Saturday, May 14, 2011

No terrorist has yet been caught photographing targets !

In yesterday's newspaper there was a case of an army officer’s wife being hauled into a police station for having taken photographs of a synagogue in Pune.  The synagogue like a few other places was under police protection as they were potential targets for terror attacks. This incident is not isolated, around a year ago, I remember a similar incident of a young man who used his iPhone to photograph Mukesh Ambani’s two billion dollar central Mumbai house.

I am an avid bird watcher and while watching birds in a public garden under renovation on the Mithi river that passes through Mumbai, private security guards rushed out to tell me that photography was not allowed. When questioned they said that they were doing as told, apologized and left. In each case there was no official warning which said photography was prohibited. 

The reason for preventing photography may differ for each of these situations. In the first concern, in the second a misplaced notion of security and in the third, fear that I might be a press reporter reporting on how public funds were used or misused.
I am yet to remember a single terrorist who has been caught taking photographs and whether in today’s world of spycams, mobile phones cams and google maps preventing photography is an effective restriction. We have inherited this notion from the movies and it is of no real significance in urban areas.  I believe we should educate our police force not to be overzealous and appreciate the rights of people.


  1. At some critical places it looks reasonable but there are many places it seems unnecessary as the reason for prohibition is unclear. I want to add something to it regarding effectiveness of the prohibition system. I have been at a museum where this practice is followed but they are not effective as people were able to click snaps. From my point of view if photography is really prohibited then the system must be put effectively and it’s solely organization’s/Government’s responsibility not the visitors/tourists.

  2. In museums and, especially, art galleries, there are two valid reasons. Most have a prohibition on *flash* photography because bright lights do cause fading, especially of "old master" oil paintings, old manuscripts, etc. Every righteous person (regardless of particular religion or morality) will obey these prohibitions so that others can have the same experience that they have had in viewing.

    Some also have a prohibition for reasons related to copyright issues; these are of course harder (impossible) to enforce because of cellphone cams.

  3. I find it quite annoying to see people clicking away in museums and other such places where there are clear prohibition signs with explanations.

  4. It's like anything else - you can't make blanket generalities that are applicable in all locations or all situations. Context matters. For instance:

    * Are there other behavioral cues?
    * Is the photography being performed at an unusual time of day?
    * Is the individual photographing things that are not normally of interest, say, to a tourist?
    * Is the individual nervous when he is approached?


    Please remember that it is not our job in security to "explain away" certain behaviors or to ascribe "innocent motives" to them in our own mind. On the contrary, it IS our job to observe whatever is unusual in our environment, and to INVESTIGATE such unusual circumstances. If the explanation is satisfactory (innocent) and raises no other concerns - fine. No harm, no foul. But part of the process of behavioral observation DOES involve the application of what I might call "emotive pressure" to the individual in question - such as determining his purpose - and this can't be done by simply folding your hands and saying to yourself "Surely, if he were a terrorist, he would be wearing camera sunglasses instead of using a camera!"

  5. I can assure you that incidents have been recorded of terrorist carrying out hostile surveillance of targets and taking photographs - unfortunately these have usually been identified following an incident; but I personally know of one incident where known suspects have been detected in the vicinity of a target taking photographs, and as a result the level of investigation of those individuals has been increased and security measures reviwed.

  6. First time to your blog, and this post caught my eye.
    As a street photographer, I have been accosted by police in Mumbai and why I was doing what I was doing. Been told its prohibited but when asked to show a notification, or rule they fumble and often end up harassing on other grounds. While I find it absolutely ok to clarify ones reasons and prove credentials when questioned by security officers, its sad to see their high handedness. They need to be taught how to respect citizens rights.