The man was standing on the footpath when I arrived home, taking photographs of frangipani flowers lit by the late afternoon sun. “Hope you don’t mind my taking photographs here”, he said, nodding towards the tree in the front garden.
We started talking. He had recently developed an interest in photography and practiced by taking images around the neighbourhood. Glancing to the young woman accompanying him, he said, “I bring my wife with me … I don’t want to be mistaken for a pedophile”.
A strange statement, I thought. What could taking photographs on a public street have to do with sex crimes against children?
Plenty, in the imaginations of the mayors of Waverly and Randwick municipalities, both of whom earlier this year proposed selective bans on photography in their local government areas. George Newhouse, Deputy Mayor of Waverly Council, proposed that cameras, including those built into mobile phones, be banned from places where children play. That would include seaside playgrounds and public parks and would cover popular beaches in Waverly municipality such as Bondi, Bronte and Tamarama - all popular tourist venues.
Newhouse denied the proposed ban would prevent parents photographing their children or tourists taking photographs. As news of the controversial proposal quickly spread, he told the Sydney media that signs could be erected banning the use of cameras in designated areas. On-the-spot fines could be issued to photographers who refused to comply. He claimed the ban would prevent the exploitation of children and sunbaking women.
In neighbouring Randwick municipality, Mayor Murray Matson followed up by proposing to ban photography at council-owned swimming pools. This brought an immediate and largely hostile reaction from parents who believed that Matson’s move put them in the same category as pedophiles for simply taking pictures of their children.
These are gut reactions to an issue that pitches the civil liberties of one group against those of another. They are un-thought-out responses to new challenges brought by the rapid spread of convergent communications technologies, such as mobile phone-cameras and cheap, digital cameras. As responses by supposedly intelligent council officers, they are far too simplistic and fail to acknowledge the long-established traditions of street and documentary photography. Faced with a community backlash, Randwick council suspended their decision.
The incident of the topless women
It was topless, sunbaking women and a pervert with a mobile phone camera that were responsible for the latest revival of this particular moral panic, the origins of which can be traced back to the time when camera-enabled mobile phones first appeared on the market. It was then that the fearful and paranoia-inclined realised that the new technology could be used to surreptitiously take photographs in the changing rooms of public swimming pools. Never mind that there was no such incident on record, pool managements went into proactive prevention and banned the devices, though how this was to be accomplished remained unclear.
Topless women enter the story - or should I say the viewfinder - in 2004 when Peter Mackenzie was charged with using the camera in his mobile phone to take photographs of topless female sunbathers at Bondi Beach. Mackenzie was fined $500, however he was charged with nuisance, not photography, because photography is not yet a crime on Sydney’s eastern suburbs beaches - however much those occupying the mayoral suites might like it to be, in particular places at least.
Commenting on the Mackenzie incident on his website, Sydney photographer and observer of the photography scene, Andrew Nemeth, suggested Mackenzie was clearly at fault and got what he deserved. “He crept the length of the beach and took a number of photos of topless women, often just leering close-ups of their exposed breasts … this was obviously an offensive thing to do - and he got nailed for it.”
Most photographers would agree with Nemeth’s sentiments because they know that behaviour like Mackenzie’s can discredit photographers in general and garner support for simplistic local government solutions. Fortunately, moral panic about photographers and camera-equipped mobile phones on beaches and in city parks is far from universal. Nameth recounts his own experience around the time when photographing without interference among families at a Sydney beach. He sums it up concisely and accurately: “It's clearly not what you do or where you do it, but rather the finesse with which it's done.”
Critics of the council proposals to ban photography pointed out what should be a self-evident fact - that, rightly or wrongly, topless women in public places should anticipate being ogled, and that if they do not like it they have the choice of covering up or staying at home. A voyeuristic reaction from people sharing a public place - including those who wish to remember the scene through making a photographic image of it - should be anticipated by the scantly-clad.
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