Every photograher's worst nightmare

It’s every street photographer’s worst nightmare. Despite what the law says and what common sense ought to lead an observer to conclude, taking a photograph in a public place that either directly or indirectly includes a child in the frame, often raises fear and suspicion in the surrounding public.  Most of the time, an entirely apologetic, friendly and sincere disclosure is enough to diffuse any grievance someone may have. The nightmare scenario is one where you as the photographer are confronted by an angry mob that refuses to be placated by this; the nightmare then becomes really quite frightening as the mob vocally and aggressively accuses you of the very worst transgression humans are capable of.

This is precisely what happened to me last night and it really did turn very ugly and very frightening.

There is a travelling fun fair in town at the moment. I had to drop my eldest son off at a scout camp sleepover and my wife had said I could have an hour with my camera afterwards and before putting our youngest to bed.

Fairs are great places for street and candid photography. They are a rich part of our cultural heritage and they show the best of people. They show people absorbed in the moment; they are about the carnival, the burlesque, the fun and frightening. And yes there are often a lot of children around so if you’re going to take photographs, it’s best to be respectful and sensitive.

This is the image that got me into trouble. It's not even that good!

This is the image that got me into trouble. It's not even that good!

I was taking some pictures of a large pink inflatable ball hanging from the awning of a stall with a young boy, dressed in very bright red football strip, standing a few meters behind it (and therefore mostly obscured by it) and playing with similar sized blue ball that was on an elasticated string. I was trying to compose a frame that overlapped the two balls and some of the red clothing to create an interesting image.

The next thing I know, four women were challenging me and accusing me of taking pictures of their kids.

Now, believe it or not, there is no law against doing that. Anyone of any age in a public place has no right to privacy and no power to stop anyone taking a photograph of him or her. Keep in mind that in every town and city, there are hundreds or even thousands of surveillance cameras constantly monitoring your behaviour.

In addition, I personally think that recording our social and cultural heritage is an important thing, including photographing children, but I understand not everyone agrees so I always take a deferential approach in response to being challenged. I have been challenged before, not about photographing a child as I don’t tend to take photographs specifically of children (precisely because it can cause such angst), and this approach has always worked to diffuse the situation. In most cases it has even resulted in a formally agreed portrait and an encounter with another human being that left both parties edified, our faith in humanity restored.

My immediate reaction in this instance was to apologise, to explain I wasn’t specifically trying to photograph their child, I was sorry if it had happened and that I would make sure that I didn’t take any picture in which their child would be in the frame. But that was not enough for them. They wanted me to delete all my pictures (and their tone was even at this point particularly nasty and vindictive) and prove I’d done so. When I refused it pretty quickly turned very (and I really do mean very) nasty indeed.

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. Copyright © 1970 The Estate of Diane Arbus

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. Copyright © 1970 The Estate of Diane Arbus

At this point I tried to diffuse the situation by walking away but this only seemed to make things worse as they started to follow me and become increasingly aggressive and accusative. Within a few minutes I had a gang of about six women, including one from the carnival itself (I suspect the others were just visiting), all pressed full up against me screaming that I was a pedo, a pervert, that I was going to take the pictures home and have a w**k over them. They threatened to call the police and I invited them to since I know I’ve done nothing wrong (on reflection I should have just called the police myself). The situation was finally diffused when I backed down and walked away on their demand. Obviously I’m not going to pick a fight with anyone, let alone a group of vicious, baying women backed up by the young men from the travelling community that were by that time taking an interest in what was going on. I have nothing against these people but I’m also well informed enough to know that their willingness to engage in a fight is equal to their capability in one.

It was incredibly upsetting. I am entirely sensitive to their concerns and fears but I am also not about to start kowtowing to vicious and unreasonable demands especially when their motivation is pure hate and vile bigotry. I felt pretty shaken up. To have such horrible things thrown at you in such a brutal and public way, to be presumed to be something so utterly repugnant and so counter to who you really are; it’s truly horrible.

Over the last 12 hours I’ve thought a lot about whether what I did was wrong. I guess in one way I was photographing their children; they were in the frame after all and they were a dynamic part of it. But the intent of the photograph was entirely harmless, honourable even. My photographs probably aren’t important in the same way that other well known documentary photographer’s work are but my intent is still honourable and motivated by truth, beauty and love. 

There are also thousands of pictures of children everywhere and even without the photographs the eye sees and the mind remembers. We create photographic memories of everything around us simply by looking; if someone did have a subversive intent it would be far easier to simply look and remember so what possible additional evil intent could there be by taking a photograph of a child, either deliberately or by accident?

Copyright © Sally Mann. All Rights Reserved. Sally Mann's work is heartbreakingly beautiful and wihle the images she made were all of her own children, she has received a lot of very vocal criticism because of the nudity they show. Some have even suggested that it is pornographic and tantamount to abuse.

Copyright © Sally Mann. All Rights Reserved. Sally Mann's work is heartbreakingly beautiful and wihle the images she made were all of her own children, she has received a lot of very vocal criticism because of the nudity they show. Some have even suggested that it is pornographic and tantamount to abuse.

If we are going to say as a society that you really aren’t allowed to take a photograph in which a child appears then where do you draw the line as to where you can and can’t take photographs in a public place and how are we going to police that? You would be criminalising an image simply because there was a child in it that had been taken without explicit consent. This is the point at which we lose a record of an entire generation and in the process, we lose an important component of our humanity, culture and society. But all of this is reasoned debate in response to a reasonable challenge and that was not what this encounter was about; that was something far more disturbing and upsetting.

I posted this account on a few forums I am a member of (not photography related) and while the majority of people were entirely defensive of my position, some did, perhaps not unreasonably, suggest that I really shouldn’t have been surprised by any of this and that perhaps I was foolish to have thought it reasonable to be a middle aged man, on his own, taking photographs at a fun fair.

On the one hand they have a point, but on the other the point is predicated on, and indicative of, precisely the kind of bigoted and prejudicial belief systems that lead some people to conclude 'she's dressed like a whore so therefore she's up for it' or 'he’s black, wearing a baseball cap and walking in a funny way, he must be a drug dealer'.

To illustrate the point, if you’re reading this and thinking that they do have a point, that a man taking pictures at a fair is very wrong, ask yourself if you would reach the same conclusion if I was female.  And if I had been female, do you really think the baying mob I was confronted by would have reacted the same way?

Arthur Fellig, popularly known as ‘Weegee’ was a photographer who specialized in ‘photographing pages from life’ in his own words. His photographs were never posed, and he made it a point to do masterfully capture true moments of life.

Arthur Fellig, popularly known as ‘Weegee’ was a photographer who specialized in ‘photographing pages from life’ in his own words. His photographs were never posed, and he made it a point to do masterfully capture true moments of life.

I'm entirely sensitive to their response, which is precisely why my immediate reaction was to try and diffuse the situation with an apology and a reassurance that I wouldn't take any pictures where their children might end up being in the frame. But I draw the line at being instructed (really rather aggressively) to delete my pictures by anyone. No one has the legal authority to do that.

To be honest, if they had been polite about it, heck I'd even settle for purely civil, I would have done that. But this wasn't about anything other than hate, bile and vindictiveness. Where is society when you start pandering to the vicious baying mob? My pictures might not be that significant, but the values and beliefs that they are made with are and they are values worth defending.