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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


The Terror of Photography

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Poor Phil Smith. There he was at the turn-on of the Ipswich Christmas lights, wielding his swanky SLR camera, when he was hauled out of the crowd by a police officer. Demanding to see his licence - he neither had nor needed one - the police officer then used stop and search powers, ordered all the pictures to be deleted, and instructed Mr. Smith not to take any more. Perhaps if Mr. Smith, like the rest of the crowd, had been using mobile phones or pocket cameras, he would have been all right. The trouble was, he looked a bit too professional for the policeman's liking. He may even have been a terrorist.

In reality, as the BBC's report explains, it was the policeman - a special constable - who was entirely in the wrong, as the Suffolk Police later admitted. Nevertheless, the incident does indicate the problems of photographing in public, in a general era of paranoia about bombs and paedophiles. Take this advertisement from the Metropolitan Police, which warns "Thousands of people take photos every day. What if one of them seems odd? Terrorists use surveillance to help plan attacks, taking photos and making notes about security measures like the location of CCTV cameras. If you see someone doing that, we need to know. Let experienced officers decide what action to take."

Now I have taken thousands of photos, and I am - hands up - a fanatic...when it comes to photography. But if one of my photos seems odd, it is due to my creative limitations rather than my designs as a terrorist. But I can quite easily imagine a situation in which I take a photo of a public building (which will invariably include CCTV cameras) and then - like any good photographer - keep a record of weather conditions, location and the like, for future reference on my photoblog. Observed to be doing this, everyman is a potential Smith, if he happens to wield his camera at the wrong time or to look a bit weird - and don't we all, squatting and peering with one eye shut through the viewfinder?

Recognising the current state of affairs, MP Austin Mitchell, a keen photographer and chair of the Parliamentary All-Party Photography Group, has now tabled a motion in the House of Commons, calling on the Home Office to educate police about what powers they do have to prevent photographers, and to educate photographers about their rights.

The law, as it stands, says that "you are fine unless you're taking picture of something inherently private" (Solicitor Hanna Basha). Photographers have every right to take photographs in public places, although - quite rightly - there are restrictions around certain public and military buildings, and under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, police officers may randomly stop someone without suspicion if the area is considered a likely target for attack (hardly likely in the case of the Ipswich Christmas lights, unless you consider ex-Eastender Letitia Dean a political target). Nonetheless, this (surely?) does not mean that they have the right to order the deletion of images if they are subsequently found to be entirely appropriate. It certainly does not mean that serious photographers need a licence to work in public places. Nor does it mean that they require the written permission of everyone they photograph (imagine the hassle shooting the London Marathon!).

If you are a keen photographer, or just a concerned citizen of a liberal democracy, I urge you to write to your MP asking them to support the motion, or at the very least to sign the petition on the Downing Street website. I have just done this, although living in the countryside the greatest danger to my photography comes from the cow rather than the policeman.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:10 am

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