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Of all the accounts, of all the testimonies, of all the confused interactions, bumbling application of draconian laws – THIS ONE takes the biscuit.

Edward Denison was photographing the Hammersmith Police Station for a book about McMorran & Whitby, one in a series about post-war British architects jointed supported by the Royal Institute of British Architects, The Twentieth Century Society and English Heritage. Denison knew the law:

The laws of this free and democratic country permit members of the public to photograph any building, as long as the photographer is standing on a public right of way when taking the photograph. I know this because a very professional and courteous member of the City of London Police explained it to me when I was photographing its headquarters at 37 Wood Street (completed in 1966) and the extension to the Central Criminal Courts on Old Bailey (completed in 1972), both designed by the architectural firm McMorran & Whitby.

He was also conscious of others’ needs for explanation:

Although I am not legally obliged to do so, as a matter of courtesy I always (if possible) seek to explain what I am doing to the occupants of any building I am photographing before I leave. At Hammersmith, I went to the reception located inside the public entrance, to be met by two quizzical officers.

Denison goes on to explain that the officers told him he couldn’t photograph. He told them he could and they acquiesced with the retort “For now.” Shortly before leaving Denison crossed the road to take a picture of an architectural detail. At this point two officers ran down the street, commanding him to cease photographing and then detained him for 45 minutes despite his full credentials, letters of recommendation and helpful explanation of his project and sponsors. Only after word was received that his name wasn’t on the suspected terroist list was he free to leave, albeit with a completed 5090(X) form.

Busted! Credit: Phil Clements. An example of a 5090(X) form.

Busted! Credit: Phil Clements. An example of a 5090(X) form.

A little irony is that the architect, McMorran, is Denison’s grandfather. Denison already had architectural plans and elevations in his possession. He knew the building better than any officer inside! Denison is as exasperated as the rest of us with a robotic police force that acts upon its role play training and not the evidence at hand in a particular situation:

But do the police really need to be trained to recognise that in the age of the mobile-phone camera (or indeed Google Earth), a man with a camera, a wide-angle lens and a fold-up bicycle openly taking photographs of a police station makes an unlikely suspect?

From reading Denison’s account, it seems he (like many others) needed to experience harassment to fully comprehend the erosion of civil liberties in the UK; to crystalise the meaning and consequences of the Prevention of Terrorism Act upon the average citizen.

Denison ends with a statement that brings home the difference between his innocuous activities and those of the past:

Real terrorists do what the Irish Republican Army did to McMorran & Whitby’s Central Criminal Court on 8 March 1973, only months after it had been opened – detonate a massive car-bomb right outside what John Betjeman called this “splendid fortress of the law”. The building survived intact. Donald McMorran had designed Hammersmith Police Station to withstand aerial bombardment, in anticipation of another kind of war.

Hammersmith Police Station, together with the plans already Edward Denison's possession

Hammersmith Police Station, together with the plans already in Edward Denison's possession

In the past Hammersmith Police Station has veered from proactive engagement to utter neglect of the public. With officers on the street inconsistently enacting ludicrous law, it seems the Metropolitan police force – as a whole – is as schizophrenic.


For fun, you can view a 5090(X) forms Set at Flickr.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 15.06.08. A Metropolitan Police Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) photographer films and photographs journalists as police and protesters clash during a demonstration against U.S President George W Bush in Parliament Square, Westminster on Sunday 15 June 2008, London, England. Protesters had been banned by the Metropolitan Police from demonstrating outside 10 Downing Street to protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo by Marc Vallée/ (c) Marc Vallée, 2008.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 15.06.08. A Metropolitan Police Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) photographer films and photographs journalists as police and protesters clash during a demonstration against U.S President George W Bush in Parliament Square, Westminster on Sunday 15 June 2008, London, England. Protesters had been banned by the Metropolitan Police from demonstrating outside 10 Downing Street to protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (c) Marc Vallée, 2008.

After reading this phenomenal post by Jamblichus about state surveillance and electorate apathy/powerlessness in the UK, I was compelled to post the above image.

I know for two posts now in as many days I have diverged from “photography in sites of incarceration”, but this topic keeps throwing up unanswered questions.

Forward Intelligence Teams , introduced in 1996, are now central to British policing of all public crowd events. F.I.T.s don’t try to hide. They are highly visible and operate use facial recognition technology to add folk on camera to a central database.

Jamblichus raises a really important question about this. What is the nature of this database? We should all be asking these questions: Under who’s authority is the database maintained. Which government departments have access to it?

Local councils in Britain have used anti-terrorism legislation to spy on its citizens for minor infractions. What is to stop similar abuse with regard this database? The UK has built a police state infrastructure and no-one is immune to its effects should the cameras and mics be pointed their way.

Is the British Press “free” in all definitions of the term? I think not.

I am probably in the database due to my interest in a seal-hunting protest outside the Canadian Embassy of London last year. I went over to have a peek and a natter, mainly because I was shocked that anyone would want to picket Canada! When I turned to continue on my way, I had two long-range lens pointing at me.

Jamblichus points us to The Journalist which describes the Met’s purposeful surveillance of the press;

Police tactics seem to be becoming more menacing. Photographers have complained that the Metropolitan Police’s Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) — set up to target public disorder and anti-social behaviour by having high-visibility police officers use camera and video footage to gather intelligence — has started surveillance of press-card carrying journalists. They say that images of them are given a four-figure “photographic reference number” and held on a database.

I’d really like to know when they’ll need 5 digits or more!…. While we wait on that you can look over the Flickr group FITWatch.

London Metropolitan Police Anti-Photography Propaganda Campaign Poster

London Metropolitan Police Anti-Photography Propaganda Campaign Poster

When I began writing this blog, it was meant as a vehicle to display the documentary work of photographers working in sites of incarceration and to generally expound the stories touched upon. It was also meant to deconstruct some of the persistent myths surrounding prisons and prison populations and how visual culture has played its part in weaving some of those myths.

Not once did I envisage the current situation whereby the act of photography could bring about the threat of detention and imprisonment. Such impingement on basic rights of expression has been known in some of the dictatorial and despotic regimes of modern history … but not so much in the West, right? The times they are achangin’.

Photo: Liam Oliver Newton Craik-Horan.

Photo: Liam Oliver Newton Craik-Horan.

When my brother visited from the UK last month he couldn’t stress enough how much of a police state it has become. We reasoned that the fingerprints taken by US homeland security are know also the possession of the UK government. It used to be the case that fingerprints were only taken and kept on file in the UK if you had been convicted for a crime. How things change.

A few months ago I signed up as a member of ACLU, the decisive moment was when the ACLU representative said to me, “You don’t want the US turning out like Britain with all those cameras and surveillance do you?”

Britain really is a country that has got itself on edge; it’s culture promoting men and women in all guises of security to exert illegitimate power and enforce ludicrous policy. Unfortunately, this robotic application of rules has infected even our art galleries, as the venerable John Berger discovered.

This past months have seen a slew of stories coming out of Britain regarding the rights of photographers in public spaces. All these are in response to a slew of legislation to slowly whittle down the rights of photographers; the rights of UK citizens.

On 16th February, the Counter Terrorism act came into effect making it illegal to photograph a police officer or “elicit information” about them. The British Journal of Photography has the details.

After the disgust at such brazen restriction of rights, the response by the photographic community in London was to go to Scotland Yard, headquarters of the Metropolitan police, and in an act of mass civil disobedience take lots of photographs of lots of officers.

The Guardian UK has been the mainstream print media that has really pursued this topic, reminding us all of what we have just lost. They broke the story that Kent police monitored members of the press during an environment protest, for which the Kent constabulary have apologized.

The Press Gazette explained this tactic and the associated tension between police and photographers.

David Hoffman, a photographer with 32 years’ experience, said he now carries shinpads in his bag, claiming he had been kicked by police officers at protests.

“The police today [NUJ Protest] have been beautiful – but that isn’t always the case,” he said. “Recent protests have been very bad. The worst was October last year, at the Climate Rush demo. One copper spent his time kicking my leg. Stood there with his steel toe caps kicking away – and me, a silver-haired man. I’ve still got chunks missing from my legs five months on. They want you to think: I won’t cover it next time. They have been using FIT [Forward Intelligence Teams, who use cameras], they have been using intimidation.”

Hoffman added, “It’s important the police know they’re being watched and observed. If you don’t see what’s going on, your society’s less democratic.”

It is almost like the lines have been drawn so indelibly, people are having to pick a side. It is sad to see but the police fall in line with the government and the majority sympathise with the press. This has led to a conflation of stories involving the G20 protests, police misconduct, and the death of (and vigil for) Ian Tomlinson. Judging by the Guardian’s recent coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking that London was on the edge of civic breakdown.

I think the media and the Guardian in particular are taking a principled stance here and just reminding the Met at every opportunity that they are watched and the press will not be cowed. I think most of us realise that with millions of people in possession of recording equipment it is unenforceable to stop people from documenting the streets.

Ian Tomlinson’s death received a lot of coverage and rightly so, but I shall wait for the inquiry ruling before making a call, despite the early damning evidence. We, however, in the business of images know that they can never tell the full story. This is now an investigation of excessive force by the police and distinct from the main issue of photographers/civil rights.

Yesterday, the Guardian published this footage of the police threatening photographers with arrest if they did not move. Again, later the force apologized. But what is interesting here is the Guardian‘s decision to line up video footage of various scenes of confrontation from different days in the right hand nav bar. It is a dossier of police activity and unlike anything I have seen in mainstream media.

Photo: Roger Lancefield. The protesters stickers read "I am not a Terrorist, I am a Photographer".

Photo: Roger Lancefield. The protesters stickers read "I am not a Terrorist, I am a Photographer".

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the Guardian showed that front-line press aren’t the only ones under scrutiny. Metropolitan police deleted a tourist’s photographs this week to “prevent terrorism”. Klaus Matzka, the tourist involved summed his experience up as such:

“I’ve never had these experiences anywhere, never in the world, not even in Communist countries.”

So, at best you are harassed for your photographic activity and at worst, if thought to hold sinister motives, arrested and face a 10 year sentence.

Before all this gets to any court, however, the clashes are felt on the street, on the shins and in the constantly diminished rights to freedom of expression. Where citizen photographers may feel powerless, it seems the press – and the Guardian in particular – are just getting powered up.


Thanks to all the Flickr users credited above for their images, but more importantly their acts of documentation in the face of legislation to prevent such freedoms. I hope we all stay out of prison.


prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com


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