On Being Stopped By The Police While Photographing

On Sunday I went to Westfield (Shepherd’s Bush) to continue photography for a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years. I have made many trips to shoot pictures in very crowded spaces and make little attempt to hide myself save only to get a shot that I want In other words I use a minimum of guile and as much ‘front’ as I can muster.

I was shooting in this way on Sunday and, having already had a ‘chat’ with a security guard who didn’t like what I was doing I felt a firm but soft hand on my shoulder. I swung round to see two warrant cards being unfurled like a children’s toy in front of me and two police men in plain clothes proudly holding them.

I was mildly apprehensive because you never know what you may or may not have done and immediately felt guilty without knowing why. The two policemen were brilliantly inoffensive and courteous and explained that they had had ‘several complaints from members of the public’ about me. After establishing that I was who I said I was they let me go and offered me the advice that I should be careful where and at whom I pointed my camera. I even had the chance to discuss the project with them. They pretended to be interested.

I carried on working and got quite a lot done but I couldn’t help wondering if there was any importance to this minor altercation. On the one hand I felt I was doing my job right by pushing up against the authorities and on the other I was shocked at how I accepted the reasonableness of their intervention.

Why shouldn’t I take pictures in a public space? Why should anyone suspect me of nefarious inclinations; sexual or murderous? I had done nothing wrong and was engaged in creating a body of art yet I felt the attention of the security guard and police was understandable. But it isn’t.

Showing right now at the Science Museum is a brilliant exhibition of Tony Ray-Jones’ work. It is beautiful and life affirming and reminds me of how hard I have to work to achieve anything like his depth and ease of vision. But Ray-Jones was working in another era – an era of greater trust. The people he shot (and he was by no means the only photographer to work like this) did not fear the click of the shutter from some strange man in their midst. They might have looked askance and perhaps thought him mad but they did not fear the dark power of the lens.

Today we fear the lens as an intrusion into the sanctity of our lives at the same time as we spew every last dreadful crumb of tedium on to the internet about ourselves – look! I’m doing it myself! We fear the sexual predator, the terrorist, the murderer, the identity thief and at the same time we stare into the private lives of others unknown through our own little screens.

We live in a confusing cycle of contradiction. We fear intrusion (think NSA/Snowden leaks) and are yet apathetic in the prosecution of those responsible. At the same time we fear the predator in our midst and rail against it with all the righteous rage of the persecuted even though we can’t see it and most of us have never experienced malfeasant intrusion or attack.

I suggest that we are now afraid of ourselves; we’re afraid of our own shadows because time and time again the government and their wretched handmaiden, the popular press, have told us the we are under concerted, intelligent and ruthless attack from persons unknown who are indistinguishable from ourselves. With apologies to FDR – we (now) have nothing to fear but ourselves. It is often said that primitive peoples fear that the camera steals a part of your soul. I believe that through countless ‘thought attacks’ we have now taken this fear on ourselves and made it our own and fit for our times.

Perhaps we’d be better off thinking a bit more on our own behalf. Who is really the enemy or the entity to be feared? Is it us? Of course not.

I’m still coming to terms with my reaction to the hostility I so often encounter when photographing in public places but I think, since last Sunday I’m going to keep going as I always have and let everyone else figure it out for themselves.

Alex Schneideman