On a recent Friday afternoon I finished uni at 12:30 and went for a walk into Wolverhampton City centre to find a bank. I needed to deposit some cheques and cash so headed off to find a Santander I had my camera with me as I walked along snapping a few shots of street style photography.
After finishing in the bank I wandered around the city taking a look around, a few pics of the Wulfrun centre and then a walk into the outdoor market looking for some interesting photo opportunities. There really weren’t many but I spotted a woman sitting in a tailoring stall and she looked so concentrated on what she was doing. I took a picture and then she looked at me and said “No” so I asked if she was ok and she said that she wanted me to take it again after she’d had a chance to prepare for the photo. She gave me wonderful smile and we exchanged pleasantries before going off to see if there were any more pics to be captured.
People buying and selling market goods is usually a good set of circumstances so I was milling around waiting for something interesting to happen, when it did. A security guard who worked in the market providing some reassurance for the public and the traders had decided that she wanted me to stop taking photos. She told me that I wasn’t allowed to take photographs in the market as people don’t like having their pictures taken. As polite as I possibly could have been I asked her for the reasons as to why I wasn’t allowed to take photos. She told me that I just wasn’t allowed. When I asked whether it was Public or Private land she told me it was private. As soon as she said that I said thanks and then walked out of the market.
It’s perfectly legal to take photographs in a public place (barring a few MoD exceptions) but this is not the same as when on private land so I respected her request to stop and left. As I stepped out of the market area I thought about it and decided that it was likely to be public land and the security were incorrect with their information. I reflected on it again and figured that I might get an answer from the Wolverhampton Council on the phone. Googling Wolverhampton Council I got a number and phoned through to speak to someone after none of the menu options were relevant, I asked her my query and she put me through to the Markets team.
The Markets team were really helpful and told me that it was public land, council owned land but in order to take photographs in there I would need permission from the Licensing team. I felt this was probably wrong but followed the information. I did speak to someone in Licensing and then they told me that I needed to speak to someone in General licensing who eventually, after discussing it with their leaders said that I didn’t need permission at all. She did say that if I was going into private buildings then I would need permission, but I already knew that,
The market wasn’t a rich vein of photos but I wanted to correct the security team so I went back in to take a couple of photos. I found the woman who’d told me to stop and she was talking to two other women, so I stood patiently for about 10 mins whilst they were chatting. Once they’d stopped talking she saw me and I said, politely, that I’d spoken to the council and that I could take photos as can anyone. She had been asked over her earpiece by the markets team about the situation whilst I was still on the phone to the council licensing office so she knew that something was happening.
She said that she was just passing on information that her leaders had given her in her earpiece, a bit like Agent Smith in the Matrix. I walked away after thanking her to take a few more photos, as I’d taken a picture of a stall selling fresh fish she came bowling over to me again and told me that I needed permission to take people’s pictures. She said that I must ask permission before taking photographs. With good manners and a decreasing amount of respect, I told her that I didn’t need to ask permission as it is a public place. She again referred me to her headset, “the person on the earpiece has just told me that you have to ask permission”, I told her at that point that the person talking in her ear did not understand the law and then I carried on walking away from her.
I’d been as polite as I could be but I wasn’t going to spend any more time talking to her. I left the market soon after this and went for a wander around the main street and then over to the civic offices. I heard some organ music from the cathedral and there was a lunch time music session on so I stood in there for ten minutes listening to the very talented organist.
Once the concert had finished I took a few photos in the altar end of the church before heading back to my car and the journey home.
You’ve got to fight for the right
Some of my friends have asked why I bother arguing, or why don’t I just listen to what I’m told by security guards. This isn’t the first time that people have incorrectly told me to stop taking photographs and I’ve always had a discussion with them about my rights and their rights. Without fail I am always super polite as I find that being like this prevents escalation and those people who won’t listen get even more frustrated that I’m not losing my shit with them.
Why, then, do I bother? The main reason is that people restricting your rights is a slippery slope, it’s been seen before in the past and when people decide not to question something that is incorrect it can lead to all sorts of poor outcomes. People who are given some authority can find themselves crazed with the power and can force people to do or not do something as they don’t want it to happen, whether it’s legal or not.
I wouldn’t have thought about it in the past but the first time I had an issue with the Police taking offence at my photography has taught me to better understand the rights of photographers. Someone I know in the school of art has, in the distant past,been falsely arrested for taking photos in front of a Nat West Bank and was awarded compensation by a court who investigated the injustice.
Today people’s rights have been tested again, as I write this on the day of the Coronation of King Charles III. Some protesters from the Republic group were arrested and prevented from peaceful protest at the coronation. Whether you are a royalist or anti-monarchy this change in the law that was enacted a few days ago is concerning. I know that royalists don’t want people shouting “Not My King!” while they’re trying to enjoy the ceremony’s pomp and circumstance. But there might be a time when the same people are trying to protest against some discrimination or strike action and be affected by the same laws.
Without people asking questions about individuals rights it might be that the situation worsens and any criticism of the state or monarchy becomes an offence worthy of jail time. We see this in Russia, China, North Korea and other countries with very restrictive policies on disagreements. My steps discussing this with a market security guard won’t make a huge difference to the country but it now means the security team are fully aware of the rights of people to take photographs in the area and should no longer be informing people wrongly. Imagine if the people who videoed the brutal beating of Rodney King, or even the killing of George Floyd had been stopped from making a record of the event. The malpractice seen on video means that people can potentially be held to account for their mistakes. Quite right too.
The argument wasn’t for my benefit really, I didn’t see many photos in there, it was for the benefit of all other photographers who might want to go into a public space to take photos. Not only that but the act of questioning the security team might prompt them to consider the question more seriously before giving an inaccurate answer next time.
The week after I was coming to University on the Tuesday so got to the usual car park at around 1:30pm only to find it rammed with not a single space left. I drove up towards the MK Building in the vain hope that there’d be a space along there, but the traffic was blocked from going up there, because Wolves were due to play Crystal Palace at 7:30pm. As I was trying to turn around some security guards came over and I was going to ask them for a recommendation on the next best parking spot. When the security guard appeared at me open window, it was none other than the same security guard mentioned in the above story. I said “Hello again” and she didn’t appear to recognise me. I went an parked in Faukland Street and I wondered afterwards whether she got home later on and then twigged who it was that she had spoken to.. Made me smile..