Photography and the Law

I had an unsettling experience yesterday which has made me question the legal limitations regarding photography.  I was shopping in a local store when to cut a long story short I was approached by three burly Scene of Crime police officers in full crash gear.  On being asked to step outside I was advised that I had been allegedly observed by  shop staff taking photographs of children in the store on my mobile phone.  I was given a grilling and my mobile phone was searched for photographs.  When no photographs were found on the phone and an explanation of events I gave was corroborated by my partner who was present at the time, apologies were given and the Police and I parted amicably.  Although the allegations were untrue the incident left me feeling disturbed and raised all sorts of questions in my mind as to the legality of taking photographs of people in public.

From my brief investigation into the subject this morning it would appear that it is not generally illegal to photograph people and to use the photographs for artistic purposes if the photographs are taken in public places.  The position is briefly described in Wikipedia and can be accessed via this link.   Of course, common decency and the emotional well being of the subjects are important considerations and offence must be avoided at all times where public interest issues are not part of the mix.  The intervention of the Police in my case was presumably as a result of the alleged incident occurring in a shop which would be deemed to be privately owned rather than a public space.  This is particularly pertinent to me as I have recently been taking a few photographs for my course exercises on a public beach and it had not occurred to me before this incident that I might be acting illegally.  From my brief research into the subject it would appear that I was acting within the law, but I would welcome the views of others as to how photographers should act when taking photographs in public.  It is not always feasible or desirable to ask permission of potential subjects as then spontaneity and acting in the moment is lost.

This whole issue raises many questions about the protection of the public, the rights of individuals to having their privacy protected and the rights of photographers to practice their art.  Is there a difference between photographing people at work, rest and play in a street in Birmingham and Manhattan on the one hand and Kathmandu or Delhi on the other?  And then is there a difference between photographing adults and children in private places?  With the current public paranoia about paedophilia what constitutes an acceptable and what an unacceptable subject for a photograph?  It is clear that this is a discussion that is running at the moment and there is no black and white answer.  I guess that all we as photographers can do is to be clear about the legal position and its interpretation and to be aware of the feelings and wishes of others where possible.  Any thoughts and experiences of others would be gratefully received.

———-     o0o     ———-

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