The former chairman of the Association of Photographers from 2001-2003 – who has lived and worked in the Capital since 1983, having left his native Australia – is currently undertaking a pictorial project based on Wren’s work, but on Tuesday was stopped in his tracks by security officers from the Bank of America-Merrill Lynch who felt that Grant was acting suspiciously.
Speaking to SMT Online, Grant explained: “I was on public land and doing no harm. I was merely taking pictures of the Christ Church Greyfriars structure and its 300-year-old spire for my personal project on Wren’s magnificent churches.”
Grant continued: “Three quarters of an hour after I’d started taking pictures, a security officer from the bank appeared and asked me what I was doing. A little later a second officer approached, and this time he wanted all of my personal details, which I wasn’t about to give him.”
Terrorism Act 2000: Section 44
The officers concerned went back inside the bank’s London headquarters and called the City of London Police.
Some time thereafter, with 53-year-old Grant still going about his wholly legitimate business, three police vehicles and a riot squad van hoved into view. Up to seven armed police officers detained and searched Grant under Section 44 of the controversial Terrorism Act 2000.
“Apparently, the police were responding to what they’d told me were reports of ‘an aggressive male, a hostile man taking pictures of our [Merrill Lynch] staff and refusing to leave the reception area’. Utter nonsense,” exclaimed Grant. “I was not in the reception area, I wasn’t taking pictures of any Merrill Lynch staff and no-one had asked me to leave the location. The police hadn’t been called on the basis of potential terrorism, that’s for sure.”
Grant went on to state: “What I was doing was pretty obvious. I was standing there with a tripod and a camera taking pictures of a church. This overzealous monitoring of photographers in London by the authorities is now completely out of hand. It’s little short of corporate bullying.”
The City of London officers looked through Grant’s bag and checked his camera, at the same time searching for any maps and notebooks. To prevent being taken away, detained and personally searched by any of the officers, Grant had no option but to give his details.
He duly received one of the police service’s much-discussed Stop and Search Forms and was then allowed to leave the site.
An appropriate level of response?
“As far as I’m concerned the police response was indeed a little heavy-handed,” added Grant, “but then again they must have responded with the force they felt was necessary in relation to what they had been told on the telephone. They ended up admiring the camera I was using, and said they hoped I had a nice day.”
Post-incident, an official statement issued by Bank of America-Merrill Lynch suggested that its security staff had acted appropriately. “At Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, we take security issues very seriously. We remain vigilant at all times and, as part of our standard operating procedures, report any suspicious activities to the police.”
Interestingly, this incident has occurred only a matter of days after the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) published and disseminated a memorandum to all 43 forces in England and Wales informing them that they “should not be stopping and searching individuals for taking photographs”.
The memo – sent after an Independent photo journalist had been quizzed over pictures taken of the Houses of Parliament – also states: “There are no powers prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place.”
Unnecessary restriction is “unacceptable”
Andy Trotter of the British Transport Police has also commented on the issue in The Guardian. Trotter said: “Sworn officers and Police Community Support Officers are reminded that we should not be stopping and searching people for taking photos. Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether it’s the casual tourist or the professional, is unacceptable.”
For his part, Grant has been on the receiving end of similar incidents elsewhere in the City, and has apparently had Project Griffin quoted to him several times now. Griffin, of course, centres on anti-terror awareness and training for security staff in London and other major cities.
“Why is the act of taking photos deemed so suspicious?” asked Grant when I spoke to him this lunchtime. “Everything I shot on site is visible for all to see on Google Earth anyway, so where exactly is the issue here? The only way in which I may have been construed as hostile is that I refused to give my ID to the bank’s security staff. To then have this happen to me was extremely unsettling and, to be perfectly frank, unnecessary.”
Grant – whose excellent work has been on display at the National Portrait Gallery, and also at the Nationalbibliothek in Vienna – is adamant that similar, strong reactions from security staff have been forthcoming during other shoots across the Capital.
Pinpointing hostile reconnaissance
This is an extremely interesting story in terms of – potentially, at least – setting precedents. On a pure security level, the Bank of America-Merrill Lynch officers will have been rightly trained to look out for suspicious activity in and around the bank, and pinpoint anyone whom they believe might be involved in any kind of hostile reconnaissance of their premises.
Not having been privy to the incident on the day, it’s impossible for me to say how aggressive the staff in question may or may not have been. Certainly, it’s beholden upon client organisations to make certain that all security officers – in-house or contract – are as polite as possible when dealing with members of the public, irrespective of whatever provocation or obstruction may or may not be ‘standing in their way’.
One might also suggest that, rather than just turning up on site, photographers could pre-plan and organise their visit by contacting companies nearby the subject matter of their chosen shoot to tell them what they’ll be doing and when. Otherwise, it might be seen as an assertion of rights without concern for whom those rights are eventually imposed upon.
Allaying the fears of security staff
In addition, taking snaps in a public space may be construed as not quite the same thing as clicking the button for ‘quality’ pictures. Arguably, the latter is worth preparing for with a little administrative groundwork if only to allay the fears of security officers and managers. The latter are in existence to protect members of the public, and have to do their job.
That said, Grant Smith – who, on the day, was sporting a badge with the legend: ‘I’m a Photographer, not a Terrorist’ – was in a public place, doing no wrong, photographing some church ruins. Did that really warrant three police cars, a riot squad van and the rifling of his possessions? This seems a tad heavy-handed for ‘apprehending’ one man.
Looking further afield, a dangerous precedent could be set here if this kind of response level continues. How many tourists are in London taking pictures round-the-clock on a daily basis? Plenty. Are we going to stop and search all of them?
I don’t think Mayor Boris Johnson would be too happy about that, because like as not there would be a significant drop in tourism and, therefore, a similar decrease in tourist income for our major city. We could well do without that, particular at the present juncture.
Striking that fine balance
You can certainly sympathise with Grant and his fellow ‘camera addicts’. In the past 18 months alone there have been 94 complaints made to the Independent Police Complaints Commission about the misuse of Section 44 powers.
Not surprisingly, there has also been a steadily growing outcry among professional photographers working on behalf of design companies, magazines, architects, building contractors and engineering firms who are finding their business disrupted on an increasing basis by police searches when working in high-profile areas that may be construed as potential targets for terrorism.
On the other hand, the police and the security services must do their job, and be seen to do their job. That is only right and proper, not to say essential given the social and political climate in which we now find ourselves.
As ever, we somehow need to strike a fine balance between the necessary and fundamental protection of our civil liberties and the ongoing necessity to quell the terrorist threat that now pervades this world.