Saturday, July 16, 2005

Stealing our souls

Child-safety fears bar pupils from public buses says The Scotsman. But if you read the story beneath it is the public who are being banned from buses that some children use to get to school in Aberdeenshire.

The local authority feels it has been forced into the move:
"A number of parents indicated that they would not allow their children to travel on services which are open to the general public, despite there being no evidence of any problems on the services which have operated successfully in this way for 20 years."
There has been one sane reaction to this nonsense. Judith Gilliespie, the policy director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council says:

"People have got this whole protection of kids thing out of proportion. The legislation only applies when people are in child-care situations - it doesn't apply to all contact between adults and children.

"Kids have got to be part of our lives, but the more you separate children, the more difficult it is for them to cope when they are old enough to interact with adults. It's almost as if these parents are regarding members of their own communities as undesirables, but we can't live our lives like that."

But I'm afraid we do live our lives like that now.

There was a report in the UK Press Gazette a few weeks ago:

A freelance photographer has found himself in hot water - for taking unauthorised photographs on Cleethorpes beach.

John Byford - who sells to newspapers, magazines, agencies and consumer businesses - went to the north-east Lincolnshire resort to take stock pictures of a two-day seafront kite festival.

But he was forbidden from doing so by event organisers in case children were inadvertently included in any of his shots.

No parents wants someone in a dirty mac taking photographs of their children, but here even the inadvertent appearance of a child in the background of a shot is seen as a problem. As North East Lincolnshire Council inevitably said: "We regret any inconvenience caused to bona fide photographers, but the safety and welfare of visitors has to be our first priority."

John Byford was quoted as saying:

"To treat every photographer as a potential paedophile struck me as a sad reflection on modern society.

"At this rate, there will be no photographic record of British beach life in the first half of the 21st century."

It is a sad reflection, but it goes further than he fears. This policy does not only treat every photographer as a potential paedophile. It treats every subsequent viewer of the photograph as a potential paedophile.

And this in a society which is in love with CCTV and has been described as the most watched in the world. This caste of mind, which requires us to trust the government without question while being endlessly suspicious of our neighbours, is precisely what typifies a totalitarian state.

The ban also goes beyond a threat to the documentary record of beach life. It poses a threat to the way photography has been seen as a democratic art. In contrast to portraiture in oils, which required time and a leisured subject, photography could take place in a moment and in the street - a view typified by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Indeed it is fair to say that there has been a connection between photographing children and political radicalism, even if there could be something condescending about the way working-class children were presented. Think of the urchins who regularly turned up in Picture Post and of the way the child - even the child's body - was used as a symbol of improved health and education in the new welfare state.

Only today I bought a copy of Jonathan Coe's biography of the experimental left-wing novelist B. S. Johnson, which has the wonderful title Like a Fiery Elephant. I found that Johnson collaborated with the photographer Julia Trevelyan Oman on a book called Street Children, which was published in 1964. And a few years later the saintly anarchist Colin Ward wrote the heavily illustrated The Child in the City.

Of course, photographing children has always been controversial. The great pioneer of the art, Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, took a famous picture of a group of boys bathing naked in Whitby harbour. He exhibited at the exhibition of the Royal Photographical Society of Great Britain in 1887 under the title "The Water Rats".

Reactions were mixed. The Prince of Wales - the future Edward VII - ordered a huge enlargement to be made to hang in Marlborough House. Whereas the local clergy condemned Sutcliffe "for showing this print to the corruption of the other sex".

At one time we would have sided with the prince in the name of art. But in 2005 it is the clergy's side of the dispute that is winning.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

there was a recent article in the Telegraph about how one of their theatre critics who also happened to be a keen amateur photographer was arrested and thrown in prison for taking photos on a beach. It was a few years ago - so this is not as new as we may think.