Is photography a human right?

Today we photograph more than ever before – and thanks to the negligible cost, we film situations that would never have been captured before. But police and other authority figures do not want to be recorded, and all over the world a battle is playing out between officials pushing current laws to extremes to prevent such recordings, and citizens who fight back with equal vigour to protect their freedom to photograph.

Should photography be criminalized and recording devices banished from any situation where that recording might be used for ill? Or should we assert our right to capture anything we experience as a fundamental right?

16 years in prison for recording a policeman?

In Maryland, USA, the State Police are currently prosecuting motorcyclist Anthony Graber, not for speeding – a charge which he readily admits – but for video recording the officer who arrested him, as shown above. He’s being charged under wiretap laws, the claim being that he illegally recorded a private conversation without consent. If found guilty, he could face 16 years in prison. The attorney defending Mr. Graber points out that “To charge Graber with violating the law, you would have to conclude that a police officer on a public road, pulling someone over, has a right to privacy when it comes to the conversation he has with the motorist. There’s more on the story here, here and here. Many are claiming this is an example of police intimidation.

Is photographing police a crime?

Miami PoliceThere have been many incidents over the last five years of citizens around the world being challenged for recording police. Here’s just a few examples:

In all of these cases, there is ambiguity over precisely which law, if any was broken. The incidents appear to be more fuelled by individual police officers’ sentiments about being photographed.

Andy Handley, the journalist in the last example, observed when interviewed at the time, “This is a worrying development in the relationship between [the police] and the media.. It is the right of the media to operate unhindered that helps keep the liberty of all in this country.”

With this, he has hit the nail on the head. In both the USA and the UK, police are effectively an extension of the democratically-elected government – ultimately answerable to the people – and while they have authority to enforce the rule of law, they are subject to those same laws themselves.

To prosecute citizens that photograph them would break this equality, and could enable governments or law enforcement agencies to abuse their power. If citizens cannot scrutinize police and hold them to account, what is to prevent them breaking the very laws they are there to uphold? As one commenter on the Graber case said, “The [US] first amendment was specifically intended to allow for dissemination of information regarding improper use of authority”. Or as Plato first asked in The Republic, “Who watches the watchers?”.

A delicate balance

While individuals feel their liberties are being curtailed, clearly police feel threatened by photographers, sometimes even just by their presence. And it’s true that terrorists could gather information for planning attacks by taking photographs of police operations or public gatherings. It’s also true that there are many innocent, legal reasons to photograph those same scenes. It is impossible to criminalize the intent, only the behaviour.

The police are in a difficult situation. When the Olympic flame visited Montréal earlier this year, I personally witnessed riot police being harassed by protestors, who threw snowballs to provoke them, while other protestors stood, “armed” with video cameras ready to capture any police wrong-doing. It was the first time I’ve seen a camera used as a weapon.

What do you think the law should be? Were these police right to intervene, or were the citizens right to stand up for their right to photograph?

Join in with this important debate and add your comments below – or on Twitter with the hashtag #human20.

We’ll be exploring this topic more in future posts, looking at the sensitive issue of photographing children as well as recent grassroots efforts to protect photographers’ rights, so send us your thoughts and we may include them in those posts.

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