Perverting Photography

In August 2010, around 700 photographers gathered at the Rocks in Sydney to protest against restrictions on photography in public space. An image of the event shows the opera house in the background surrounded by placards with slogans like ‘Photographers not Predators’ and ‘Capture the Moment not the Photographer’. There are as many cameras as people, and both professional and amateur photographers wear bright purple T-shirts proclaiming ‘I’m a Photographer not a Criminal’. In the age of the camera phone, where everyone is some kind of photographer, such a message may seem unnecessary. And yet today photography in public space is increasingly greeted with suspicion, and there are numerous stories of photographers who have been hassled, threatened or even arrested while attempting to go about their work. In a similar protest in January 2010, a group called ‘I’m a Photographer, not a Terrorist’ rallied 2000 photographers in Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against police harassment of photographers in the United Kingdom.

The Australian protest was organised by the group Arts Freedom Australia. Formed in 2004 by a small group of photographers, Arts Freedom Australia is now supported by industry bodies, including the Australian Institute of Professional Photography and the Photo Marketing Association, as well as many individual members. Originally the group was organised in response to a desire for clarity over the inconsistent and often contradictory laws that regulate commercial and professional photography in places like beaches and national parks. However, today members’ concerns extend much further, and posts on the group’s blog describe instances of harassment directed at people simply wanting to photograph their own families in public places or pursue their hobby of street photography.

The issues surrounding the escalating restrictions on photography in public space are complex. However, there has been an alarming tendency in both the media coverage and official justifications of the restrictions to align photography with existing moral panics in order to stifle debate or resistance. In recent years, everything from terrorism to paedophilia has been used to rationalise the restriction of photography in public while the social changes and anxieties that inform the restrictions, such as shifts in relations between the public and the private, are obscured. Photography is a medium that is uniquely suited to showing us un-encountered aspects of public life, and its power to make visible is central to the ways we structure, negotiate and experience the public and the private. The attempt to restrict it is a telling instance of changing perceptions of public space and seems to signal a breakdown of a sense of shared public life in an era of privatisation.

As the slogans at the photographers’ rallies make clear, the symptoms of this breakdown are often attributed to other more prominent social ills. During the last five years or so, there have been a number of much publicised cases of photographers being harassed in the name of protecting the public from terrorists or paedophiles. In 2006, the day after Melbourne’s Southgate tourist complex posted signs forbidding photography without approval from management, the amateur photographer and grandmother Val Moss was stopped by security guards and asked to cease taking photographs ‘because of the terrorism overseas’. The same year Rex Dupain, son of Max Dupain, was questioned by police for twenty-five minutes while taking photographs for his new book, The Colour of Bondi, at Bondi Beach. Rex Dupain was attempting to recreate the iconic photographs of Australian beach culture taken by his father in the late 1930s. While his father’s photographs are celebrated, the attempt to create similar images today led to the confiscation of Dupain’s camera, even though he was not breaking any laws. Anyone with a camera today, Dupain lamented, is regarded as a ‘potential pervert’.

Public fears about crimes against children have been a particularly convenient means with which city councils and other institutions have been able to regulate access and control over photography to suit their own interests. When photography restrictions and regulations are packaged as child protection they are very difficult to contest. As professional photographer and co-founder of Arts Freedom Australia Ken Duncan discovered in 2009, when he was working at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, the imposition of fees on professional photographers and the policing of photographic representation are often rationalised in these terms. After being accused by security guards of being a potential paedophile, despite the absence of children in the area in which he was working, Duncan was forced to stop work and pay a $665 fee for a one-week permit before being allowed to resume photographing. The then Cairns Regional Council Chief Executive Officer, Noel Briggs, noted that rules regarding permits at the Lagoon were established in 2003 to ‘protect the recreational users of the facilities from predatory photographic practices’. Briggs explained further: ‘I could get dressed up as a professional photographer and take a photo and I could be the biggest paedophile on earth―we are preventing that because we have a permit and we’re protecting the public’s interest’. According to Briggs’ curious logic, payment of the permit fee ensures that the photographer is not a paedophile.

The ubiquity of photographic devices and the ease of distribution over the internet have no doubt contributed to public anxieties about photography. Sally Morrell’s comments in the Melbourne Herald Sun are indicative of the slippage that occurs between photographers, users of new technologies and paedophiles:

The internet, a friend to every pervert, has now managed to turn even a camera at the family beach into a weapon … As we have found out to our disgust and alarm, pedophiles are attracted to places where there will be lots of young children in various states of dress. But worse, they can now be armed with tiny camera―even an unobtrusive mobile phone with a lens, of which we have four million already―and take snaps of children that by the end of the day will be splashed over internet porn sites for evil perverts everywhere to fantasise over.

We recently conducted a survey of 260 photographers, in partnership with the Centre for Contemporary Photography. Responses were indicative of the widespread impact of this new atmosphere of fear and intimidation. A striking 74 per cent of survey respondents had been asked to stop taking photographs in public spaces at one time or another, most often by security guards or private citizens. In the process, 15.9 per cent had been threatened with physical harm and 17.6 per cent with legal action or arrest, despite the fact that they were acting within their legal rights. Although ‘spy phones’ and perverts with mobile phone cameras are targeted in much of the media coverage of this issue, it is pertinent that in our survey only one respondent was using a mobile phone camera when asked to stop photographing, and 76.3 per cent were using a single lens reflex camera. The countless parents who have been denied the opportunity to photograph their child’s sporting event, swimming carnival or stage performance will also be aware how this atmosphere of suspicion and restriction impacts upon the community at large.

Robert Frank, who described the process of taking his iconic photographs for The Americans in the 1950s as ‘a kind of spying affair’, sheds light on the way changing social anxieties are historically deflected onto photographers. He tells of photographing a group of young people outside a Mississippi high school in 1955. The teenage boys had just finished football practice, and reacted with suspicion when he approached, accusing him of being a communist. In the ideological climate of the Cold War, such a response, Frank noted, was not unusual. ‘Most people looked at you and the camera and their reaction was, “You’re a communist”.’ Indeed, a few days before he approached the school students, Frank had been arrested as a spy, as the arresting officer was on the lookout for ‘suspicious foreigners’ and had been attracted by Frank’s camera. Frank reflected later, ‘I think it’s easier to encounter that reaction than the reaction today … a mistrust [of] being photographed’. Today, the reaction to those with cameras is less likely to be ‘You’re a communist’ than ‘You’re a paedophile’, or perhaps a ‘terrorist’.

In response to this suspicion and the restrictions it supports, photographers have tended to rely on a discourse of rights. For instance, an article in The British Journal of Photography, announcing the launch of the Not a Crime campaign, argues somewhat hyperbolically that ‘Britain is now becoming a no-photo zone’ and calls on police to ‘take a more sensible approach to public photography rights’. To frame the defence of photography in public space as a matter of rights to freedom of movement or expression; however, is likely to have only a very limited impact as it does not adequately address the historical, social, political and technological transformations that generate the anxieties. As Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren note in their book Street Photography Now, ‘photographers do not exist in a moral bubble and those who behave as if an unfettered right to point a camera is enshrined in the Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights do not help the delicate contemporary situation’. Instead of simply proclaiming an inalienable right to take photographs, it is important to acknowledge the role of photography in the public sphere and understand how the moves to restrict it cannot be separated from the erosion of a shared public life in an age of privatisation.

The question of privacy has been central to moves in the criminal law to restrict diverse forms of unauthorised photography in Australia. In Victoria it is an offence to take photographs of a ‘private activity’ without the consent of the parties involved. NSW has introduced laws against ‘filming for indecent purposes’, which make it an offence to photograph someone ‘in a state of undress, engaged in a “private act” or in circumstances where a reasonable person would expect privacy’. In South Australia child pornography legislation stipulates that ‘a person who acting for a prurient purpose makes a photographic, electronic or other record from which the image, or images, of a child engaged in a private act may be reproduced, is guilty of an offence’.

The view that privacy is increasingly under threat in an age of digital image circulation has informed much of the demand for law reform in relation to public photography. Underlying this push is the view that the photograph has a unique potential to intrude into private life, and may be considered a breach of privacy even when taken in public. In the 2005 report Unauthorised Photographs on the Internet and Ancillary Privacy Issues the Standing Committee of Attorneys General asked ‘whether people should expect privacy in public places, or while engaging in public activities’. Advocates of what has been termed ‘privacy in public’ argue that the capacity of the photograph to wrench a moment out of its original context complicates questions of exposure and consent. While women may be prepared to sunbathe topless on public beaches, for instance, they may be horrified by the creation of permanent images capable of circulating and being viewed repeatedly outside of their original contexts. As state laws attempt to bolster privacy in the face of the proliferation of digital images, it is also important to reconsider the status of the public that defences of ‘public photography’ presuppose.

Photography has long operated at the fuzzy limits between the public and the private. The invention of the Kodak in 1888 marked the moment when photography left the orchestrated settings of the bourgeois home and the studio and erupted onto the streets. As a precursor to contemporary fears, the proliferation of cameras generated suspicions about so-called ‘camera fiends’ and led to the banning of photography at the Washington Monument and at certain beaches. A letter published in the Photographic Times and American Photographer that year complained that ‘during the bathing hours, a half-dozen cameras may be seen at almost any time, pointed at the half-nude and innocent bathers, at a time when they are not in a position to be perpetuated by the camera’.

The ‘guilty pleasure’ of seeing without being seen, as the photo theorist Geoffrey Batchen points out, has always been at the heart of photography’s operation, as has anxiety about photography’s power to make visible. ‘Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long’, wrote Walker Evans, whose Depression-era photographs brought to light the extent of poverty in the rural South of the United States. Evans’ photographs helped to create momentum for the massive public works program of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Early documentary photography often proceeded from the belief that looking at the lives of others, and particularly at the lives of the poor, would motivate social reform. It was, as the US artist and critic Martha Rosler writes, with no small measure of scorn, ‘the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery’. From Evans’ photographs of people on subways, taken with a hidden camera, to Helen Levitt’s photographs of New York street life, taken with a camera whose right-angle viewfinder concealed her focus, the early documentary photography of the 1930s and 1940s was premised on a sense of a shared public life whose illumination would foster empathy, generate social reform and tell us something of ourselves.

The sense of shared public responsibility that historically underpinned defences of street photography has now been eroded by decades of neo-liberal reforms and the privatisation of once public services. Photographers may be surprised to find that many of the ‘public’ spaces in which they operate, including shopping centres and railway stations, are actually private and open to the public at the discretion of the owners. Shopping centres, a common no-go zone for photographers, are moving to restrict other activities not directly related to consumption. Public spaces that could facilitate a sense of community and political engagement are being replaced with spaces of consumption, populated not by a public but by atomised individuals valued only for their purchasing power. However, this change does not always occur without resistance. In 2010 efforts by Brunswick’s Barkley Square shopping centre to prohibit political stalls generated protests that, like those in favour of photography, sought to reclaim the possibility of public life in a formally privatised space.

More than two decades after Margaret Thatcher proclaimed ‘there is no such thing as society’, we are encouraged to think of ourselves not as members of a public with shared responsibilities, but as competitive individuals, responsible for our own fates. In this era of privatisation, the idea of social responsibility for the ‘forgotten man’, which motivated early social documentary photography, is distinctly out of fashion. Deprived of a shared sense of public life, we retreat to the privacy of our own intimate spaces, and are suspicious of those who would attempt to intrude on them, even as we become increasingly preoccupied with the lives of others.

When asked how she explains this changed climate for photographers, Melbourne-based photographer Ponch Hawkes succinctly describes another contributing factor: ‘Crime figures are down but the news cycle is up’. Over her impressive career, Hawkes has produced many celebrated photographs about communities, families and friendship. However, she is troubled that the distorted perception of risk in contemporary society is creating an atmosphere of paranoia and alienation. The speed of global media has made us acutely conscious of horrific crimes that occur well beyond our immediate environments. When we transform ourselves psychologically into potential victims of crime, terror or sexual perversion, a stranger with a camera can quickly become an imagined threat against which we must be protected. Rather than being eager to be a part of the photographic record, we are encouraged to feel like victims of an anonymous abuse or harm, while we acquiesce to increased surveillance in which our own watching is policed by the gaze of security guards and fellow citizens.

‘Nothing is more hopeless than a scared society’, laments the Australian documentary photographer John Williams, who is concerned about the legacy that this widespread sense of fear is leaving for future generations. In the more sympathetic commentaries on photography restrictions, this legacy is often described with reference to iconic historical photographs that would simply not have been made in today’s climate. Max Dupain’s celebrated Bondi and Newport series from the 1930s and 1950s, and Nick Ut’s powerful photograph of a young naked girl fleeing a napalm attack, which galvanised support for anti-Vietnam War movements around the world in 1972, are cited in an effort to throw into relief the historical value of photographs. More recently, Ingeborg Tyssen’s photographs from the Ryde Aquatic Centre (1981) underscore how quickly the situation has changed. It is difficult to imagine that such photographs of relaxed, exuberant children enjoying the local pool could be produced and circulated in the early 21st century. Williams, who was married to Tyssen before her untimely death in 2002, was troubled that photography restrictions would mean leaving future generations without a photographic record of life as lived and experienced in the early 21st century. In its place we risk being left with a plethora of highly polished and staged portraits.

As important as it is to address the potential loss of a historical record for the future, it is vital to acknowledge how the politics of visibility are also impacting on contemporary experience, here and now. This environment, the photographers’ responses to our survey suggests, is creating a troubling climate of self-censorship; 69.8 per cent of respondents noted that the fear of being confronted or threatened has prevented them, on occasions, from taking photographs in public spaces, and 75.4 per cent reported that the fear of being confronted or threatened has changed the way that they take photographs in public spaces. Moreover, as street photography is circulating in ever more limited fields, we rarely have the opportunity to see images of each other in public space and witness how they dramatise and poeticise larger social phenomena. Although we often enjoy exhibitions of early and mid-20th century social documentary and street photography, such as ‘Candid Camera: Australian Photography 1950s–1970s’, presented recently at the Art Gallery of South Australia, contemporary street photography is rarely shown in galleries. Online forums such as the Flickr site ‘Hardcore Street Photography’ attempt to fill the void, and its 38,000 members worldwide suggest that an interest in the genre persists.

Paradoxically, anxieties about photography in public space have reached their height in a period when people are more willing than ever before to post photographs of themselves on the Internet and to document intimate moments of their lives. As the mainstream media panics about the circulation of photographs of children taken without their consent, teenagers circulate sexually explicit or naked images of themselves on their mobile phones in a phenomenon that has generated the neologism ‘sexting’. Amid a climate in which photographers in public space find themselves subject to suspicion, the lives of others are made available for our voyeuristic gaze.

This convergence of anxieties about the unknown photographer and the compulsion to document and publicise every aspect of our lives becomes explicable when seen in the light of the rise of celebrity culture. In the internet age, Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame seems to have gone viral, with the possibility of instantaneous celebrity open to all. Nonetheless, like images of celebrities, the online circulation of photographs is governed by a mixture of rampant publicity and anxieties about control. As celebrities thrive on the mass consumption of their images, there is also a push to have such images recognised as property and to assert control over unauthorised images as a form of property rights. When we come to conceive our own image as a commodity or brand, even when it is not circulating as one, we similarly seek to control the terms of its circulation, and maximise the individual gain we will receive.

These concerns about privacy and the sanctity of the brand came together recently when the model Lara Bingle announced that she planned to sue Brendan Fevola for releasing an image of her in the shower that he took without her consent. Bingle’s agent told the press that one of the grounds for the legal action would be ‘misuse of her image’. Nicholas Pullen, a partner at TressCox lawyers, commented that Bingle would struggle to sue successfully and pointed out that ‘misuse is a term for merchandising, commercialising one’s image. This is clearly not the case’. When one’s entire image is a brand, however, the line becomes harder to draw, and the desire for control more pronounced.

The attempt to control and market one’s own image both reflects and reinforces our withdrawal from the public realm as a shared social space. Today, the fear of lawsuits means that photographs taken in public spaces are more likely to be of anonymous people, shot from behind, than of faces. As the Howard government knew when it banned military personnel from photographing asylum seekers during the infamous children overboard affair in October 2001 out of fear of ‘personalising or humanising’  them, obscuring the faces of those with whom we share public space may protect privacy, but it also denies the opportunity for mutual recognition and identification. The experience of looking into the eyes of people in historical photographs and seeing ourselves is a poignant reminder of how photographs foster a sense of recognition with others. This power to establish a sense of connection across time and space is one of the most potent qualities of photography and has been celebrated at length by photography historians and critics like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes.

As the effects of restrictions on photography in public space extend well beyond the limits of the photograph’s frame, the fate of public photography cannot be assessed in isolation from a broader consideration of the changing nature of the public sphere and our sense of ourselves as members of a public. Despite the erosion of a political and social context in which photographs could attest to a shared public life, photography still threatens to exceed the limitations of contemporary political life, revealing what Walter Benjamin termed the ‘spark of contingency’. In its power to provide a point of contact between the past and the present, photography is uniquely equipped to help facilitate a renegotiation of the private and facilitate new modes of shared public life, if only we would let it.

Categorised: Arts and Culture

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