Jemima Lewis: Pictures of innocence, destroyed by paranoia

Taking snaps in public places is now widely perceived to be a dubious, if not illegal, activity

Saturday 11 August 2007 00:00 BST

A legacy of my Catholic upbringing is that all church services - even christenings, weddings and funerals - are liable to set me writhing with teenage ennui. But at the christening of a friend's daughter last weekend, I heard something that made me sit to attention in my pew.

There were three babies lined up, each togged out - depending on their social class - in christening frocks of varying white nylon splendour. The three sets of families and friends, all unknown to each other, exchanged proud, shy smiles across the aisle. "How nice," I thought, "to see perfect strangers connecting in this tentative English way." And then the vicar coughed into his clip-on microphone.

"Before we begin," he said, his face stretched into an Anglican grin, "a little technical matter. Please don't take photographs during the ceremony. This is partly because old fuddy-duddies like me think it distracts from the spirituality of the proceedings. But much more important, it's against the Child Protection Act. You're not allowed to take photographs, even of your own children, if other people's children might get into the background." As his flock frowned in puzzlement, he attempted to elucidate: "It's all this digital manipulation you can do these days..."

And so - poof! - the moment of social connection was gone, replaced by embarrassment, incredulity and vague, appalled imaginings. What exactly did he mean by digital manipulation? What horrors could a person wreak with an out-of-focus shot of someone else's infant dressed up like a frothy lavatory-roll cover? And if taking photos of other people's children, even inadvertently, is illegal, how many times has every holiday-maker, park-goer or parent accidentally flouted the law?

It's "'elf'n'safety gawn mad", you might be muttering over your cornflakes - but you would be mistaken. In fact, as the nice man at the Health and Safety Executive assured me with a long-suffering sigh, no such legislation has ever issued from their offices. Nor could anyone at the Home Office identify a relevant law.

The 1978 Child Protection Act does prohibit the making of indecent "pseudo-photographs" - in which, say, a child's head might be superimposed on to a pornographic image - but that is a whole different activity from merely taking a photograph. Provided you are not harassing anyone or invading their privacy (and children have no more legal right to privacy than adults), you are free to snap away at will.

Except, increasingly, you're not. Earlier this year Glamorgan in South Wales became the first local council to consider imposing a total ban on the photographing of children in public places. Parents who wanted to take pictures of their own tots frolicking in the park would first have to seek written permission. In the end, the proposal was rejected as unenforceable - but similar bans are in place at several schools, sports centres and other child-centric buildings.

Nor is it just risk-averse officials whose imaginations are running wild. When I recounted the vicar's speech to friends who have children I expected to be met with a chorus of disbelief. Instead, there was only rueful acceptance. "I hate it when people take photographs at the playground," said one mother. "You worry all the time about what they're really up to. If a man does it, all the mothers give him dirty looks until he skulks away."

"We were on the beach the other day," confided another, "and we saw a man sitting on a dune taking photos with a great big wide-angle lens. I freaked out because the children were running around naked. I spent the rest of the afternoon darting about in front of them, trying to block his view."

Is it any wonder that amateur photographers increasingly complain about being treated like criminals? Taking snaps in public places is now so widely perceived to be a dubious, if not illegal, activity that it might as well be officially proscribed. Indeed, a petition opposing restrictions on public photography has become the most popular on the Downing Street website, even though - as a response posted by the Government points out - no such legal restrictions exist.

Everyone is so busy thinking the worst of each other - all strangers are paedophiles; all politicians are out to destroy our rights - that a crisis has been concocted out of thin air. It is not central government that is eroding this particular freedom, but our own paranoia.

It is often said of terrorists that we must not let them change the way we lead our lives. Yet a tiny minority of perverts has succeeded in tainting the most blameless of pursuits, and destroying the assumption of trust that keeps healthy communities ticking over.

Better safe than sorry, some would say. But paranoia does not make us safer - only more suspicious. The determined pederast will find his dirty pictures, one way or another. The rest of us can best resist his corrupting influence by pushing him out of our imaginations; by defiantly snapping away at christenings and sports days; by remembering that innocence is a habit of mind, as well as deed.

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