Looking At Edinburgh

9 June 2008

Looking at Edinburgh

I think Edinburgh is one of the few really beautiful cities in the world. I was born here, and I’ve lived here most of my life, and I still find myself turning a corner, or looking up a street, or down a hill, and thinking Beautiful – not quite with surprise: is there a word for the feeling of discovering beauty when you know it will be there?

Hence this blog. I like taking photographs. And I love Edinburgh. I’m planning, by the end of June, to have a series of posts about my holiday in Germany in May, and photos of Dresden and Berlin: but each of those posts will be tagged Germany and will be the second post in each day.

One of the photographs I didn’t take when I was on holiday was of the US Embassy in Berlin: and the reason I didn’t was because, as Bruce Schneier outlines here, photographers are regarded as a threat: there are signs up all over their concrete bunker (which blocks half the street) making clear that photographer is not allowed, and there are a bunch of soldiers with guns hanging around who looked like they would welcome the opportunity of relieving their boredom by deleting all photos from a passing photographer’s camera.

The worst threat to the US Embassy in Berlin from my photographing it would have been the obviousness of American paranoia and willingness to inconvenience others. As Bruce notes:

The 9/11 terrorists didn’t photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn’t photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn’t photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren’t being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn’t known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about — the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6 — no photography.

Given that real terrorists, and even wannabe terrorists, don’t seem to photograph anything, why is it such pervasive conventional wisdom that terrorists photograph their targets? Why are our fears so great that we have no choice but to be suspicious of any photographer?

Why indeed? Bruce’s theory is that it’s because

Terrorists taking pictures is a quintessential detail in any good movie. Of course it makes sense that terrorists will take pictures of their targets. They have to do reconnaissance, don’t they? We need 45 minutes of television action before the actual terrorist attack — 90 minutes if it’s a movie — and a photography scene is just perfect.

Well, maybe. Like the binary liquid explosives thing that meant, when I flew to Germany, I had to ditch my water bottle before I went through the security gates and buy another bottle of water on the other side: it’s nonsense but it happens on the movies, so we all change our behaviour accordingly.

But that explains why we comply. It doesn’t explain why people in charge enforce. When we know for a fact that terrorists do not photograph their targets before they attack, and that there is nothing useful they could do with their photographs if they did, why should people with cameras be assumed to be terrorists?

A friend’s boyfriend told me, yesterday, that when he was in the Omni taking photographs a security guard rushed over and ordered him to stop: it was not allowed because a child might be in the frame. (The f’sbf pointed out that he was facing out of the Omni, taking a photo of the sky through the glass wall: any child in the frame might indeed be in danger, but not because of the photograph. The security guard was adamant.)

“If a decision is made to crack down on photographers, it should be made at the top. It’s a general officiousness and a desire to interfere with people going about their legitimate business.” Austin Mitchell MP

I do sometimes take photographs of people. (If you see yourself on this blog, and don’t want to be there, contact me and I’ll take the photo down immediately.) But I try not to take photographs that anyone could use against the person – unnamed, seen on the street or a bus, reflected in a window, or even just wearing utterly sophisticated sunglasses. Crowd scenes at the farmers’ market, stallholders and musicians, children playing in the park. I hope to offend no one or worry anyone, as I stand there camera in hand catching a snapshot of a moment.

Mostly, I take photographs of Edinburgh. To celebrate – and sometimes to criticise – the city I love.

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