This photo almost got me arrested…

Bicycle Rack or Art?

A bicycle rack in Belmore Road, Randwick, shaped like a Penny Farthing. ~ © CJ Levinson 2011

… well, not exactly arrested. But I guess I should start at the beginning.

I went for a quick walk last night and took this photo while I was out. It’s one of a number of bicycle racks commissioned by Randwick City Council that have appeared around Randwick over the last few months; they’re shaped like old Penny Farthings and are meant to mix art and function to make everyday objects seem more interesting. They’ve sparked something of a debate locally about whether they’re art, utilities or just a waste of money but personally I like them; I love the design and anything that makes people think about cycling seems like a good idea to me.

I’ve been wanting to take a photo of one of the bicycle racks for a while as they’re so distinctive and finally got the chance to last night. The light was just right and I like how it came out; I was even lucky enough that a young couple were just crossing the road as I took the shot, which adds a nice dimension to it.

I didn’t see it as I took the photo but the car on the right was actually a police car and just after I took the shot, a female officer yelled at me and demanded to know what I was doing. Her tone was accusatory and I froze for a moment before pointing at the rack and said I was taking a photo of it for a project. She said something else which I didn’t quite hear and made a movement like she was going to get out of the car; for a moment I thought she was actually going to come over and confiscate my camera. But someone in the car must have said something because she turned her head to listen and sat back and a few moments later they drove off, not saying anything, leaving me staring after them.

Even now, thinking back, I still don’t understand what she thought I was doing and to be honest I’m rather annoyed about it. I’d done nothing wrong; it’s not like I was trespassing on private property – I was in a public space, taking a photo of a public item, which anyone is entitled to do. I mean, I’d understand if it looked like I was taking photos of people against their will but the street was practically deserted, so it was obvious I wasn’t doing that, and if she thought I was taking photos of shops to rob or something, well, I’d hardly be using a big DSLR and drawing attention to myself, now would I?

I’m just getting tired of this attitude that if you’re walking around with a camera you must be some kind of pervert or criminal, not someone who’s just enjoying a hobby like anyone else. It’s not the first time I’ve been confronted about taking a photograph but there was something much more accusatory about her tone than I’ve experienced before and that the police not only don’t seem to know what a photographer’s rights are but also automatically suspect them rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt troubles me. Why should we be treated differently to anyone else?

For what it’s worth I’m always careful about the kind of photos I take. I rarely take photos of people without their permission and when I do it’s usually only to capture a moment without interfering (like this one), and I’m careful around women and children in particular. Likewise if I’m taking photos of buildings I’ll usually ask first if it’s okay, particularly if it’s a sensitive building like a shopping centre, church or synagogue. Most photographers are similarly careful and being treated like we’re criminals is insulting.

Personally I think there was an ageism factor as well; a lot of people always seem to expect the worst of young people and maybe seeing me, she jumped to conclusions. I guess it’s also possible she was just having a bad day and took it out on the first person she saw. Still, I resent it. If she really didn’t know what I was doing all she had to do was ask civilly and I’d have been happy to explain; it was her tone and that she made me feel like I was doing something wrong, that I was guilty, that I objected to. And the thing is, it’s only going to happen more and more often in a world where everyone has an iPhone and we’re all taking pictures. If a lot of police officers really don’t know what rights photographers have, then maybe it’s something they need to be taught.

At least the photo came out well. So I guess it was worth it in the end.

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