The Right To Photograph

Don’t let them stop you taking photographs on the Glasgow subway is the headline on a fine piece by John Perivolaris in today’s Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ section, provoked by the news published in the Amateur Photographer that ” the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport announces plans to ban all photography on the Glasgow subway except that for which written permission has been obtained.”

The AP quotes the authority as stating that all photography is banned unless

a passenger has the written permission of SPT in relation to the activity.

The passenger must be carrying the permission, show it to an officer on request, and comply with any conditions of that permission.

Of course such a bye-law is impossible to enforce now that almost everyone has a camera phone, but that isn’t really the point. Perivolaris writes about some of the classics of photography such as Walker Evans’s pictures on the New York subway with a hidden camera later published as ‘Many Are Called’.

I’ve taken the occasional image on the London Underground over the years, working discretely to avoid disturbing the people I was photographing. I hope I do so with a proper respect for the people I am photographing, but if we hope to record something meaningful about the human condition most of the time we need to work without permission.

But the only permission that we ever may need is not that of the company the runs the subway – essentially an extension of the street – but of the individuals we are photographing. There are times when I ask permission and when I feel it would be impolite not to do so (and I think many photographers, including some very well known photographers in works that have made their reputations have been inexcusable impolite.) I feel I need to ask not when I am taking someone’s picture, but when to do so I need to intrude on their personal space, whether or not they would notice it.

I don’t often travel on the Glasgow subway, but when I do so I’ll feel honour bound to break their bye law and take pictures. I hope all other photographers – and indeed anyone who has a camera on their phone or otherwise – will join me.

Back in the 1990s my friend Paul Baldesare carried out a couple of project on the tube you can see online. In Zone 1 he worked in colour, and previously in Down The Tube he used black and white. Both projects are also available as Blurb books.

© 1991, Peter Marshall

I saw Paul’s work and decided he had done such a good job I wouldn’t try to emulate him, but he did inspire me to photograph on buses for a transport project which included both our work, along with several other photographers, shown at the Museum of London.

© 1992, Peter Marshall

Some of the people I photographed did notice they were being photographed, although most remained unaware, even when I was making no attempt to hide what I was doing. I didn’t use a hidden camera or anything special, although sometimes, as obviously in the lower image I worked with the camera – a small and quiet model –  held on my lap.

As I’ve written before, only one person I photographed on the buses complained. He was sitting opposite me wearing sandals, shorts and a very large snake, and was on his way to Covent Garden where he expected tourists to pay him to take photographs of their partners with his snake. His objection was I think because he was off-duty and I wasn’t paying. When he objected I didn’t really get a chance to argue with him, as two elderly ladies butted in and told him in no uncertain terms that if he got on buses dressed like that he should expect to have his picture taken!

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