Photographers and the terror threat

For as long as I can remember, photographers have had a tough time from those ‘in authority’ – sometimes for good reason but, for the most part, with no good reason at all. Life has got easier for us in recent years but I have a feeling that things may take a turn for the worse.

We live in troubled times. It looks as though the current terror threat is not going to go away anytime soon and, in light of police findings following last week’s Manchester atrocity, we could draw the conclusion that there are indeed terrorists amongst us – some of whom may want to recce potential targets, perhaps using a video or stills camera. And so, people using a camera in a public place are de facto potential terrorists.

A few years ago a group called ‘I’m a Photographer not a Terrorist’ was set up by a group of frontline photojournalists to fight the photographers’ corner. We were getting fed up with being constantly challenged by security guards and the police and we wanted to make a clear case that taking photographs in public is neither a crime nor a threat. Funded by The National Union of Journalists and The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, ‘Phnat’ launched a campaign which included the use of flashmobs, media interviews, a high profile media event outside New Scotland Yard and a rally in Trafalgar Square which attracted over 3,000 photographers.

Did the campaign work? By and large, yes, certainly as far as the Met was concerned: they took notice. In 2015 the Met published its own guidelines to officers, laying down some ground rules for how officers should deal with photographers – be they amateur or professional.

Photography and Section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000

As far as legislation is concerned, of most relevance to photographers is ‘S43’. Police officers have the power to stop and search a person who they ‘reasonably suspect’ to be a terrorist. The purpose of the stop and search is to discover whether that person has in their possession anything which could amount to evidence that they are a terrorist.

Police officers have the power to view digital images contained in mobile ‘phones or cameras carried by a person searched under S43 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to discover whether the images constitute evidence that the person is involved in terrorism. Officers also have the power to seize and retain any article found during the search which the officer reasonably suspects may constitute evidence that the person is a terrorist. This includes any mobile ‘phone or camera containing such evidence.

Officers do not have the power to delete digital images or destroy film at any point during a search. Deletion or destruction may only take place following seizure if there is a lawful power (such as a court order) that permits such deletion or destruction.

Should you give your details?

No, you should not. Whenever you are stopped by the police, they will normally ask for your details in order to identify you. In almost all circumstances, assuming that you are simply taking photographs and that no crime has been committed, there is no requirement to hand over any personal information (such as name and address). Whilst officers may persist, my advice is to stand firm as there is absolutely no need to proffer such information; after all, you have no idea where or how that information could be used. There is a fine line between ‘co-operation’ and asserting your rights.

What about private security guards?

Note the use of the term ‘police officers’ above. Security guards have no powers whatsoever, especially when you are on public property. In theory, what happens on private property (such as a shopping mall) is a civil matter and should not concern the police. If you are photographing on private property and the police are called, always ask the police officer what crime has been committed – the answer is nearly always ‘none’. However, the owner of that property or their representatives (usually the security guards) can ask you to leave the premises but they cannot use any kind of force. They certainly have no right or authority to view your images and can certainly not insist you delete any.

And now?

So what does all this mean for photographers – and, in particular, street photographers? If you ask me, a sense of proportion is required. I have some photojournalist friends who will give no quarter, asserting their rights in the strongest possible terms and quoting the law.

Personally, I think the police handle the photography situation well in difficult times (certainly the Met – other forces less consistently). I’m happy to explain what I’m doing – and why – and that’s usually the end of the matter. I find most police officers to be reasonable and understanding and I very rarely have issues with them.

I think the main point is that whatever the prevailing ‘terrorist situation’, life goes on and we should not be deterred. Let’s all be sensible, giving photographers a good name and being co-operative when it is reasonable to do so. If in doubt, apply the ‘common sense principle’; smile, be nice, move on. Life’s too short.

Finally, please please don’t get yourself arrested, just for the sake of standing your ground. It isn’t fun and it stays on file for a long time (even if you are subsequently de-arrested). Just don’t go there.

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