Several months ago, while taking photos in Walthamstow Market (a not unusual practice for me, since I live nearby), I was framing a shot from the middle of the street, waiting for a break in pedestrians – when through my viewfinder I observed the shopkeeper emerge and stride angrily towards me. The subsequent conversation is worth recording as an example of some of the many misconceptions regarding photography and the law in this day and age in the UK.
‘Why are you taking photos of my shop?’ demanded the shopkeeper angrily. ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ I replied. ‘You’re not allowed to do that anymore, you know, because of terrorism….’ ‘Actually I am’, I corrected him politely. ‘If I were in your shop I’d need to have your permission, yes, but from the street or another public place, with only a very few exceptions such as Parliament Square, I don’t. I can be polite and stop taking photos if you ask me, but that’s not really the same thing.’ ‘So why are you taking photos of my shop?’ he asked again. ‘Because I’m a photographer, and I’m taking some photos along this part of the market’ I replied. ‘Oh, you’re a photographer – that’s ok then’ he said, relaxing (I still have no idea why this made things ok in his view).
It was not the first time I’d had this conversation – an indignant waitress in Northcote Road once told me the owner wouldn’t like it at all if I photographed his restaurant, though I was doing so from a public area across the street, along with a large part of the rest of Northcote Road – nor is it likely to be the last. Incidentally, it was in Walthamstow in 2009 that an Austrian tourist and his son were stopped by community support officers while taking photos of the bus/tube station, on the ludicrous grounds that the photos constituted a security threat, and made (illegally, as it happens) to delete them.
For a good summary of what you can, and can’t, photograph, within the law, see www.photographersrights.org.uk.