On March 12, 2016, four British nationals were arrested in Kenya for taking pictures of airplanes from a bar at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport. This report bothered me a lot when it first came across my news feed. It bothered me because as a photographer I have been subjected to rude rent-a-cops at public places because I’m taking pictures of public areas. It also bothers me a lot because the arrest of the four is an example of the over-reaching law enforcement reactions by many governments due to terrorism. Since reading about the arrest of the four I have been thinking about the erosion of civility, common sense and personal freedoms because of terrorism. That this comes at the heels of the recent events at Brussels makes writing this piece more difficult but it needs to be discussed.
The four, Paul Abbott, Steve Gibson, Ian Glover and Eddie Swift each paid a fine of a little under $2,000USD and pleaded guilty to trespassing charges. News reports state that they had been threatened with jail of up to a year if they did not plead guilty.
Plane spotting is a hobby where individuals photograph and track airplanes. There are online sources where the serial numbers, the registration (N-number) of the aircraft, photographs and locations of the aircraft are shared by individuals across the globe. Plane spotting has existed almost from the time the first aircraft took to the skies.
I plane spot as a hobby. As a matter of fact, I recently took a picture of Air Force One at the Dallas Love Field. Some of you also know that I take photographs for use as stock photography by others. Each country has different laws about photographing public spaces but generally most North American countries adhere to the principal that anything can be photographed that is a public space or in a public area. Individuals fall under different categories based on local privacy laws. Generally, though, if it is in public and the photographer is not trespassing then the photograph is allowable.
However, in light of terrorism, many communities have started to overreact to photography in public places. Many of you have read about the many controversies involving police misconduct that has been exposed by public videography and photography. Some policing agencies have tried to outlaw the photography of police officers. Then there are the rent-a-cops that routinely try to create laws that do not exist because some misguided official believes that photographing a bridge, a mass transit location or a building is somehow terrorist related.
Terrorists generally like to remain low-key so photographing a target with a mobile phone is more likely than taking detailed pictures with a 300mm lens. But in the haste to react to terrorism, taking out a 300mm lens to photograph a public place is now resulting in questioning by law enforcement or even arrest.
A few years ago, a rent-a-cop literally hollered at me from across a terminal and ran towards me demanding what I was doing. I was taking some cool architectural detail pictures of the cool terminal building while waiting for a bus. Some of the onlookers were puzzled even asking me if he was really complaining about me taking pictures of the terminal. The rent-a-cop demanded that I stop taking pictures. I complied because I didn’t really want to argue with a rent-a-cop who thought he was about to foil the terrorism of the century.
Interestingly, one of my most lucrative stock photographs comes from the photographs I took prior to being rudely interrupted. The problem remains, at what point do we stop taking photographs all together because of misguided terrorism fears?
The solution is simple and the laws in the United States supports it.
Taking photographs from public places of objects visible from the public places should not be criminalized. Airports and mass-transit buildings are a bit tricky because technically they are private places governed by bodies that may be public or private depending on the location. Trespassing can technically be applied even though the photographer may be waiting for a flight to another airport.
However, common sense should govern whether taking pictures of airplanes landing or taking off constitutes a terrorist threat.
With today’s technology, a terrorist isn’t likely to be taking out an SLR camera kit complete with a telephoto lens. Instead, the would be terrorist would be serendipitously taking photographs from smartphones, tablets or even mini cameras hidden on them.
Terrorism is a serious problem with the goal of disrupting the way of life of the people that are targeted. Over reacting to public photography gives into the fear and allows the terrorists a measure of victory. Governments need to stop and take a deep breath before invoking laws that threaten public photography because by creating laws or misapplying them only leads to terrorists believing they are victorious.
There are too many cools things out there that need to be photographed. Let’s keep taking pictures so that the terrorists know that they aren’t winning the hearts and minds of their targets.