Those of you who know me will know that I have a real bee in my bonnet about this. Everywhere we go we find instances of what were once public areas being turned into private zones with a ‘public right of access’.
This is happening all over London and many other UK cities. You’re walking along the pavement, maybe taking a picture or two, and you’re suddenly accosted by a security guard in a yellow jacket telling to stop taking photos because you’re on private property. Because the land is now ‘private’ – ie. has been bought by the likes of a major property investment company – the owner of that land can make up their own rules. And one of those rules is nearly always the prohibition of photography.
Taking London as an example, such areas now include More Riverside (by the GLA headquarters), Broadgate, the whole of Canary Wharf, swathes of the South Bank and large parts of the City. Part of the problem is cited as being linked to terrorism; the increasing threat of terrorism has led to a certain paranoia surrounding photographers; the pre-supposition is that anyone with a camera has, at best, criminal intention or, at worst, they are a terrorist. This has led to a heightened sense of suspicion amongst the security industry (both public and private) and there are lots of people out there who see it as their job to stop you taking photographs. Knowing your rights in such circumstances with help give you the confidence to stand your ground and not to be bullied into caving in under pressure.
To begin to understand our rights, let’s look at the issue of shooting on public as opposed to private property. Where we are standing when we take a picture has a crucial bearing on our legal position. In most countries, there is no law to prevent you from taking a picture in a public place. This includes photographing people, buildings, (most) government buildings, police officers and so-called VIPs. There are some sensible exclusions to this rule which include, for example, properties belonging to the Ministry of Defence and similarly sensitive locations; in these situations, a photography prohibition order may be in place and there are usually clear signs to that effect. In the UK you can see such notices in areas such as London’s Trafalgar Square or the walkway directly in front of the London Eye (although in reality you are unlikely to be challenged if you look like a tourist and not like a photographer).
If you are on public property you can photograph anything or anyone you wish, even if you are told not to do so by a security guard; you can even shoot subjects who are on private property, unless you harass or target them persistently or aggressively. As far as this latter point is concerned, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) gives individuals some right to privacy and its provisions may be invoked in order to restrict or prohibit the publication of photographs. However, the ECHR does not prohibit the taking of photographs.
If we want to shoot on private property, which could include areas such as shopping malls, we usually need the owner’s express consent to do so. However, a difficulty arises when we need to make the distinction between what is public and what is private land. This increasing ‘corporatisation’ of public space in towns and cities has blurred the boundaries.
If you are in doubt about the ownership of the land it is often worth shooting anyway. Do this on the basis that if photography is not allowed you’ll soon be told. Aided by sophisticated CCTV systems, security guards usually pounce quickly and tell you to stop shooting or leave. Bear in mind that they are not allowed to touch you and can never, under any circumstances, ask to see your pictures or order you to delete files.
There are hundreds of interesting videos on the internet which document the run-ins photographers have had with security guards – we must be a truculent bunch!
Do remember, however, that the vast majority of roads and pavements are public places and we are perfectly within our rights to shoot there. Places such as shopping malls and airports are not – and we don’t.
The Guardian recently published a comprehensive article on this subject and it makes grim reading. You can read it here.
My concern is where will all this end? It’s getting worse by the month and surely can’t be right. I find the whole thing rather sinister.