Freedom to Draw, Freedom to Photograph

A Photograph of Early Morning, Hamburg Station, (2006)

A Photograph of Early Morning, Hamburg Station, (2006) where no one seemed to mind a photo being taken.

Grrrrr. I broke the first rule of blogging yesterday. When you see something really good online following a series of social media links on a mobile device, bookmark or mail the link to self. Do not imagine for one second you will be able to remember where or when you saw the item. It will be lost for ever in cyberspace.

So I am not able to bring you a link to  YouTube video about a photographer’s encounter with Transport Authority Police in a major US city as he attempted to photograph some trains. I do not know the specifics, but what I gather happened is that (allegedly) for Homeland Security purposes he was (wrongly) prevented from taking a photo in the particular circumstances he found himself in. (At this point, I should explain to US readers out there that my online link came from an impeccable US source, so I am confident my brief summary of what happened is not an Anglo misunderstanding of US law)

This story resonated with me. In the last decade I have become aware of an increasingly hysterically negative response to all forms and manner of documenting contemporary life, whether through photography, sketching or writing.

At one time it was fairly easy to know what you should or shouldn’t do. In 1979, for example, crossing East Germany via a barely metalled transit road from the West to Berlin, I knew as I lay low on the backseat of an ancient Volkwagen pointing my trusty Praktika SLR at the skies to snap a helicopter that I was taking a bit of a silly risk, but it was a childishly exciting moment.

But now, you never know when someone is going to come up and say”Please stop…” For example, I was not allowed to sit down in Red Square in Moscow to do a drawing. I have been prevented in a local university gallery from making sketch notes on artworks on the walls. (I fought up through five layers of bureaucracy to overturn that one.) I was recently prevented on a plane from drawing prior to and during take-off. ( They argued they needed my full attention, but were happy to allow everyone else to carry on reading.) And a few years ago, I was hauled off to the security office at Lime Street station in Liverpool for attempting to photograph the station with an DSLR camera. I could see people on mobile phones all around, and one or two taking shots, but the presence of a Really Big Camera was quite unacceptable to the authorities. Eventually, I was told I would need to apply for a permit, and naturally there would be restrictions on use of the photos. Just four months earlier, I had travelled thousands of miles by train, taken images of countless platforms and stations, and no one had blinked.

This freakish over-control by authority is unsettling. I’m a lawyer by background and training as well as an artist, and a continuing challenge to basic freedoms for no good reason disturbs me enormously. It also prompts a childish rebelliousness. With my iPhone, I feel completely unconstrained to make quick notes, sketches and photographic records of anything which catches my eye. My worry now is that Big Brother is aware of the unfettered freedom provided by the device, and will take steps to stop it. That moment may sadly be all too near: Apple recently filed a patent application to do with baking infra-red communication capabilities into the phone. One downside of the feature is that it may allow the device to be remotely disabled by those wishing to prevent photography.

Aaaagh. Better make the most of this window of opportunity whilst I can.


4 responses to Freedom to Draw, Freedom to Photograph

  1. Edward Canavarro

    Loved this post. I wish creativity wasn’t something that had to be hidden away. It seems like people in public are bothered by anything out of the ordinary.

    • gillianholding – Author

      The odd aspect for me is that it is all increasingly seen as out of the ordinary, and therefore automatically prohibited. There is an increasing presumption of unlawfulness which is really very strange in a society which, in other respects, becomes more and more permissive.

  2. A company I worked for for 20 years sent me to some week-long computer seminars from time to time in large conference centers in Las Vegas. We were free in the evenings to roam around the surreal worlds they have created there, The Venetian with gondolas paddling down actual waterways through virtual Venetian villages, with ceilings painted like the sky, with clouds, and at night it becomes a dark sky full of virtual stars and moon….
    Anyway, I was roaming through the ‘gaming’ section of one of those hotels, and came upon a large area with comfortable leather easy-chairs facing a huge wall of video screens – maybe two or three stories high, 20 or 30 different large High-Definition screens showing real-time gambling events going on at that moment all around the world., horse races, boxing matches, all kinds of stuff I didn’t even know what they were. So the customer settles back into an easy chair, orders some drinks, and has a computer console at his fingertips so he can get in on “the action” on any event he chooses. (for a fee of course) So, I am like at the very back of the 1/4 acre ‘space’, sitting on the floor against the back wall with my laptop, journaling, just writing my reflections on what a strange place this was. The security guard comes along and tells me to turn off my laptop, I could be ‘illegally’ participating in these events online, which of course, I had no idea or interest in other than the social spectacle of this phenomenon. I could see his point, but it still felt kinda ‘big brotherish’.

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