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fear & paranoia

March 9, 2008

waiting in the rain_by christos stavrou_498px.jpg

Soon after I took this photo above, standing by the entrance of Leeds University, and as I was waiting for a sudden wave of rain to pass – among shiny bikes and a man whose posture and reflection had intrigued me… well, very soon after that a security guard came out from his box running quickly towards me.

He bombarded me with questions, who I am and what am I taking pictures of… My mind was still wandering in search of aesthetic pleasures; how to find the best angle, selecting shutter speed and aperture. I was not prepared and got surprised from his sudden attack. I simply said, I take a photo of bikes and a back-lit silhouette… (Should an aspiring conceptual photographer ever admit these casual things, I thought…)

But the security guard was not friendly. He insisted making questions. I noticed his threatening body language and persistent eye-contact in order to intimidate. Later he revealed that he used to work for some kind of special forces. His glorious and authoritative past, who knows why he was dismissed, was obviously filling him up with pride and nostalgia.

The treatment was unacceptable. After all I had been running the University’s Photosociety for two years in the recent past and we always used to practice making rounds in the campus. Not to mention the hundreds of graduates taking pictures of each other around those areas very regularly. Maybe it was about the beard in my face and my foreign accent didn’t help either… (Should I start shaving every time before using my camera outdoors, I thought…).

But he even used all sorts of lies and excuses trying to intimidate me, about how a special licence is required from the media services (something they denied later when I asked them), about his official orders to follow this procedure with everyone, even threats about calling the police were thrown to me… I replied that yes, he’s welcomed to call the police and look very silly when try to explain the reason of calling them. But the whole incident was not simply redicilous and patronising, it was also offending and very upsetting.

This happened two summers ago. I’m afraid though things don’t get better rather worst. The Metropolitan Police (click at the poster below) has just launched its five-week counter-terrorism campaign asking members of the public to report any suspicious behaviour. Yes, you guessed well. Taking photographs is a suspicious behaviour.


It seems that now you can – or have to – call the authorities every time you feel reporting a suspicious photographer. What exactly is suspicious, what is an ‘odd’ photograph? Well, not easy to answer… Sometimes an act appears odd just because someone looks odd and different, or because of our own preconceptions. And anyway, everyone has their own ideas about it, it cannot really be defined… But, in fact, this is probably the point: To spy and report each other! The poster states it clearly: Report it and “Let experienced officers decide what action to take.”

I know. Many readers have already began wondering in despair: Isn’t this campaign an open invitation to arbitrary and/or selective abuse? Isn’t this another badly disguised excuse for further erosion of our freedoms? Actually, isn’t this quite naive in its assumed counter-terrorist potential, when considering its adverse social effect by increasing fear and paranoia, and posing a high risk of weakening the social bonds, is therefore rather undermining than strengthening the sense of security?

Fear and paranoia.

Remember these words. These were the underlying forces of the security guard’s over-reaction against me, and that was what in turn he wanted to install upon me. Now, with even a seemingly official support in place, the absurdity is reinforced… Photographers of this country be aware and prepared. And resist the identification of terror.

The scary, and final, thought is that these practices remind how the Gestapo used to operate in Nazi Germany. Unlike the general belief, the Gestapo was not a huge and omnipotent organisation. As historian Robert Gellatel (see wikipedia) has shown, it was mainly made up by clerical workers and bureaucrats, who “were for the most part dependent upon denunciations for information about what was happening in German society. The willingness of ordinary Germans to denounce one another supplied the Gestapo with the information that determined who the Gestapo arrested.”

* * *


On Tuesday 11 March 2007, 6pm, there is a relevant and interesting public talk taking place in the Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies, University of London, Senate House, Malet Street, London, WC1E 7HU.

The title is: “How Safe Do You Feel: Surveillance, Photographers, and the Privatisation of Public Space Post 9/11

It is presented by freelance documentary photographer, writer and researcher, Dr. John Perivolaris (click at his photo above to visit work from his recent documentary project). The seminar is open to everyone and here is the abstract of the seminar as published in the website of the hosting University:

“On the streets of cities in the United States and Europe we are witnessing a dramatic proliferation of surveillance cameras trained on citizens’ every move through increasingly privatised public spaces. For example, the average Londoner is daily caught on camera 300 times. But, while the citizen is constantly watched, they are increasingly restricted from photographing those same spaces. What is the place of independent photography and image-making of public space post-9/11? How are photographers to resist the plethora of restrictions to which they are now subject in the name of security? Is the right to watch swiftly becoming a monopoly of the state? Is democratic citizenship also now a struggle for the right to see as well as to be seen?”

* * *

At the same time that these important questions are posed here, in another country Greece, left over surveillance equipment from the Olympic Games, costing over $250 million, has divided the country over its use to spy citizens. As reported by the BBC (see below), the emerging debate is around not only the question whether Greece will be following Britain’s example of spying its citizens, but whether it can resist the powerful march of the cameras. The costly surveillance equipment has taken its own reified form of existance. Note that Olympics are coming to Britain in few years time.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2008 10:46 pm

    Unfortunately, other photographers have shared your experiences. Perhaps we are merely the canaries in the mine, choking on the poisonous gas of fear that is seeping into our public spaces, post 9/11.
    I hope we can continue the discussion at my talk, which, by the way is at 6PM on Tuesday 11 March, NOT tomorrow, Monday 10th. I repeat: 6PM, Tuesday 11 March.
    By the way your blog is currently one of the most thought provoking I read.
    All best,
    John (Perivolaris)

  2. thinkinpictures permalink*
    March 10, 2008 2:07 am

    Hello John, I corrected the date error!
    I hope many people will attend this event

    Thank you for all your comments
    I’m sure we shall meet soon
    oh, and I was looking at the latest photos of your project, for example the photo included in this post. It’s fascinating, I think it’s growing really well.

  3. March 10, 2008 2:37 pm

    Hello John and thanks for the link – I was stopped by two Westminster jobsworths last October while doing a
    shoot on Charing Cross Road. They told me tripods were a terrorist threat ! Luckily by the time that they
    arrived I was almost finished and managed to talk them into giving us an extra ten minutes. They did
    return when we packing were up though. This was a commercial shoot for a Telecoms client, nothing at all
    subversive…just a liveried parked van ( surely more of a potential terrorist threat than a tripod ?) and an
    engineer with some testing gear, with a manhole removed…good place for a bomb.

    I did a series in the US in 2004 which the link takes you to – all in Florida or Texas and no-one had a problem
    with being photograaphed. No chance with officilais in New York City though, where I tried to getb a few.



  4. March 20, 2008 4:10 pm

    hello nice blog!

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