Thursday, 18 March 2010

Jailed for taking photos

Go out into the streets and chances are, you’ll come across somebody who has a black, professional-looking digital camera slung over his or her shoulder. With the prices of digital cameras crashing down, especially with the fast-paced competition among the big brands and smaller ones who wants a cut of the market – the beautiful art of digital photography is now very accessible.

That’s definitely good news.

But when an amateur photographer is jailed for shooting what he hopes would be a winning shot for a photography contest, then most amateur photographers might be left shaking to the tips of their hot shoes.

A Pakistani national was jailed recently for taking a photo over Khalifa Bridge in Abu Dhabi. I found out about it, only after I posted a link about Canon’s "Celebrating My City" Photography Competition in one of the egroups I belong to. The last time I checked, the only response I got was a direct link to the article about the poor photographer, which you can read here (Arabian Business) and another here (The National).

The amateur photographer, using his Canon 5D Mark II wanted to join the "Abu Dhabi Through Your Eyes" contest when a man told him that what he was doing was basically illegal. His camera was confiscated and he was jailed for two days.

It further said that the man tried to reach the contest organizers, the Office of the Brand of Abu Dhabi and the Tourism Development & Investment Authority for help, but he got no response to his plea. Though he was released on bail and was able to exchange his passport for bond, he still has not gotten his camera back. He goes back to Abu Dhabi in hopes of getting his passport again and just putting everything behind him.

As a hobbyist myself, I feel for him. It was pure bad luck that he happened to be taking photos in a sensitive area where there were no signs that clearly says no photography allowed as you would notice in some palaces and government offices. But the reality is, there are prohibited areas for photography.

When you’re going to visit a new country, you would check the dos and don'ts. You'd check if it’s allowed to enter temples, eat chewing gum, take photographs of people in the streets and such.

But so many residents of the UAE have become so used to it being their "home" and being an open city that some rules are being forgotten. Just take the kissing scenes and romps on the beach that have been highlighted in the news as examples.

We are so used to cameras that we simply smile automatically when one is pointed our way. But we have to remember that when you take a photo, you will have an image of that person forever and you may be intruding in his privacy.

Six years ago, I was in our company car going home from DMC, when one of my colleagues decided to snap a few pictures with her digital camera. It was past 6:00 pm, there was still plenty of light outside, but it was already dark inside the van so she turned her flash on.

A few minutes later, a man – whom we assumed was local, being garbed in the traditional local clothes – overtook us and flagged us down. Our driver stopped and the guy went to the passenger window shouting at us. He was saying it was illegal to take pictures and he would call the police. After a few minutes we finally understood that he thought we took pictures of him. He calmed down when my colleague showed the images, and there were no pictures of the road, his car or him. The only pictures were super close-ups of our laughing faces. My colleague just told him that she will delete everything and he finally let us go.

It was a bit extreme but it was a solid reminder that when it comes to other people, strangers taking photos of them are alarming and needs to be checked. Be careful too when you feel like being a regular citizen journalist - taking photos of accidents may also land you in jail or at least some hot water.

Cameras may be more accessible now, but it does come with responsibilities. Even paparazzis – and it’s they’re job to be in celebrities' faces – can get into plenty of trouble.

So, let’s backtrack a bit. Let’s pretend we’re just about to enter the UAE for the first time and read what’s allowed and not allowed when it comes to photography:

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office of the UK says “Photography of certain government buildings and military installations is not permitted. You should not photograph people without their permission.”

VisitAbuDhabi warns, “Visitors to Abu Dhabi should avoid photographing women in general, and particularly national women, without their permission. It is always courteous to ask before photographing people. There are few other restrictions on photography in the emirate – only military, government and airport installations are not allowed to be photographed.”

In the West, the rules are more relaxed when you’re photographing people in public areas. Usually, you won’t have much of a problem, especially with people who are attracting attention to themselves (street performers, street bands, etc). But if you plan to sell their photos or benefit from it commercially (aside from editorial use), you still need their express permission or a model release.

Some cultures, in other parts of the world, do not allow photographs at all. So be careful, it is always good to research the rules first, check for signs and ask if there is none. If shooting people, it helps to be polite, ask people first before you start shooting away.

Some of the most creative works come from breaking the rules. But as the wise have long said, know all the rules before you break them.

1 comment:

euna said...

Yay! A few years back we tried to take photos inside the MRT station in in Ayala Phils, the guard scolded us and said its not allowed and we could be jailed for it =P wonder why.

Here in SG it's as if u owe the place u can take photos to ur hearts content.. so long as its not those military facilities or immigration offices. :-)