Now that fears about SARS and terrorism are depressing the Australian tourism industry, there can be no better time to revise the permit requirements and charges imposed on commercial photography in national parks managed by the federal government.
Freeing-up commercial photographers and video-makers would generate new images that could be used to promote national parks like Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Kakadu
as tourist destinations and head-off the ill-feeling now evident among commercial photographers towards park management. Such liberalisation would be timely in
light of the June 5 release of the federal government's tourism
green paper. This was designed to stimulate the ailing tourism industry and proposed that inbound travel focus on niche markets such as Indigenous tourism.
Resentment over costs and limitations on commercial photography and video production has simmered for some time and focus on the need to apply for a photography or
video permit as stipulated by the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Convention Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Regulation 12.38 says that "a person
must not use a captured image of a Commonwealth reserve to derive commercial gain". That's all Commonwealth reserves, including those on Christmas and Norfolk islands.
In Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, film and video recording attracts a charge
of $250 a day; stills photography, painting and sound recording is charged at
$20 a day; and, if a traditional owner is required - as may be the case for filming
- than it's another $350 a day.
The appearance of images of the national parks in photography books indicates
that some professional photographers are happy with the arrangements or accept
them grudgingly. But the issue is controversial among professional photographers
and is evidence of a clash of cultural values between the parks' Aboriginal owners
and the freedom of commercial photographers to pursue their profession. The commercial
use of images does not indicate and disrespect of Aboriginal culture, the photographers
Local Aboriginies do not see it that way. The case is put on their behalf by
an Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park information document which claims that they
do not want to become "camera fodder ... as mere subjects for filming and
still photography along with the Uluru sunset". The same document hints at
the use of emotional blackmail by alleging that filming and photography are "a
matter of respect for the park and its people". Interesting, because photography
is often carried out because a photographer or videographer has respect for something,
especially an inspiring landscape.
The document goes on to admit that it is understandable that businesses want
to use images of Uluru-Kata Tjuta and that the park authority is "obliged
to find ways to make this happen while still protecting our own law and lifestyle".
The permit system and regulations seek to protect Anangu culture and those sites
with Indigenous restrictions on which gender and seniority groups can view them.
The document states that filming, photography, drawing, painting and written descriptions
of such sensitive sites are subject to restrictions.
Photographers say that charges and controls enforceable by rangers are unnecessarily
restrictive. If a ranger suspects the permit holder may have done the wrong thing
to "capture an image or record a sound", under the EPBC Act the ranger
may seize all copies of the image or recording and the camera or device used to
record the sound.
Take only photographs, leave only footprints? Forget it!
The permit-and-charges system makes a mockery of the national park exhortation
to "take only photographs, leave only footprints".
The issue recently came to a head with the publication in Australian
Photography magazine (November 2002 issue) of an article by Ross Barnett.
Developing his argument for greater freedom for photographers in the May 2003
edition, Barnett said that such restrictions are out of place in any national
park, especially one on the World Heritage list because of its scenic and cultural
Uluru's status as a national symbolic icon to both Anglo and Aboriginal cultures
is also argument for fewer restrictions. Barnett added that while it is important
to respect other cultures, "respect does not come about by giving a government
bureaucracy the power to vet both photographic images and the written word before
they go to publication". That, of course, amounts to nothing more than censorship.
Respect "certainly does not come about through giving individual rangers
the power to treat professional photographers as though they were the enemy".
Who is affected?
It is not just commercial photographers and video makers who are affected by
the permit system. So are people who may want to record the sounds of the park
for commercial reasons and artists - the restrictions imposed by the EPBC Act
also apply to painters.
Despite the protestations of professional photographers, it is possible to
make a case, based on the ability to pay, for fees to be paid by the makers of
television commercials making use of images of the park. A similar case could
be made for stills photography destined for use in advertising. Publishers of
picture books (which celebrate the park, not denigrate it) and photographers shooting
for stock, however, do not have such deep pockets.
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