posted December 7 2005

Found: A wall of speakers waiting to be bumped into the Palais Theatre for a pop concert.

“Who are you and what are you doing”, demanded the man with an official number pinned to his white shirt that was straining to cover his over-blown chest.

“I’m a local artist and I’m taking photos of the speakers”, answered J politely.

“Well, you’re not allowed to”, he replied curtly.

“Why not” said J.

“Management has said you can’t take photos”, he came back with all the confidence of somebody who inhabits an enormous body.

“I’m terribly sorry”, said J who was starting to get a little heated, “there is no law that says I can’t take a photo in a public place”.

“Well you can’t”, came the reply, “do you want me to call management?”

“Yes”, said J “and you can call the police too and they will tell there is no law that stops me from taking a photo in a public space”.

By this stage a few roadies who were standing around started buying into the argument, J might be small but she wasn’t backing down. So one bright spark chimes in, “you have to be 10 metres away from the truck because a bomb is going to go off.”

Realising how stupid this sounded he came up with an amended version and said, “you’re not allowed within 10 metres of the truck when we are unloading.”

J just shook her head in wonder, took a few more photos and walked off.

7 comments for “Privatising the public domain”



Hey J,

Just read your speaker session post, and it struck a chord. Thought I’d share my recent experience, all the way up here in Nova Scotia, Canada….

I had a photo shoot in the morning, and right after, I had to run downtown, pick up my wife and take her to a dentist appointment. When we got to the dentist, I knew my wife was going to be a while, so I just parked in the dentist’s parking lot and rather than go in and get caught in boring conversation with the receptionist, I figured I’d wait in the car.

I sat around for a few minutes, kinda bored, then remembered I had my camera gear in the back. I just received the new Canon 70-300 IS two days before (mail order) and hadn’t had a chance to use it yet, so I put it on the camera and fiddled around. It was grey, and the area was very bland, so I absent mindedly fired off a couple shots of a red ‘SALE’ sign that was hung on the bright-green roof siding of the grocery store across the road, trying out the zoom ring. Next, Itried the panning mode of the IS on a couple cars driving by.

As I’m doing this, a woman walks by. I know enough to know that folks don’t like to be photographed, so I lowered the lens and smiled as she walked by. After she was passed, I lined up another panning shot of whatever the next car coming by would be, when all of a sudden someone is banging on my car’s roof.

“I have to ask, what are you doing!” says the woman who’d walked by moments before.

Well, normally I’d be polite, but this woman was being very aggressive in tone, had just slapped my car’s paint (it’s only 5 months old!) with her ring-hand, and was sticking her head into my vehicle.

I intended to reply “No, you don’t *have* to ask, but if you must know, I’m waiting for my wife to come out of the dentist’s office”. I only got out “No, you don’t *have* to ask….” when she interupts me, and says very assertively, “Tell me you’re working, or you’re doing something illegal”…

“No, I’m not working, I just got a new lens and I’m bored,” I start to say, but as I say “No, I’m not working” she turns on her heel, and storms off. As she does, she mutters “I’ll take care of you.” At the same time, I see that on the back of her jacket it says “St. John’s Ambulance”. She didn’t ID herself as a St. John’s employee, and I hadn’t recognized the jacket from front on – though I’m not sure what difference it would have made if I had…

She makes a show of making a call on her cell phone. At this point, I’m kind of upset, but also kind of amused. I mean, are people really that paranoid?

Anyway, she disapears into a building and a moment later a burly guy comes out wearing a simlilar jacket. He eyes me menacingly, walks around my car at about 10 feet, and then stands there staring at me for about 10 minutes. Either he got cold or bored or something, but he headed back in the builiding where she’d come from.

10 minutes later, my wife comes out from her appointment, and we head off. I told her what happened, and we both thought it odd, but didn’t think that much more about it.

The next evening, at 11pm, a pair of police officers show up at my house. Seems a complaint was registered against me by a woman who spotted me “with a camera”, and the police (claimed) they were obliged to investigate.

I am a writer/photographer. I’ve only been doing the photography side of things for a few years, (I was an editor previously), but still, I have taken litterally thousands of pictures of events with people in them. As part of the hobby, I’ve photographed people in all sorts of activities – playing in the park, kids jumping in puddles, marching bands, softball games, new automobile releases, sporting events, couples sitting on park benches – all the typical cliche stuff photographers find interestng. And all instances where it was a lot more likely that people might take issue with being photographed – b/c I was actually photographing people.

Here, I was sitting in my car, it was about 3’C (37’F), and there were very few people out on the street. I am near a dentist’s office, a grocery store and a fairly fast-moving main street. I was shooting random cars – and then only managed to shoot about 6 frames – and a roof with a nice green colour. And suddenly I am getting people slapping my car, goons trying to intimidate me and police officers visiting my house at 11pm??

Does this seem a bit odd?

To their credit, the officers walked in, saw about 20 of my shots hanging framed on the wall, and said “Obviously you’re a photographer”. After a couple minutes of discussion, that was that. But I mean – are we all at risk of getting hassled like this now, on occassion, simply b/c we have a camera? Is a guy with a camera in 2005 the equivalent scare-factor of a guy with a gun in 1985?

Anyway, I am not too pleased about this, and thought I’d share my experience.



Yes I can add to this:

Recently I was taking photos of a building near my house, it’s been half-demolished but just left there… While I was taking shots a car pulled up and basically this citizen had me ‘under surveillance’ for a little while. Eventually they gave up and drove off…

The other thing is, I like taking photos on trains. This is of course now not permitted… Unless you’re quick!

Silly item number 3, regarding ‘bomb paranoia’. recently went to the Arts Centre for a Melbourne Arts Festival event. On entering Hamer Hall we were told that the backpack we had would not be permitted, it would have to go into the cloakroom. So silly, because tote bags, handbags, designer satchels, man-bags… no problem. But that backpack could have a bomb in it, so could you please leave it in the cloakroom? Sounds like a dangerous place to work these days!


thanks for your stories …these are the scenarios that prompted me to really stand my ground. And it’s all a part of a new fear that legitimises over-zealous responses and inappropriate use of power all in the name of making our society safer.
Interestingly this story is on dpreview forum where the discussion is primarily about the etiquette of photographing in the public domain.
If the camera is the new gun, the backpack is the new bomb and photographing public buildings is seditious we have already lost what we hoped to gain by protecting out society against terrorism because we are terrorising each other.

Ron F:

I just found my way here from the post on dpreview. This kind of misinformed intimidation sickens me. However, had I been in your situation, as soon as the roadie told me there was a bomb in one of the cases, I would have called 911, told them someone told you there was a bomb, and start giving them a physical description of the roadie.


Why didn’t I think of that!!


I am very familiar with all the scenarios presented above. I am a freelance photographer with one of the Melbourne Metro daily papers and these days I have the luxary of an id card with my photo and the company’s name on it so when I do get hassled (which is not that frequent) I can show an official id. However I have witnessed all sorts of behaviour directed at me as I like to do street style photos when I have the time. I’ve always found it best to be up front with people and tell them what your’e doing. I have been yelled at, had people stand in front of me ‘blocking my view’ (ironically when I was not shooting the person involved). The most over the top reaction was when the security manager of a large office building came storming out with a large bloke for back-up to stop me taking pics of a mate with their building as a back drop (there were some nice mirrored windows which were reflecting the entire street). I suppose they thought I was trying to look through the window which was understandable but when I suggested that I move across the street to photograph their building they still said it was illegal, which is ridiculous. This was in 1997 or so and the building Melbourne Central. So you mean I can’t photograph a massive office building in a big city?! Weird. The only buildings you aren’t allowed to photograph by law are military ones, and there are also different conditions if you are a commercial photographer, ie for The Shrine one needs permission and I think there is a fee involved as well.
However one must be careful when poking a lens at someone’s window as even if you are standing on public land (footpath) it can be seen as invasion of privacy.

Anyway Julie good on you for standing your ground, and you were within your rights to do so. Keep up the good work and I enjoy your site as I used to live in St. Kilda.

And just for a laugh, when Pricess Di died all the photographers I know and myself had a terrible time for several weeks from public abuse. An old lady came up to me and said ‘Murderer!’ Others were refused service in shops and copped abuse too.


and it seems like the issue of public place has escalated even further. Did you see read about the Geelong Photographic Society members were told not to photograph the petrol silos at the Corio Refinery. They weren’t breaking any laws but the local police decided it was a threat to security

Thanks for the details about various regualtions too. The funny thing is I usually ask but in the case of the Palais it didn’t occurr to me……because doesn’t the whole world come to St Kilda to take photos. After the incident I asked a local newspaper photographer but he said it was open slather.

I did wonder about the camera in the window though. Wouldn’t want to be standing up for my own rights while abusing others.

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