On Street Photographers, Spies, Perverts and Pedophiles

“Beware of illegal photo taking. Report crime for benefit of all.”

These were the words on a sign at Causeway Bay, a bustling tourist area in Hong Kong. Such a warning isn’t unusual here; wherever you go, you can find signs reading, “No Photos, No Videos, No Smoking and No Dogs.”

There are approximately 60 million cameras being sold in the world each year. And yet, it is getting harder and harder to use them without being accused of being a spy, a pervert, or a pedophile.

The problem is not unique to Hong Kong. A quick Google search reveals numerous instances of photographers in the West being stopped from taking pictures in public areas. For example:

  • Earlier this year, a London photographer was arrested under anti-terror laws for photographing a building near his home.
  • A Greek photographer was arrested when a woman complained he was photographing her daughter on the subway. He apologized and erased the pictures — but the police still arrested him.
  • An amateur photographer in the U.K. was handcuffed and arrested for photographing a policewoman.
  • In Australia the local council tried to ban cameras from Bondi Beach, and school councils have banned cameras at children’s sporting events — claiming it would stop pedophiles.
  • A photographer was prevented from taking pictures of an oil refinery in Colorado and told that it was forbidden after 9/11.

“You Can’t Take Pictures! Stop! Stop!”

Take no pictures

Some time ago, I was making candid photographs on a Hong Kong street when a woman began verbally abusing me. She was convinced I was taking pictures of her infant.

“Madam,” I explained, “I don’t take baby photos.”

On another occasion, I knelt in a roadway to take photos of people who were walking in a crossing.

“You can’t take pictures from that angle,” warned my assistant. “You will be arrested and accused of trying to take pictures of women’s underwear.”

On yet another occasion, I was standing on a footbridge that spanned the main road through the center of Hong Kong. I was there to scout for a location and test the length of the lens I would need for an upcoming shoot.

Suddenly, I was surrounded by three guards.

“No photos!” one of them exclaimed as he planted a hand in front of my lens. Another guard stood in front of me in case I tried to do anything dangerous, as a third spoke rapidly into his phone.

My crime was that I had taken pictures of traffic and tourists crossing the main road through central Hong Kong.

It gets worse.

There is a famous building in Hong Kong that appears in every skyline photograph that is taken of the city. I needed to shoot a picture of the front of this building from the street.

No sooner had I pulled out my camera than a guard came rushing over waving his arms and calling out, “You can’t take pictures! Stop! Stop!”

The Best Camera for Spying?

Everywhere I go I see people pointing their phone cameras at everything and anything — but bring out a Digital SLR and the whole world goes into panic.

I can never work this out. Does it mean that spies only use a Nikon D3 with a large zoom lens? This would make them as obvious as a fly on the end of your nose. Blimey, if I were a spy I’d use a Nokia phone camera. No one would suspect you then.

One time I came upon three girls standing in the street dressed as fairies. I thought it would make a nice stock picture. I wasn’t alone in seeing the moment; so did 10 others who were shooting away with their phone cameras.

And yet, as soon as I put my DSLR up to my face, a guard came running over and yelled, “No pictures! No pictures!”

She then proceeded to jump up and down in front of me, trying to make it to difficult for me to take pictures of the girls. Unfortunately for her, she was a great deal shorter than me and didn’t quite get in front of the lens.

I did, however, miss the picture that I wanted most — a man dressed as a giant condom walking right past the fairies, unobstructed and undisturbed. He was being paid to promote Durex.


Easier in Iran?

You want to know what’s odd? Earlier this year, I worked in Iran. During my time there, I took pictures of babies, women, buildings and tourists.

And nobody accused me of being a spy, a pervert or a pedophile.

That’s right; it was easier to work in Iran, of all places, than in the tourist areas of Hong Kong.

20 Responses to “On Street Photographers, Spies, Perverts and Pedophiles”

  1. Hello Michael, great story. How ridiculous things have become. I recently heard of a man having a prosthetic eye fitted which had a tiny video camera inside it. He was able to record everything as he walked around. That eye did not give him sight, he still had monocular vision from his good eye, but what a great spy he would be. An incredibly stealthy spy but with no depth perception.
    Seriously though, you are so right: the world appears to have gone mad. Nice post.

  2. Hi Michael. This is certainly a topic that needs continual airing. I myself have been harassed here in Sydney on quite a few occasions for simply raising a DSLR to my eye in public places. I still photograph where I please, although I'm very cautious these days, often shooting from waist level.

  3. Well done for highlighting this. I suspect it won't be long before it becomes almost impossible in London. My partner and I have been stopped numerous times. In London it seems to be having a tripod that marks you out as a possible terrorist.

  4. I did took a thousand of picture when I went to HKG this year. I didn't know all of this and I guess I'm lucky not having trouble with people.
    It's a pity that people act like this in front of a camera and they say nothing when they see a man dressed as a condom or when they watch some crappy video clip...

  5. Interesting topic. I still go by the rule - if it is in a public space than it is legal to take a picture. Of course there are exceptions and I do not push the boaundairies of personal privacy; however, the fact that owning a DLSR gets one in trouble (in some places) for taking pictures is ludicrous. I suspect there is not much we can do about that. Although, I find it ironic that you were more free to take photos in Iran than in London, UK.

    As for taking photos of people - wherever possible - I do ask permission of people in my shots (within reason) and if someone asks what I am doing I politely tell them exactly what it is for and even provide my website address (where my photos are generally posted) and my contact information. The majority of the time most people don't care and often get excited when you tell them about your photography projects. Sometimes I offer to take their picture and email it to them so they have a professional photo as a memento.

    Thanks for talking about this issue,

  6. You need to be quicker.

    In and out in a flash, stealth is key.

    Wave to the security guards on your way out.

    Laugh as their jaws drop, fumbling with walkie-talkies on their belts.

  7. I speak to them in Mandarin and tell them that I am their big boss from Beijing 😉

  8. So many people are scared of photographers now a days. It's such an odd thing for me to try and understand. At least here in the US there are laws protected what you can and can't take pictures of. I guess hong kong is different.

  9. I have had trouble in nearly every capital city in Australia.. I've been stopped from taking photos of the harbor bridge in Sydney, even interrupted by a security guard and told off while taking wedding photos at the Sydney Opera House.

    It's just getting out of hand, classic photographers like Ken Duncan are even coming up against the same thing.

  10. This problem has been growing since before 9-11. It used to be that if you put a camera on a tripod a security guard would appear out of nowhere and insist you stop. Now, I can shoot almost anything with my 10.1 mp P&S, but if I pull out my DSLR then there is a chance (in an urban setting)that I will be stopped by somebody for some reason or another (often highly protective parents who think I am taking shots of their children.. when I am not -- I have learned to ASK FIRST before shooting minors). Thankfully, P&S cameras are getting better and better.... and cheaper.

  11. Its not any better in America—Home of the Free


  12. I ran into this problem just yesterday when I was taking pictures at an "Open to Public" tennis court that at the time, since it is city endorsed, I did not realize was private property in spite of the signs. A tennis instructor came over and demanded that I leave because he was worried I would offend parents by taking photographs of their children.

    Later today, I went to the local City Hall to see what my rights are in this case. The Police Chief kindly confirmed for me that I'm legally in my rights to take pictures of people, even children, in public, and he suggested that in the future if I want to take pictures at a tennis court that I try the local and very public one down the street, and then he wished me good luck with my photography.

    Mind you, I'm an abuse survivor myself, and I find it very ironic that instead of teaching our children to trust themselves and empowering them, we're teaching them to fear instead. And when people are so busy seeing the enemy in every stranger, how close are they paying attention things closer to home, with family and friends who statistically are much more likely to abuse their children than a stranger is?

    Great article, and highlights a lot of what is worrying me since this happened. When the public starts letting fears consume them this way, it's not healthy for society as a whole.

  13. Buy a Leica

  14. I've been seeking out articles on this subject. I'm new to photography and recently experienced my first bit of harrasment while shooting street scenes, store fronts, doors, windows, etc. in Albuquerque, NM USA. A man came towards me from a block away hurling profanities and demanding I "wait right there". He was not in uniform nor did he identify himself as security or police. I walked the other way to my car parked on a side street and took off. Was he a shopkeeper who'd been recently burglarized and thought I was casing his shop?
    Alternatively perhaps he was a thug intent upon getting close to me and taking my camera. I realize I'm walking city streets seeking subject matter with thousands of dollars worth of equipment in plain view. How safe am I?
    The possibilities for adverse reactions to photography are myriad. A person in the background may be a fugitive or involved in an extra-marital affair and think he's being surveilled. Sound far fetched? Maybe but who knows?
    I now take measures such as wearing a light jacket to help conceal my DSLR while I'm walking about. But what now if someone perceives that I'm concealing? Will that provoke an even more aggressive reaction? This is an important topic.

  15. looks like thats a tough job for photographers though

  16. this privacy thing makes people very paranoid. the more people are made aware of this, the more things get complicated.

  17. Yep. In Arizona you can walk around a school carrying a gun, but not a Nikon.

  18. Hi,
    i m amateur photographer from Zagreb/Croatia. Great story, and sad story same time. There is no more "freedom", just everlasting fear. But. That makes a challenge for all photographers, to take better photos, capture the moments in this new tough world.

    Here in Zagreb situation is just a bit better. You can still take photo in public places.

  19. Isn't this just related to commercial photography in film centers like Hong Kong and London? Wherever there are major film and photo shoots the city itself is often considered a product to be licensed (ironically not Hollywood). In New York, for example, if you have an SLR and a tripod and one extra person with you you better have a permit on you. So I think the question of fear is coming up too much here when it sounds more like economics. Although some comment examples here are pretty bonkers.

  20. Theres a lot of illegal photo taking these days with the increase of iphones and other techology.

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