Street photographers: terrorists?

Street photography has a long artistic heritage and is how many of the greatest photographers got started. But it could all be about to come to an end, in the UK at least.

As a street photographer, I have been watching with horror the latest developments in my old home country of Great Britain. Lately, a new poster campaign by the Metropolitan Police is inviting Londoners to call a hotline if they don’t like the look of a photographer. “Thousands of people take photos every day,” runs the text. “What if one of them seems odd?” The poster states that terrorists use cameras for surveillance. Life with a camera might be about to turn tougher with new laws that are being considered which could criminalise much of the behaviour of the innocent street photographer.

To Gordon Brown and the Metropolitan Police I say this: the terrorists that planted bombs on trains and buses in London used mobile phones and rucksacks. How long before you strike fear into the population over every citizen who carries them?

Luckily, in Japan, I don’t have to put up with this same level of fear-mongering and villification. I soot my pictures of everyday life here in Tokyo with relative impunity and the worst that can happen is that people turn the other way, or change direction to avoid me.

I do not chase after people for a photo. I never hound people and will always try to engage with my subjects where possible, showing them the picture I have just taken by turning the screen of my camera to face them or going over to make myself known. Most people are fascinated that I have captured a moment of their life that they may never get to see themselves. Some people laugh. Some get self conscious. Never in Japan have I had someone threaten me with violence or with the Police. Both have happened in London.

A Gallery of Street Photography, by Alfie Goodrich


Yes, there may be predatory paedophiles and would-be terrorists out there with cameras. These people should be legislated for or at least have en eye kept on them. But governments never have been and never will be able to legislate every risk out of society. I don’t like people dying in road accidents but I don’t see a govenment ban on the car coming anytime soon. Mobile phones have been proven to be a very useful trigger for bombs; where, then, are the posters asking the public to report to the Police ‘people using their phone in an odd way’?

Watch out, they’ll be arresting you for ‘loitering with intent to use a pedestrian crossing’ next. Go to 1′ 19″ on the video linked at left. Or, if you never seen Not the None O`Clock News before, watch the whole thing.

Times are changing and standards get more doubled-over every day. Why is it OK to document ‘real life’ in Iraq and Afghanistan but not London or Bristol?  Maybe we do live in changed times but is than any excuse for a government to blanket a country in CCTV cameras, watch and monitor the population and then turn around and say; “Sorry, no pictures”. One rule for them, another for the rest of us. They can photograph us but we can’t photograph them or each other?

Sophie Howarth is a curator specialising in street photography. She says she’s noticed – despite the difficulties – a boom for the art, enabled by technology, and with London at the centre. “In France, traditionally one of the great centres of street photography, the law now says you own the rights to your own image, so street photography’s become a dead art. In London there’s a growing community of photographers, using digital technology, not just cameras, but blogs, too, to document the city and give each other instant feedback.”

It will be a sad day indeed when images of real, everyday life that picture us as who we are get totally replaced by the thousands of aspirational images we get fed to us every day in magazines; the images that show us `what we’d like to be’.

The rich visual history of the 20th Century – the century that gave us Henri Cartier-Bresson, Humphrey Spender, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Weegee and many more – is one that has given way to a seemingly richer 21st Century; a camera in everyone’s hand, a moving and organic digital portrait of daily life through the medium of photography and the blog and carried by that most modern, flexible and immediate of publishing media; the internet.

Freedom to express, freedom to share and the tools to do so; these are more widely available now than at any time in history. The level of fear-mongering amongst ‘coalition’ governments and the level of surveillance carried out on the populations under their rule has also probably never been higher.

If there is one thing in my mind to be one’s guard about it is not the creative photographer on the corner of your street, but those who seek to fill us with that most powerful of fears; fear of each other.

Oh, and one more thing; I guess this also means the end of the Met asking people to send in their photos of major criminal or terrorist events, in case they might contain potential evidence?  The phrase ‘having ones’ cake and eating it’ comes to mind.

Interesting links

About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

We also welcome submissions of photos and articles for this site, so please get in touch via our contact page. Thanks. © 2015 All Rights Reserved

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