'Sign of the times' essay Port News clippings Prof. Des Crawley view Support emails

'Sign of the times'

Newspaper clipping

Saturday 2nd January 2010
Late afternoon
Lady Nelson Wharf, Port Macquarie

Hoping to make some more pictures for my portfolio theme of River people for a 2010 photography exhibition, I visited the Lady Nelson Wharf on Port Macquarie's Town Green. As it was holiday season, I knew there would be a lot of activity around the wharf: various people—locals and tourists—using it to enjoy themselves by, on and in the river.

It had been raining and I amused myself by making pictures of reflections in the puddles on the timber decking of the wharf before taking a seat and waiting for some human activity. Groups of children, teenagers, and young adults arrived, jumped from the wharf into the river and swam across to the sandflats on Pelican Island.

This looked promising. I photographed some of the young people jumping from the wharf, swimming and engaged in activities on the sandflats: walking, running, throwing sand at each other – simply having a good time together.

The light was good. From my position I looked west onto a scene backlit by light from translucent clouds shrouding a descending sun. Animated young figures were semi silhouetted against the sand. Waterbirds dotted the background. I used my long telephoto lens to pull in the action and made a number of photographs, attempting to catch the figures visually separated on the sand and arranged to make pleasing compositions.

I did this for about 40 minutes before checking my watch and deciding to go home. Leaving the wharf, I passed three teenage girls seated on a step, one of whom said “You should take a picture of us”. In responding and hearing her further comments, I realised that she’d assumed I was shooting for the local paper. I corrected her assumption and courteously bid them goodbye.

Reaching the top of the steps, I paused and looked around at the general scene of the wharf and the youthful activity still occurring over on Pelican Island. As I wasn’t expected home for dinnner for at least an hour, I decided to set up my tripod and wait to see if some other opportunities arose, all the while scanning the wharf and river.

“Excuse me. Sir.”

I looked around and saw a young policeman.

“Sir, we’ve received a complaint from some people saying that you’ve been taking photographs of children. Would you mind telling me what you’re doing here?”

My heart sank.

It was inevitable that this day would come: middle aged Caucasian man (175cm - 72kg) spending a lot of time photographing people (young and not so young), long black lens, big black camera backpack, big black tripod, fairly stern looking face at times as he contemplates relevant aspects of photographic art and craft appropriate to the situation and observes the activities unfolding before him. Mind always focussed on a photographic response. Perhaps looking intent and predatory - to those who don't know him.

My first reaction was private indignation that I would be suspected of an ulterior motive. But I tried to remain objective and consider public perception, however wrong it may be.

“I’m taking photographs for an exhibition. This is a public place and there’s no law in Australia against taking photographs in a public place.” Click here to see artslaw.com.au web article

Out came his notebook and he started to write things down.

I felt naked, humiliated and under tha gaze of passers by and patrons of the Beach House enjoying drinks, and the spectacle, under the verandah and resort umbrellas about fifty metres away.

A number of questions and answers ensued…

  • Name of the exhibition? Port Now!
  • When? April-May 2010
  • Where? The Glasshouse
  • Why? A project of the Port Macquarie Panthers Camera Club to produce a visual social documentary of life in Port Macquarie in the early 21st century.

I cooperated with all of the questioning. And even thought to offer more than was asked…

But I stopped myself from mentioning religious ministries, sponsorship of a third world child, fatherhood and a happy marriage, stabbingly aware that such outwardly noble callings are no guarantee of integrity in this day and age. Sign of the times.

The Shakespearian insight “Me thinks he protesteth too much” occurred to me as a possible constabulary interpretation of such volunteered information. So I kept my mouth shut on those defences. I was feeling strangely uneasy to think that I might need a ‘defence’.

“What’s your date of birth, Sir.”

I gave it.

“Your address?”

“Here, take my card.” I offered my freelance photography business card which he took and began to transcribe.
“You can keep it”, I offered.

The paperwork done, the young constable turned his attention to my equipment.

“Would you mind showing me the photographs, Sir.”

I cooperated, paging through photographs while the policeman viewed them on my camera’s LCD monitor.

“Just go back to that previous one please.”

I did so.

“Can you zoom in on it?”

I ran my finger over the control dial and brought the distant figures into clearer view.

“That’s probably the kind of photo people are concerned about”, he said. “I might ask you to delete that one.”

(Damn what the informants may be concerned about. Do gooders can mind their own business) was my inner reaction and I kept it to myself. But the thinking pause gave me time to consider my response.

“No. I’m not deleting it. There's no reason why I should.”

The picture was not inappropriate, nor compromising to anyone and, besides, it may have been a good fit for my exhibition theme. It showed nothing that wasn't in full view of any person watching the scene. In fact, it was an unremarkable picture, and wouldn't make the cut. My refusal of the police request was based on principle.


Youth in Hastings River I was becoming indignant by this time and the constable could sense it.

“How long do you you plan to be here?”

Emboldened, I answered “As long as I feel like staying here.”

“I’m not trying to have a go at you, mate. ”, he replied.

I softened my attitude.

“I know that. But I won’t be moved on against my will. I’m doing nothing wrong and this is a public space”.

I would have been further humiliated (if that was possible) to walk away and know that the informants were probably watching. I wasn’t going to let them beat me like that.

“Well can you understand how people may view the situation?”, he asked.

“Yes. And I know you’re obliged to follow up on complaints like this. And I’m sure you’ll check out my bona fides and find that everything is in order.”

He terminated the conversation and walked away. I could not fault the courtesy shown to me by the young policeman. He was doing his job professionally.

I turned back to the wharf scene and gazed out, not really seeing anything at all. My head was spinning and I was rattled to the core. I felt eyes on me like daggers in the back. How should I handle the situation?

I decided on defiance - probably inappropriately – because I had my self esteem to consider.

So I turned to face the throng at the Beach House, leaned against a wharf post and gazed intently at the people. Somewhere in the crowd the informants may have been watching for my next move. I held my gaze for a minute or two scanning back and forth watching for eye contact. I thought that it might be character building for the informants to taste the discomfort of uncowed scrutiny!

Then I turned back to the wharf scene and waited about ten minutes before leaving. It gave me time to consider my next moves and satisfied me that I wouldn’t be seen to have been intimidated by presumptuous (though admittedly well meaning) strangers.

So! What is an appropriate response to an unsettling incident like this? I live here and I wish to continue pursuing my (legal) art, as is my right – mindful of, but undaunted by, unwarranted assumptions by some members of the public.

Poster provided to Port Macquarie policeMug shot of Rob Smith I’ve decided that I wish to be known to the police and for the right reasons. On my terms.

Together with a courteous letter, I’ve delivered the mug shot poster to the local area commander of police in Port Macquarie in the hope that when future complaints are received about a man fitting my description, the police may be able to allay concerns.

For members of the public reading this…

If you see a “middle aged Caucasian man (175cm 72kg) spending a lot of time photographing people in public places in Port Macquarie, fair complexion, moustache, thinning hair, big black camera, big black backpack, big black tripod, fairly stern looking face at times as he contemplates relevant aspects of photographic art and craft appropriate to the situation and observes the activities unfolding before him...mind always focussed on a photographic response...perhaps looking intent and predatory?”

...before assuming that something is not right, spare a thought that reporting it may subject an innocent person to public humiliation.

…I’m not as threatening as I might look. I’m just a bloke with a passion for the art of photography and I harbour no dark secrets.

Come and see the exhibition. You may see yourself there, depicted in a favourable light, as part of the historical record.

Thanks for reading my story. I encourage you to read the footnote at the bottom of this page and form an opinion.

On a lighter note...my lovely wife has a wicked sense of humour. The next day, as I left home to go out with my camera, she called from the kitchen, "Don't forget that you're entitled to one phone call. Do you remember our number?"

Email: Want to comment on this essay?

Rob Smith AAPS
Freelance Photographer
4 January 2010


Some may say that Australian society is already overgoverned. But with our world being what it is these days - and with ever increasing and valid concerns about child protection in our communities - I wonder if it's time to think about a voluntary scheme for photographers to subject themselves to a police screening check to obtain a registration number and permit to photograph people in public places? The check could be similar to those performed on people who volunteer for community service or who work with children.

ADDENDUM: Some respondents have made valid points about the civil liberty implications of a permit to photograph when a permit is not required by law to exercise a right. I accept that view. Suffice to say that I think a voluntary scheme whereby photographers who wish to can produce a certification document - which says they've passed a police screening the same as required for people who work with children - may help to allay fears amongst members of the public or police officers who confront them.


EPISODE 2 — 26 August 2016

KNOWN TO POLICE.....(Again!)
Do-gooders, God luv 'em.
Arrived home from my morning walk to Tacking Point, toting my black lens on a black monopod and wearing my black photographer's vest...and a black bucket hat. Police 4WD parked in front of my home. I insert the key into my front door and a couple of young police officers appear at the side of the house (having been around the back to see if anyone was home when their knock at the door had not been answered).

"Good morning, mate", and a big smile from the male officer. "We've received a call saying that you were seen out the front of *Tacking Point Primary School a couple of weeks ago taking photographs. Would that be correct?"

*[it's around the corner about 200m from where I live]

"BULLSHIT!", came my immediate reply—I'm a bit of a stickler for facts. "A couple of weeks ago....NO...a couple of months ago, YES!"

[In fact, now that I have checked, the EXIF data in my photograph file tells me that it was at 08:53:16 on 23rd June 2016....1/15th of a second at f8 & 600mm and PEDO...I mean ISO 200]

"And what were you photographing?"

"The texture on the bark of a tree. At no time did I point the camera at children. I walk past that school every morning with my camera, and I'm surprised that some do-gooder has blown the whistle on me. For goodness sake, my niece and her husband are teachers at that school (So, clearly, it wouldn't have been a teacher that reported me)."

If I WAS a paedophile, would I be so blatant as to photograph the kids in full view at the very time their parents are dropping them off? The conversation with the police continued cordially for a couple of minutes. I told them that this wasn't the first time I had been confronted on suspicion of a darker motive for toting a big black camera and lens (see link below).

Anyway. All good. The police were courteous and friendly and I told them that I understood that they had to follow up such reports, even though "it amuses me (well...PISSES me off, really!) that some do-gooders think that I am some kind of threat in society". The young policewoman smiled and touched my elbow supportively.

We bid each other a good day. It will happen again, no doubt.


'Sign of the times' essay Port News clippings Prof. Des Crawley view Support emails