A Permit To Take Pictures In The Jewellery Quarter? Really?
Just when you thought it was once again safe to venture onto the city streets with your camera, here’s yet another cautionary tale about over-officious and misguided authoritarian numptiness…
A few weeks ago I was in Birmingham’s leafy St. Paul’s Square on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter with about a dozen of my students on a one day “Introduction to Digital Photography” course. This is a regular feature of a regular course and we are rarely there longer than twenty minutes or so. On this occasion one of the group was standing in the square photographing up the street, experimenting with aperture settings for different depth-of-field. He was soon approached by a WPC who asked him what he was doing. At this point I went over and asked if there was a problem. The ensuing conversation went something like this…
WPC: Have you had permission to take photographs here?
Me: Erm, no. I didn’t think we needed permission to take photographs here.
WPC: Well you do.
WPC: Ah, you don’t know who owns these buildings. I know because it’s my job to know. I know because I’ve been a police officer here for 14 years. For all you know, some of these buildings might belong to Americans.
Me: And is that a problem?
WPC: Ooh yes, what with everything that’s going on at the moment, with the Olympics and that.
Me: Isn’t that next year? And in London?
WPC: We’re always getting complaints from shopkeepers in the Jewellery Quarter about people taking photographs of their shops.
Me: But there are no shops here..?
WPC: That man was taking pictures of those buildings there. I saw him.
The man in my group: That building? Why can’t I take pictures of that building?
WPC: You don’t know who owns these buildings. I know because it’s my job to know. I know because I’ve been a police officer here for 14 years..
The man in my group: (reaches into his pocket and pulls out a key) Would you like to come in and have a look around?
Turns out this man was a key-holder for the building (which I daren’t specify for fear of breaching anti-terrorist legislation). That seemed to shut her up, briefly. But I gave up. No arguing with someone who’s been a police officer in the area for 14 years – even if she has a somewhat (alarmingly) patchy grasp of the laws of the land. We headed back to the studio (we’d pretty much finished there anyway).
What is it with Birmingham officialdom? You might remember a similar run-in my group had with a “Park Ranger” at Cannon Hill Park in the summer. This is getting to be a very tedious and slightly worrying trend. I don’t understand – do West Midlands Police think that Al Qaida are sending out groups of trainee photographers to photograph Birmingham office buildings in preparation for an Olympics-based attack a year hence? Do they think Al Qaida haven’t heard of Google Street View?
There is no signage anywhere in this area (I’ve looked) prohibiting the use of cameras – although there are plenty of police cameras in operation 24/7. Presumably, by extension, we are not allowed to photograph any building in the UK: City landmarks? West Country cottages? beach huts? stately homes? my next door neighbour’s house? After all, these might also belong to Americans… or jewellers.
In a nice little post-script to this story, I had a magistrate on one of these courses this week and I told her about the incident. She said “What? She didn’t know what she was talking about!” And of course she didn’t.
In retrospect, I should have brandished my “Bust card“, downloaded from the “I’m A Photographer Not A Terrorist” website. If you’re thinking of heading into Birmingham with your camera, you’d better get yours!