I was on the South Bank of the Thames trying to compose a shot of the Houses of Parliament last week when two police officers stopped me.
Despite living in London for the past five years I had never photographed the Houses of Parliament before. I wish I'd never bothered. Just as I'd finished fine-tuning my first composition, two officers appeared. "Excuse me, sir," said one. "My colleague and I would like to perform a stop-and-account on you. Don't worry, you haven't done anything wrong."
For the next 10 minutes I was questioned about my evening and asked to give my height, name, address and ethnicity – all of which was recorded in a form that will now be held at the nearest police station for the next year. The form explained why I had been stopped: "Using a camera and tripod next to Westminster Bridge," it read.
Such is our fear of terrorism that photographing our seat of power is now regarded as a potentially subversive act. Never mind that Big Ben has been photographed millions of times before, or that almost every angle of the Houses of Parliament has been recorded and stored for all to see on Google Maps.
I was questioned under "stop-and-account" powers, which allow any officer to ask a member of the public to explain what they are up to. You don't have to give your name or address, but the police rarely seem to inform people of this. With me they used it to get as much information as they could. Had they used stop-and-search powers, I would have known that I was not obliged to give any personal details. But until last week I had never heard of stop-and-account.
Over-zealous police officers and council officials are increasingly using all sorts of legislation to hassle us as we go about our work. Olivier Laurent, from the British Journal of Photography, says the police's increasingly hostile attitude towards photographers must be examined. "What happened to you is happening all over the place now," he said. "We had a wedding photographer stopped last year because the venue was within two miles of London City Airport.
"Officers must be made aware that photography in public is completely legal in Britain and it must be protected. And terrorist legislation should only be used to search those genuinely suspected of carrying out reconnaissance work for terrorist activity."
Good luck to the next hapless tourist who dares to whip out a tripod near a famous London landmark. If you do, I suggest you make yourself a T-shirt explaining your intentions very clearly. I'm opting for: "I'm not a terrorist. I'm a photographer."Reuse content