http://www.manifestoclub.com/photographyreport .

Allan Sekula, ‘The Body and the Archive’, October, Vol. 39, (Winter 1986).

John David Viera, ‘Images as Property’ in Larry Gross, John Stuart Katz and Jay Ruby (eds), Image Ethics: The Moral Rights of Subjects in Photographs, Film and Television (Oxford: OUP, 1988).

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