Monday, October 18, 2010

I'm a photographer, not a terrorist

It's 23:30 and I've just returned home from Portsmouth city centre having been detained and searched by police on the grounds of anti-terrorism measures. Throughout my interrogation, which thankfully was relatively brief - presumably due to my grudging co-operation - I watched around me as student revellers vomited on the streets, shouted obscenities at passers by and hurled glass bottles into the air in some kind of unspoken wrecking contest.

My crime, meanwhile? Taking photographs.

Always trying to push the boundaries of my discipline I'd set out to try and record urban star trails. Due to the extreme contrasts of streetlit urban areas and the dark skies above them it's a challenge that's usually passed up by photographers who understandably prefer the guarantee of a result out-of-town rather than the possibility of a result within the city. I'd all but given up on the technique when I spotted a potential shot but this meant returning to my car parked nearby to swap some equipment. Thinking things through earlier I'd figured my gear would be safer in the locked boot of my car rather than on my person in the hectic city centre.

Lenses duly swapped I walked back to the same spot and set up. The shot in question was a very defined shadow of a security camera projected upon a lift tower of a adjacent building. Ironically, no sooner had I started shooting than the camera pivoted on its mount to stare down at me.

I waved back, a gesture designed to acknowledge to the operator that I'd noticed this movement whilst also intimate that I'm of a friendly disposition. And then I just stood still. There's a lot of that in night photography, especially when shooting the stars. It's a case of set up, test, and relax while the camera fires shot after shot after shot. So, that's me then, stood out of harm's way but in full and acknowledged view of an active CCTV camera. I didn't run and I didn't hide, because everything I was doing was legit.

After about ten minutes I was approached by first two police officers and then quickly another two. Still I stayed put, making no attempt to run or hide. In fact, I approached them in an attempt to ensure the integrity of my ongoing photo-taking by avoiding a kicked tripod leg or a torch being pointed at my lens.

Their introduction was non-existant, their opener being along the lines of "what you doing, we need to see your photos, we're going to have to search you". Now you can imagine I've had a fair share of contact with the police; that's as a photographer who works mostly at night, often in the middle of nowhere either with hundred-thousand-pound cars or all manner of strange electrical and lighting contraptions.

Until tonight, never have I been approached by the police with anything other than professional courtesy - I'm on the record for that in open discussion and closed correspondence to senior police officials. In turn, I have only ever responded with openness and co-operation. Yet there was something about their do-as-you're-told attitude that I found wilfully antagonistic - confrontational, even - and which I admit instilled an element of hostility on my part.

Wanting to complete my image-making and believing a standard stop offers the police no real powers to interrupt that process I declined to show them my images but volunteered that I was taking photos of the stars. When they persisted with their enquiries I questioned as to what grounds they sought to view my images or conduct a search. A brief but confusing torrent of legalese followed, from which I made a mental note of Section 44 (which I knew to be anti-terrorist legislation) and PACE Section 1, which I've since researched and believe to be inappropriate for the circumstances, relating as it does to going equipped [for burglary] and handling stolen goods. I acknowledge the fact that they allowed my camera to continue recording but find it somewhat bizarre at the same time- after all, if I'm engaging in terrorist activities surely my actions need to be halted immediately; and if I pose no threat, well, there should end the detention.

They then spoke about my "suspicious activity", generalising about the "current terrorist threat" and my proximity to and focus on the city's Civic Offices. They refused to answer who'd called me in and would not be drawn on my suggestion that it was the CCTV operator. I did not agree with their intimations that any of this linked me or my activities to terrorism but from that point on I was just a passenger. The female officer took my details and ran checks whilst the male officer donned blue plastic gloves and, without my consent or approval - nor even having yet formally identified himself - proceeded to search each of my pockets, extracting items like my bank cards, keys and mobile phone and placing them out of my immediate reach on a flight of steps. At some point it must have become apparent that I wasn't going to make off nor get aggressive so the latter two of the four officers headed away.

Of the remaining officers, the male in particular was insistent to see what I'd been photographing. The response from police officers who've spoken to me previously is often one of amazement and interest at my ability to make photos at night but on this occasion the officer appeared already to be fully aware of the concept behind star trail images. I was threatened with the seizure of my equipment if I did not comply. Again without my consent or approval he leaned in to inspect my images as I clicked off the cable release and the camera began to cycle through my sequence of 191 six-second exposures.

Having always felt I would stand my ground in such a situation I ended up disappointed at my own performance and disgusted at the conduct of these two police officers. When threatened with the seizure of my professional equipment I had no option but to comply, genuinely feeling that the whole matter would quickly escalate way out of hand and a stint in the cells would be my next move.

Where does it leave us when the force that's "Working for Safer Communities" is the force that instills fear through bullying?


  1. Disgusting behaviour and probably could get them in trouble for not following procedure... There is a document which you can show them which relates to this - I think I have a copy I could send you.

  2. What, this is crazy. My wife is disgusted, she works with the police and thinks that this is out of order.

  3. that's absurd. what a horrific and unwarranted abuse of power. i suppose when they fill in their timesheets it's an easy way of accounting for half an hour of taxpayers time, a lot less effort than collaring real criminals.

  4. I would send this excellent record to the police commissioner of Hampshire and ask for his views. I would also include the names of the officers. It smack of bullying by officers who have no knowledge of current legislation. Who on earth could think that a camera on a tripod pointed at the sky could be a threat to national security. Its is so beyond belief. I can understand your disappointment , but you are right, it could have blown out of proportion. Why not give it a bit more exposure to the press?

  5. Is it possible to get a letter of authority to stand around taking photos to avoid further confrontations? Or should we just assume that we have the right to take part in LEGAL activities without consent forms?

  6. just never know who you're going to get. They are, after all, just people like everyone else - some are power hungry jerks and others are nice. Sure, you could have fought it, but...sometimes it's just not worth it. I think you did the right thing under the circumstances for what it's worth....

  7. Duly retweeted, not a nice experience at all.