Hands off my camera!

spiked joined a ‘flash mob’ where photographers stood up against anti-terror laws and defended the right to snap.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

From holiday snaps to amateur shooting and photojournalism, photography is becoming a tricky hobby and business in Britain today.

Since the Counter-Terrorism Act 2000 came into force, many amateur and professional photographers have found themselves questioned, manhandled and detained by police who have received extended stop and search rights. Under section 44, uniformed police officers can stop individuals ‘for the purposes of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism’. However, ‘the powers do not require a reasonable suspicion that such articles will be found’.

As many photographers have experienced, cameras – especially if they are professional-looking or are mounted on a tripod – are now often deemed ‘suspicious articles’. More and more professional and amateur snappers are being stopped by police while documenting everything from demonstrations to bus stations and street life in Britain. In December last year, one photographer was detained under Section 44 while covering a wedding in east London. At the start of this year, police stopped an amateur photographer shooting ships in Cleveland, demanding to know if he had any terrorism connections. And in April, an Austrian father and son photographing Vauxhall bus station while on holiday in London were ordered by police to delete their pictures in the name of preventing terrorism.

In response to this mood of suspicion and to growing restrictions on individual and press freedom, the newly formed campaign group, I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist, staged a photography ‘flash mob’ on Reuters plaza in Canary Wharf, east London, on Saturday.

A photographer and his camera at the Canary Wharf flash mob

As the Reuters Plaza clocks – which have become an iconic image of Canary Wharf, a flashy business, banking and media district – struck 15.00, 80-odd photographers took their cameras out and, to the surprise and bemusement of onlookers, started taking pictures of the clocks, the surrounding skyscrapers, passers-by and each other.

I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist campaigns for photographers’ rights and against the misuse of police powers and ‘pointless restrictions’ on photography which affect anyone who enjoys taking or looking at pictures. Jess Hurd, a freelance photographer and co-founder of the group, told me that the aim of the flash mob – the group’s first public action – was to bring to the public’s attention how press freedom is coming under increasing attack and how many spaces that appear to be public are, in fact, only ‘pseudo-public’, with evermore rules regulating how we behave there.

‘More and more areas are being closed to photographers’, Hurd told me. ‘In shopping centres such as the one here in Canary Wharf people are invited in to spend their money but as soon as you take out a camera you risk being kicked out. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to take pictures of shopping centres? Why should press freedom not exist in certain

Reuters Plaza, Canary Wharf

While section 44 is only enforceable in authorised areas, the British Journal of Photography has demonstrated that photographers can be stopped ‘virtually everywhere’ around the UK. With the exception of Derbyshire, all British police forces have been granted use of Section 44 to stop and search individuals, and the City of London and Greater London are under constant Section 44 authorisation.

Moreover, since section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 came into force in February this year, stop and search powers and limits on photography in public space have extended even further. Section 76 permits the arrest of anyone found ‘eliciting, publishing or communicating information’ relating to members of the armed forces, intelligence services and police officers, which is ‘likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’. Now, photographing a cop can land you a fine or even a 10-year prison sentence.

Last month, a Home Office circular aimed at clarifying counter-terrorism legislation in relation to photography in public space was produced in response to complaints by photographers. It stated that innocent tourists are likely to have a ‘reasonable excuse’ for capturing cops in their photographs and that ‘legitimate journalistic activity’ is also likely to constitute a valid excuse.

Protesters gather for a
group photo

Apart from the fact that it should not be up to cops to decide what is or is not ‘legitimate journalism’, police still have unreasonable powers to stop people from taking pictures in the first place, to hold and question snappers and to view and censure their images.

Several of the participants in Saturday’s flash mob told me that they have been stopped from doing their job or practising their hobby by police. ‘I was assaulted while covering the anti-capitalist protest here in Canary Wharf during Halloween last year’, said Hurd. ‘Some police pushed me and knocked the camera out of my hand.’

While scuffles between cops and journos is nothing new, the vaguely formulated anti-terror legislations, which are open to wide interpretation, give police the right at any point to demand to know a snapper’s intentions and to arrest anyone they deem suspicious. The police, on the other hand, routinely photograph and video tape protests and other public gatherings. While the authorities continually extend their methods of monitoring and surveilling the public, anti-terror legislations prevent us from scrutinising the police and they erode our freedom to hold the state accountable for its actions.

Section 76 also compels photographers documenting events such as protests, football games or government press conferences – all instances with heavy police presences – to self-censure for fear of being accused of ‘terrorist activities’. This would negatively impact both newsgatherers and news viewers.

It is not just the documentation of potentially contentious or newsworthy events that is under threat. As Jeff Moore, another co-founder of I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist and the chairman of the British Press Photographers’ Association, told me on Saturday: ‘If we don’t do anything about these growing restrictions, we’ll have no visual history in Britain.’

Jeff Moore and Jess Hurd,
organisers of the I’m a
Photographer, Not a Terrorist

Moore has photographed places around the world and feels that, here in Britain, his job is becoming more restricted. He was once held by police for half an hour under section 44 after photographing a taxi queue in London.

‘Anti-terror legislation is creating a paranoid society’, Moore told me, ‘and photographers are being viewed with suspicion. The I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist campaign is trying to demonstrate that taking pictures is normal and it’s important. We need to be free to document our society.’

By criminalising photography in public space, anti-terror legislation is threatening press freedom as well as the documentation of everyday life and the creation of a collective visual memory. But it does nothing to prevent real terrorism. As Moore pointed out, if someone wants to blow up the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, they are unlikely to set up a tripod on Reuters Plaza and indiscreetly start snapping away. Besides, they could just as easily find images and building plans of the area on the internet and elsewhere.

More and more photographers are resisting the growing clampdowns on the freedom to snap. The British Journal of Photography’s Not a Crime campaign also opposes draconian anti-terror legislation. The group feels that formal and informal restrictions on photography in public space – informed by everything from fear of terrorism to privacy protection, health and safety precautions and paedophilia scares – have led to Britain becoming a ‘no-photo zone’.

Today, photography – a perfectly legitimate pastime and profession – is rendered a suspicious and potentially criminal activity. How, when and where we can document life in Britain is being regulated from on high and everyone from photojournalists to holiday snappers are being framed by cops in the name of stopping terrorism.

Whether or not you are into photography, campaigns against these illiberal trends are providing striking snapshots into the pernicious consequences of Britain’s draconian anti-terror laws that affect all of us.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

All photographs are by Nathalie Rothschild.

EVENT: Policing the Public Gaze. A Manifesto Club salon discussion in central London on 30 September about the growing restriction on citizen photography. For more information, click here.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild defied the anti-terrorist law against photographing police officers. Elsewhere, Tessa Mayes defended the right to take pictures of public figures. She also spoke to a photographer who refused to accept child protection-related restrictions on photographing in public places. Or read more at spiked issues War on Terror and Liberties.


To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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