This is a 78-year-old photographer’s account of how innocent Christmas snaps of Norwich city centre sparked a police swoop involving five officers and suspicions over terrorism.
?I must ask you to stop taking photographs; this is private property.? Looming over me, arms crossed, legs apart, the security man had assumed the posture of one who would brook no nonsense.
In truth I had been totally unaware that the square in front of me was private. Surrounded as it was with shops and restaurants it looked much like any one of Norwich?s many public spaces. It was Christmas Eve and I had gone down town for some last-minute shopping. So, too, had a lot of other people, for the streets and squares were thronged with shoppers bearing bags and parcels of various shapes and sizes. However, it was only on the way home that, sitting down to rest on a seat overlooking Chapelfield Plain, that it occurred to me to take pictures of some of them. No sooner had I begun snapping, however, than the security man had confronted me.
Private or not, it was hard to see what harm I was doing. ?Look,? I said, holding up the camera so he could see a picture I?d just taken, ?I?m not taking pictures of your property. It?s Christmas Eve and all I?m doing is photographing happy shoppers.?
?Happy?? he said. True, many were grim-faced. Still, there were Santa Claus hats to be seen and some were stepping out with alacrity.
Photo: Howard said he was unaware that a security guard was present in one of the pictures he had taken Picture credit: Howard Temperley
So why, he wanted to know, was I photographing people? I explained that I made Christmas cards and that insofar as I used photography it was only to help me with my artwork. Had anyone complained? I pointed out that they were no more aware of being photographed by me than they were of being monitored by his security cameras, that presumably being how he?d spotted me. So what was he worried about? Had he thought I was planning a heist? Seeing I?m a 78-year-old retired history professor that must surely strike him as unlikely.
?Sorry,? he repeated, ?private property, no photographs.? So, pocketing my camera, I gathered up my parcels, and headed homeward.
Out on St. Stephen?s, Norwich?s main shopping street, there were even larger crowds. There were overhead Christmas decorations, too, and a Santa Claus. In short, it was about as close as a British down-town shopping area on a wintery afternoon can get to making itself look festive. There was even a seat conveniently located for taking in the scene.
Scarcely had I got my camera out, however, than a vehicle drew up and I was surrounded by police. Others, talking urgently into their microphones, could be seen emerging from among the shoppers and hurrying in my direction. It seemed a major incident was occurring with me at its centre.
Puzzled, I asked them what it was all about. They had, they said, received an emergency call from the nearby mall. I assumed it must have been from the security man I?d been talking to, or possibly one of his bosses. So, once again, I had to explain that I was merely a local artist going about his business and that one of the things I?d been doing was going around stores checking on how sales of my cards had been going. Having some samples with me I handed around copies. They looked at them dubiously and at one another.
In case they should think I was deliberately trying to wrong-foot them I explained that I had lots of copies and that, besides, it was Christmas Eve. If they would prefer for me to sign them I happily would. But if they really want to know what I was up to you they should take a look at my website, www.howardtemperley.com, printed there on the back. They turned the cards over and looked suspiciously at what was written.
Sensing that things were getting out of hand, the woman police officer, assuming a brisk tone, took out her notebook and copied down the details of my name, address and date of birth. After she had communicated these to headquarters over her inter-com I asked if I was free to go. No, she said, not until they heard back from headquarters.
While we waited I asked them what they thought they were up to. Was it about terrorism? Yes, I was told. If terrorists were what they were after, I observed, surely that made elderly professor an unlikely suspect. ?They come in all shapes and sizes,? the policewoman said with the air of one who was familiar with their habits and had dealt with many in her time.. ?But supposing I?m just an ordinary citizen,? I said, ?what am I not allowed to photograph?? ?Buildings,? she said. ?What, no buildings?? ?Well, certain parts of buildings. And you can?t photograph children either.?
?But look,? I said, ?the street?s full of children. You mean I can?t photograph Norwich?s main shopping street if there are children here?? ?It?s OK,? she said, ?so long as they have clothes on.? It being a cold day all the children in sight were reassuringly well clad.
Eventually word came through from headquarters and I was allowed to go on my way. Before going they handed me back my Christmas cards but took my business card, saying they would be taking a look at my website. I told them I?d be happy to receive orders.
What laws I had been or might have been breaking I?ve no idea, but neither, it seemed, did they. It had all been very genial and low-key. One thing, however, is clear: we live in nervous times.
Howard Temperley, retired history professor