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Rob’s account of his experience making photographs one recent Saturday afternoon is a wonderful statement from which we can all learn many lessons. I am aware that some folk reading what happened could be angry, frightened, alarmed and intimidated. Not a bit of it. It is a superb lesson in what to do when, as is inevitable, you will experience a similar confronting situation.
In fact, there is plenty of evidence, that members of the camera club community in Australia, USA, UK, and Canada have been confronted by irate parents, police and, in one recent case, in Queensland, by members of that State’s Child Protection Agency contesting what proved to be normal photography by enthusiasts or by students attempting to meet the legitimate and approved requirements of a course of study. In all of these reports, many anecdotal, seldom have folk handled the ‘threat’ to their freedom as well as Rob handled this particular threat to his freedom, to his rights as a photographer, as a citizen. It is little wonder amateur photographers manage this situation poorly, as it is usually a confronting, alienating, threatening circumstance. The more innocent one is, the more disturbing and distressing can such a confrontation become. For example, I know two very experienced photographers in Sydney who have had similar confrontations with the public or the police in the last 18 months and, at this stage, have yet to pick up their camera and continue to do what they do best – make thoughtful, sensitive, creative photographs. They have lost their will to do so - their happiness in doing so - and that is unspeakably sad. It is also wrong.
The protection of children’s rights and safety is a given but it is a terrible price to pay if the protection of children means that other peoples’ rights must be jeopardised. No one set of rights ought to take precedence over another and it behoves the key stakeholders to re-affirm this principle from time to time. Organisations that represent the amateur, professional, commercial and industrial sectors of the photographic community must be vigilant and vociferous in signalling to the relevant authorities when the right of their members to practice their hobby or their business is jeopardized. Lobbying is not limited to the self-righteous. Children’s rights can and must be protected and so must the rights of every other citizen.
This is not a debate about artistic freedom nor is it an issue of devaluing the ever-present dangers children face from a myriad of sources. It is a debate about ‘rights’. In a just and fair society the ‘rights’ of an individual are protected and enshrined in legislative frameworks where necessary. The dilemma comes with definitional issues as to what exactly is meant by a ‘right’ and a responsibility and an obligation. Australia does not have a formal code of human rights; it has a patchwork of state and federal legislation that is an attempt to reconcile competing claims for ‘rights’. A right can easily be eroded. It happens all of the time.
The circumstances faced by Rob (and many other amateur and professional photographers) point to the vexatious question of the ‘state’ trying to find a balance between the rights and prerogatives of the individual within a democratic society that prizes individualism and the rights of children and the need to protect them from ‘stranger danger’, the predator. The mass media is full of daily reports about perversion, deviant activity, and betrayals of trust and abuse of privileged positions. Parents can be forgiven for thinking that anyone with a camera is a threat. This is ridiculous and frequently centred on fear and hysteria and irrationality.
The reality is that the safety of a child – central to the situation Rob faced - is more likely to be endangered, be betrayed by family members, or close family relatives and friends than they might from amateur photographers motivated by their love of making photographs that document their world and that of others. The statistics that show the family and related network is a key danger area for the child are overwhelming. It is sad. It is an indictment but it is true. It is the reality. So, as members of a camera club or as practising professional photographers what do we do when confronted by a member of the public contesting your right to make photographs or by a police officer questioning your bona fides?
The answer is in Rob’s story of empowerment - his empowerment and if you wish yours too. Rob’s account can be turned into a positive. It shows all of us what to do when faced with the similar harrowing confrontation. When a peaceful afternoon turns nightmarish.
When you break down Rob’s detailed and beautifully written account there are a number of key principles to be remembered. He had the wit, the personal strength, the will to defend his rights, his self esteem. He had done nothing wrong. So, why should he be or feel compromised? His rights, your rights, as a photographer are well documented and readily available to read, to download. If you wish to read a detailed and definitive account of your rights as a photographer within NSW then you can do no better than to go to the following sites. I recommend the third site(s) written by Andrew Nemeth. He points the way and what Rob did fits well within the legal principles there as well as the broader principles of verbal and non-verbal communication based on a firm non-aggressive, co-operative demeanour. There is little point getting angry as understandable as that may be. Know your rights, demand they be honoured and respected.
The sites are where you can get a summary of the relevant rights to ‘know’ are:
Of all the detail Rob offered the most alarming was that point where the policeman suggested that an image be removed from the file in the camera. This ‘suggestion’ or request went perilously close to this policemen exceeding his authority and moving from a point of policing to one of censor. It is to Rob’s great credit that he knew his rights and resisted the policeman’s request. Outstanding, brave, forthright, brilliant are words that come to mind. Moreover, he evidently did so with an appropriate mix of courtesy, constraint and conviction. This is possible when you are confident in who you are, what you know and what are the dynamics at work. We can all learn from this and I am grateful to Rob for sharing.
In my opinion there is little point in advocating for a change to the current legal ‘rights’ framework although I understand and acknowledge there are folk who seek/will seek to do so. In my opinion, for what it is worth, it is likely to be counter productive as it could well see a number of current ‘rights’ further jeopardised. There are plenty of folk seeking to do that – just witness the debates that surfaced with the Henson case in 2008. Again, one only has to look at this week’s announcement by the NSW Attorney-General of putative changes to the Child Pornography Legislation in this state to see how quickly perceptions, prejudices and principles can be applied to erode rights in response to public pressure.
Perhaps a proactive strategy is for the relevant organisations at club, state and national level to develop an ‘education’ agenda to promote the photographic club and the enthusiast within a community and lobby the relevant state and federal agencies to ensure that ‘rights’ are protected by those charged with the task of administering our legal system. We belong to many organisations that can ensure our ‘voice’ is heard. However, when did you last see or read of the leadership group within the photographic world taking a stance by developing awareness of this issue – that is, the progressive erosion of freedom to photograph in public places if no other. There are current attempts by folk such as Ken Duncan to lobby to protect the rights of professional photographers across a range of matters and in the recent past by John Swainston linked to copyright and usage rights but I am not aware if the FCC or APS have developed an agenda to push the concerns of members to the relevant authorities about the ‘threats’ to their constituents’ rights. It would not be surprising if such attempts have yet to be made or sustained. It requires human, physical and financial resources to lobby. It requires leadership that is skilled in such matters and with some continuity too and that may not be possible with the present dynamics in the camera club world. I simply do not know. But, I do know, Rob’s experience mirrors many others.
The reality is that we live within a world of heightened sensitivity to the way photographs are used and abused and the way that the photograph can be an excuse to ‘abuse’. If you think Rob had a problem on that Saturday afternoon pity the poor teachers within high schools and TAFE visited by police in recent times because precocious pupils make mischievous claims about their teacher showing them nude photographs in art classes. Photographs of Michelangelo’s David, Venus de Milo and the canon of Western art – including photography - that forms the basis for much of our study of art, literature and film. That is, mischievous minds maligning and perverting due process leading to, in my opinion, far more corrupting outcomes borne of these frivolous claim than the study of art works might ever do. Pity the police. They have no choice but to respond to a ‘claim’ from the public.
Nevertheless, if the police and, more importantly state and federal attorneys general, were really concerned about the aesthetic use of the photograph; if parents quick to attack a photographer in possession of a long lens, were really concerned about the welfare of their children they might well spend a little more time examining what their children view on the internet, transmit via Twitter and SMS and play on their electronic games. The general level of violence and aesthetic non-sensibilities in these digital technologies are such as to be a more potential corruption to a child than any camera club photographer pointing an expensive lens at people in a landscape. Again, it is the ‘secret’ camera of the pervert that ought to be revealed rather than someone like Rob with a large tripod, huge camera bag and even longer lens standing in the middle of a park setting. Rob was hardly subtle or unobtrusive. He was hardly engaged in activity that was hidden from view or covert.
On a lighter note, of course, the obvious solution is to have a ‘people removal filter’ for your favourite software or camera firmware so that any human subject is erased, or a Nikon/Canon/Sony/Fuji megaphone or public address system wired into one’s camera so as to shout at people to leave the vicinity immediately as you are a photographer who wishes to make a photograph and thus clearly a danger to all human kind but particularly to ankle biters! Again, another option is for folk to travel to the ends of the earth to make people-free landscapes. Aha! At last, I have a sensible explanation for the current fad to go to Patagonia! I jest; you never compromise on a right by these or other strategies. Rob didn’t compromise.
We should celebrate the strength and the wisdom shown by Rob and his willingness to share in a way that demonstrates great clarity of thought and common sense.
It would be pleasing to think the relevant representatives of the amateur and professional photographic sectors along with their commercial partners to lobby the NSW Government to show that the erosion of our rights is unacceptable; that the freedom to make photographs without fear of episodic interference by police based on nothing more than a ‘whim’ of the public who might ‘think’ something is untoward is wrong. Frivolous claims in the form of verbal and anonymous assertions that initiate police intervention are a pathetic way of implementing the law. It is another example of the ‘all care taken no responsibility’ milieu that plagues this country. There ought to be consequences for those that make false, frivolous or vexatious assertions that jeopardise one’s freedom, in this case, freedom to make a photograph in a public place - it is evidently a freedom we have right up to the point where a child enters the frame. This is an absurd situation. There must be a better way. A ‘right’ compromised is no ‘right’ at all.
If you want to do something about developing public awareness and community support (problematic, I admit) get your Club to write to your local state members, to your federal members, to the local police unit, to the State Premier to your FCC and APS organisations. Mobilize. March on Macquarie Street if necessary and take your longest lens as you might get a good shot there of something really obscene! In the meantime I think I will go to Patagonia and photograph pelicans.
Thanks Rob, for sharing and showing the way.
Emeritus Professor, University of Western Sydney
Adjunct Professor, The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
Honorary Fellow, Australian Institute of Professional Photographers
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