Street Photography and the Law in Britain

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Image by British Journal of Photography,

For almost as long as there has been photography, there has been street photography. This brand of creative expression has always drawn its fair share of controversy, usually raising questions over the privacy of subjects. But in the past few years, street photographers in the U.K. have been embroiled in a very different battle, one pitting their own civil liberties against questions of British national security.

The story begins with the passage of Britain’s Terrorism Act 2000, which might seem about as far from photography as you can get. Section 44 through 47 of the law granted broad police powers to stop and search any person or vehicle engaged in suspicious activity in any public area, and allowed police to seize “articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism.” As street photographers soon found out, that could also include them and their cameras.

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Image from

The situation escalated after additional amendments to the law in 2008, leading to more than 100,000 stops (but resulting in zero terrorism arrests) under the law the following year. An increasing number of photographers found themselves questioned, detained, or even threatened by law enforcement after taking innocuous pictures in public places.

Feeling besieged, some of them began to fight back with petitions and blogs, and Amateur Photographer magazine even distributed a special lens cloth carrying an advisory for police. The cloth quoted from guidelines issued by the Metropolitan Police stating that “while we must remain vigilant… unless there is a very good reason, people taking photographs should not be stopped.” The Urban 75 website issued a great primer on photographers’ rights, and the blog “I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist” has a “bust card” that can be printed out and carried in a wallet.

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Image © Amateur Photographer Magazine, IPC Media.

In July 2010, there appeared to be a resolution when Section 44 was ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights and subsequently suspended. But now it appears the fight will begin all over again after the U.K. Home Secretary made a “remedial order” revising the stop-and-search law earlier this month. Will the new law ease pressure on artists or will they find themselves again at odds with the police? Where is the proper line between public safety and public freedom? We’ll be watching this story as it evolves, and welcome your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. Considering a historic perspective, had the photographers of the 1900’s and onwards not captured people in the public domain we would not have the millions of archived images to refer to for thousands upon thousands of social researchers, biographers, publications, education institutes, news agencies etc etc etc etc to refer and reflect on and bring the medium forward to its current value of today.

    By I Pover
      April 1, 2011 – 8:27 pm   Permalink
  2. Streetphotography is fantastic. It is logical that anyone has secrets.
    But please stay somewhere inside. It has always been like that,
    throughout history, any place, any time. Besides, cellphones are
    the real spying tools, so, don’t worry about it. Streetphotography
    is almost a human right and surely an inspiring delight.

    greetings, Guus van den Akker, Maastricht, NL

      April 5, 2011 – 6:22 am   Permalink
  3. In New York photographers and filmmakers came together with the NYCLU to fight against requirements for permits and other measures limiting photography in public spaces. The photographers won in court, and the result is a clear codification of New York City regulations, which permit the use of handheld devices (including tripods) on the street and on public structures like bridges. Photographers are also allowed to take pictures in the subway and in commuter rail facilities. A one page summary of the rules is available here:

    Photographers are still unfairly targeted by police and private security, and many– both photographers and law enforcement–do not know the rules. It is important for all of us to know our rights, and then get out there and exercise them.

      April 7, 2011 – 7:57 am   Permalink

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