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On the future of photography in public (and on what I think of the EU)

There are many reasons for my diminished Samizdata productivity. For my friend Johnathan Pearce, it is pressure of work. With me, it has been more like laziness and cowardice. As I get older, I find that my desire to tell others what to think, although still vestigially strong, is now in decline. I find myself more and more interested simply in noticing or learning about how things are, and (increasingly) how they once were. If I tell others what they should think, they sometimes hit back with great vehemence about how I should dump what I think and think something different, and us oldies don’t enjoy even virtual fighting as much as we used to. I think what I think, you think what you think, and let’s just leave it at that, is my attitude, more and more. This doesn’t quite chime in with banging away here, day after day, about all the various and numerous people who are wrong on the internet. Faced with the choice between (a) getting back into the swing of posting stuff here, or (b) wandering about in London taking photographs of how things in London merely are (or are in the process of becoming), and writing about such things at my personal blog, I more and more choose the photoing and the personal blogging option.

I’m talking about photos like this one, which I took recently, of the Shard:


I posted this photo at my personal blog a week or more ago, and ruminated upon why I particularly liked the way the Shard had been looking that day.

But then came this comment, from a blogger in South Africa whose blog I like and who likes my blog, an expat from Sheffield who calls himself 6k:

I hope you have permission to take that wonderful photograph. Or rather, I hope you won’t need to have permission to take such wonderful photographs in future.

My first reaction was: Hey, 6k liked my photo! But I did also notice the next bit. What?!? Need permission?!? What is he talking about?!? What 6k was talking about can be found here, that being a link he helpfully supplied in his comment, immediately after the words quoted above.

Basically, some EU-ers are talking about making it illegal to profit without permission by taking a photo, in public, of a publicly visible building or work of art, and then posting it on any “profitable” blog or website. The nasty small print being to the effect that the definition of “profitable” is very inclusive. For the time being, it would exclude my personal blog, because my blog has no income of any kind. But does Samizdata get any cash, however dribblesome, from any adverts, “sponsorships”, and so forth? If so, then me placing the above photo of the Shard at Samizdata might, any year now, become illegal, unless Samizdata has filled in a thousand forms begging the owners of the Shard, and for that matter of all the buildings that surround it, to allow this otherwise terrible violation of their property rights, or something.

“Might” because you never really know with the EU. At present this restriction applies in parts of the EU. It seems that a rather careless MEP tried to harmonise things by making the whole of the EU as relaxed about this sort of things as parts of it are now, parts that now include the UK. But, the EU being the EU, other EU-ers immediately responded by saying, no, the way to harmonise things is to make the entire EU more restrictive. Now the MEP who kicked all this off is fighting a defensive battle against the very restriction she provoked. Or, she is grandstanding about nothing, which is very possible.

Being pessimistic about all this, what if the restriction does spread? And how long, then, before the definition of “for profit” is expanded to include everything you do, because if it wasn’t profitable for you, why would you do it? At that point, even my little hobby blog would be in the cross hairs, if I ever dared to take and post further pictures of London’s big buildings.

Some better news for me is that if this scheme proceeds as far as it eventually might, my enormous archive of photographs of people taking photographs will maybe acquire a particular poignancy. It will become a record of a moment in social history, which arrived rather suddenly, and then vanished. Like smoking in public.

However, this may not happen at all soon, and if the small fuss now being fussed up continues, it may never happen,

The way the EU works is that at any one time EU-ers propose a million laws, and the winning laws are the ones that nobody objects to. If anyone at all persuasive does object to any particular law, then the plan is dropped, with a charming smile, and put to one side for another go in a few years time. No no no, you misunderstood entirely what we were talking about. We never had any intention of doing what we previously did intend to do if nobody had complained! Fuss about nothing! Europhobic scaremongering! Why do you hate foreigners?

Meanwhile all the laws that absolutely nobody has objected to become law, and anyone who then tries to deploy these laws against someone he has taken against becomes part of the process of the EU getting permanently dug in, that being the over-riding purpose of the EU. As does anyone who else tries to use the EU’s legal apparatus to defend themselves against these laws. And how else could you do that?

The purpose of the EU is to be the EU, on as intrusive and as grand a scale as possible and for as long as possible. It has no other purpose. It doesn’t matter how its laws and regulations muck people around. Provided you are happy to join in this process, you can then settle down to become whatever sort of petty or not-so-petty tyrant you would like to be. That’s fine. All are welcome. Just so long as you contribute to making the EU bigger and more bossy and more permanent. All the EU’s other supposed purposes, like peace and prosperity and “good government” and the like, are simply assumed, regardless of evidence, to flow from this one central purpose being achieved.

As for yesterday’s Greek referendum, the current Greek government is the sort of government that I usually loathe without reservation, but the fact that it is disagreeing with the EU makes me glad that it got the vote it wanted. I am glad the Greeks have said No. That they did say no encourages me to at least hope that us Brits also vote No to the EU, just as soon as we get the chance.

All of which is a long way from my right to take photos of London skyscrapers and stick them up on my personal blog, but them even thinking of stopping me doing that got me thinking. There I was, bothering nobody, just putting up harmless little illustrated postings about nothing very much. But then, Politics searched me out and stirred me up into shouting back at it.

34 comments to On the future of photography in public (and on what I think of the EU)

  • …or you could overwhelm the system. Hard to prosecute millions of picture-takers, especially if their websites are outside the EU.

    That’s after the fact, however. I’m more concerned with preemptive action, where one might be prevented from taking any pictures of public spaces or buildings. The day some government official attempts to prevent me from taking a picture of Vienna’s Graben, or of London’s Houses of Parliament, or of Paris’s Place de la Bastille…

    …that’s the day you will read a newspaper article entitled, “Irate American Tourist Beats Government Official Half To Death”.

  • Sorry, I hit [Enter] prematurely.

    That’s another feature, Brian, of getting older. One becomes a lot less tolerant of people, especially government flunkies, who attempt to intrude upon one’s personal life.

  • One last thought:
    “I find that my desire to tell others what to think, although still vestigially strong, is now in decline.”
    You’re not telling others what to think. You’re presenting an opinion, and people may choose to agree or disagree with you. If you fail to present a (perhaps contrary) opinion, people may not realize that their own (contrary) opinions are shared by others.

    Please contribute more often. I, for one, enjoy your opinions.

  • Kevin B

    “…or you could overwhelm the system”

    The trouble is, Kim, that they will quite happily turn a blind eye to every little blog with holiday snaps on it until something else they don’t like appears on your blog – something like urging an exit vote for the EU referendum say.

    They can’t get you for that, but they will suddenly be very interested in your selfies outside the Tate.

  • Concerning photography: if it is criminal to photograph publicly visible buildings then it should also be criminal to place a building at risk of being photographed.

    [Note. There is equivalence with the care of children. Exposing them to excessive risk is, itself, a crime: the punishment for which is usually confiscation of the at-risk item.]

    Those who own a building visible to the public, and fail to protect said building from photography, should have them confiscated – and placed with a more caring owner.

    Only by declaring that the building is ‘of age’, and so not at risk, can its owners avoid the responsibility of preventing photography of the building.

    All photographers have a civic responsibility to bring unprotected building to the notice of the authorities, by photographing them being photographed. In addition, photographs of failing ‘photo-guards’ should be taken, so that there guardianship licences can be revoked.

    In short order, all publicly visible buildings will become suitably protected, not least by being declared and registered as not at risk.

    But, whatever you do, don’t get the Palace of Westminster confiscated from the UK government – at least until just after they have finished the multi-billion pound refurbishment.

    Best regards

  • James Hargrave

    re Sedgwick.
    Surely an opportunity is at hand to decant the MPs to some nice modernist site, with free dormitories, securely surrounded by barbed wire, located in, let us say Tower Hamlets, so that a beautiful building will be polluted no further?

  • Surely an opportunity is at hand to decant the MPs to some nice modernist site

    Not TOO modern. Babi-Yar comes to mind.

  • Barry Sheridan

    The trouble with modern law making is the intent is flexible as is the application. No one can say any longer I understand the law, because this weeks meaning might not be next weeks. A good rant Brian. I share the sentiment about the changes drawn out by the ticking clock. It is just as you infer.

  • Surely this would make all the government CCTV cameras illegal.


  • Bell Curve

    Brian that is a teeny tiny picture 😐

  • RRS


    By taking us to scholars, other thinkers, other problems, other places, you have left us nothing to complain of and more to hope for.

    I am indebted for the introduction to Emmanuel Todd.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Barry S:

    “No one can say any longer I understand the law, because this weeks meaning might not be next weeks.”

    SQOTD nominee !!! Most excellently said!

    This is precisely why our Constitution needs to be read as having a fixed meaning, and with the words understood to mean what they meant at the writing as best we can tell.

    Same thing with statutes.

    . . .

    Brian: I don’t care what anyone says, your photo of the Shard is terrif, and as long as no Shards were harmed in the making of it, where’s the beef!

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    All who wish to see a bigger version of the Shard picture in this posting should follow the link just under that picture, where it says “at my personal blog”. And if you would like it twice as big as that, click on the bigger picture that you have arrived at, to get it even bigger.

  • john

    tried to harmonise things

    This is probably pointless and only occurred to me because I just got home from a choir rehearsal but…

    Uniformity pretty much completely rules out harmony.

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    John, if everything is uniform, then there is no dis-harmony. Is that the same thing?

  • Ian Bennett

    “There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that’s the system, Mr. Reardon, that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.”

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    Not only did you not attribute that to ‘Atlas Shrugged’, you also misspelled Hank Reardan’s name! We’ll need to revoke your Poetic Licence, and please stop writing any articles.
    Here’s another area for bureaucrat’s to control- mislabelled items! We are going through winter here in Sydney, but I saw one cake-shop selling ‘Summer Tarts’! What sort of world are we living in that allows such names?

  • Ian Bennett

    I assumed that the source would be obvious to Samizdata readers, and the passage was copy-pasted so the mis-spelling is not mine. Anyway, it’s “Rearden”.

    While we’re being snarky, what’s with the grocer’s apostrophe in “bureaucrat’s”?

  • Paul Marks

    The E.U. is a nasty additional layer of government that keeps trying to control everything.

    People, such as the person-in-Kent, who reply “but the British government is also nasty” miss the point.

    The point about the E.U. being an “additional” layer of government.

    It imposes its interventions on-top-of the interventions of the British government.

    Still my dear friends (sarcasm alert) the Economist magazine, do not think the E.U. has gone far enough.

    The E.U., according to them, has not gone far enough.

    There should be unified E.U. unemployment “insurance” and other E.U. wide welfare schemes.

    Yes – British and German taxpayers will be overjoyed at being forced to pay for the mass unemployment of Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal.

    One can not reason with such a position.

    It is beyond both rational argument and empirical evidence.

    The “liberal” establishment elite, are in the grip of an irrational belief system.

  • Watchman

    I wonder what happens under this (hypothetical) legislation if I am taking a picture of the sky and a building gets in the way. I cannot be reasonably expected to find the owner of the intrusive and unwanted building to ask if they mind their building being in my photo of the sky (any more than a photographer of a political protest need ask each member of the crowd for their permission to be in his or her photo), so if I publish my photo of the sky with the building in it, it would surely be reasonable to allow for buildings that get into the photo to remain, and indeed their intrusive presence to be commented upon.

    If so, it would also be perfectly fine to have pages of photos of the sky ruined by intrusive buildings. After all, it is going to be seriously difficult to prove any photo of a building like the Shard was not actually a photo of the sky – the prosecutor would have to prove that there was an intention to commit the offence in question and not just photograph the sky. And I think I know how any jury in the UK (and indeed most magistrates) would swing in that argument.

  • IIRC the French did this years ago with the Eiffel Tower. Citroen put a lighting display on it and then immediately copyrighted it, so that all subsequent photos were in breach of the copyright if published. Somebody at the time said this could start a precedent whereby somebody could slightly alter a famous landmark and then copyright it.

  • Hard to imagine they could prosecute anyone for this, the level of policing required would be comical

  • Laird

    Watchman, in your scenario it seems to me that you should charge the building owner a fee for intruding into your (obviously valuable) photo of the sky.

    And of course, once you have published that photo you should copyright it and thereafter own the rights to all photos of the sky. You’ll be rich overnight.

  • Karl in Texas

    When I lived in Santa Barbara Ca the county already required permits to photograph public buildings which is to say they were slightly ahead of the Patriot Act and its horor show sequel the Patriot act part deux.

    The rates are:
    Photographing in the public right of way $100.00
    Photographing on private property $50.00
    I am not sure if it fall under the county clerks office but if it does then there will also be a $300.00 filing fee.

    There is a certain irony to a Government agency charging a fee to the public to photograph a building that the public owns..

    It is hard to imagine the Americans of today have anything in common with the Rosie the riveters and Jonny gets your guns that fought in WWII. harder still to imagine any familial link with the men and women who fought a revolution over a 3% tax.

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    Karl, what are you talking about? There is nothing to complain about! The DoI seems to pin all the fault on lack of *DEMOCRACY*. Once you erected your own Temple to Democracy, called The Houses of Congress, you had what you’d always (said you’d) wanted.
    So go and complain to a congresscritter, and all will be well!

  • JohnW

    “Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.” – Ayn Rand

  • Tom

    The bigger Shard photo is even better than here — and the EU is even worse than described.

    Limiting photos of public buildings, or of gov’t officials while in action on official business, or in fact of any recording of what you are seeing seems wrong. Is wrong.

    I’m a bit glad the Greeks voted “no” and I’m interested in seeing how the elite kleptocrats keep the Greeks in. It certainly is too bad for the Greek people tho.

  • Brian Micklethwait,

    As I get older, I find that my desire to tell others what to think, although still vestigially strong, is now in decline.

    This is wisdom – by which I mean that it’s an effect, cause, and symptom of wisdom all at once. Good for you.

  • Barry,

    The trouble with modern law making is the intent is flexible as is the application. No one can say any longer I understand the law, because this weeks meaning might not be next weeks. A good rant Brian. I share the sentiment about the changes drawn out by the ticking clock. It is just as you infer.

    Let me simplify and correct this for you:

    The purpose of modern law making is for the application of law to be as flexible as possible to serve the interests of bureaucrats, lawyers, and politicians.

  • JohnB

    No, one shouldn’t tell people what to think.
    One can present facts; reality, but what they do with that is up to them.

  • MHG

    Hello, Brian

    Thanks for all your work over the years. I very seldom post here, but have been a steady reader since early days, back when things were still raw from 1989. If, for whatever reason, you choose to post less — be sure that what you’ve written so far has mattered. And will keep doing so, even as we head into samizdat days of our own.



  • Matt

    Thanks for the very kind words.