16. Australian photographers are revolting


Last year, I wrote a piece on the plight of Umida Akhmedova, an Uzbek photographer who was being persecuted by her government for publishing photographs of traditional Uzbek life. The government argued that she was demeaning their country by portraying it as backward; and threatened her with forced labour or imprisonment if she did not desist. At the time, I wrote that photographers like myself were fortunate to live in countries where governments were more enlightened and freedom of speech (or, in this case, images) was a cherished right. But it seems that I spoke too soon.

Local councils, the third tier of government in Australia, and other official custodial bodies have begun to require photographers to buy permits to photograph local landmarks such as beaches, national parks, historic sites and public buildings within their jurisdiction. In response, a group of photographers has formed its own organization called Arts Freedom Australia, to bring the issue to public attention; and they held a public rally at The Rocks in Sydney on Sunday 29 August to publicise their concerns. An estimated 700 photographers attended the rally, along with representatives of the press and television media.

I will not articulate all the details of the issue here. If you are interested, I suggest that you to jump to the Arts Freedom Australia website which provides a detailed analysis of the problem and maintains updated information as it arises. However, I will say that these charges and the legislation behind them are not confined to the activities of commercial photographers. In fact, if I were to sell this picture, taken without a permit, I am led to believe that I would be performing a criminal act.

Australian photographers are revolting!

It is often the case with emotive issues that personal feelings obscure the facts and I don’t want to contribute to the dissemination of misinformation; but the issue here seems to be one where either (a) the proverbial sledgehammer has been brought into action to crack a rather small nut, or (b) the bodies administering the permits have latched on to what they think will be a money-spinner and they intended to milk it for all its worth.

In truth, I’ve heard no objection to the notion of paying for the right to photograph from commercial photographers whose scale of operations will clearly impact access to or the normal operation of the site where they wish to work. However, the line between large-scale professional operations and the lone individual who, to all intents and purposes, has no more impact than any tourist, is not clearly defined; and therefore, the individual photographic artist is caught up in the legislated requirement to acquire a permit; and since each jurisdictional body appears to have its own particular requirements, one would need to acquire and in most cases pay for a swag of different permits in order to take photographs across Australia.

I retired from work 2 years ago and to occupy myself in retirement I returned to photography, a passion of my youth, which had to take a backseat when the demands of education, employment, marriage and raising a family took precedence in my life. Since I retired, I have not taken one cent of income from the government; and I have been required to pay in full for the services that I receive from government. In fact, I still pay tax in various forms.  But I find it ludicrous that I should have to buy a permit to take a photograph of a rock that has been sitting in the middle of Australia since long before apes evolved into humans.

As far as photography is concerned, I might be described as a passionate amateur.  Photography provides me with an activity in retirement that allows me to learn and grow; with goals to aim for and challenges to overcome; and when I do manage to pull off a shot that reflects what I have learned, it delivers to me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that makes me want to learn more and strive harder. My photography is not a commercial enterprise; but according to what I have been told by the people at Arts Freedom Australia, if I were lucky enough to take a photograph (of a public place) that someone wanted to buy, and I sold it to them, that would make me a criminal. On the other hand, if I were to conform to the legislation, whatever I am likely to earn from the few sales I might make, would be more than offset by the cost of the plethora of permits I would have to buy, just in case I had the opportunity to make a sale. Furthermore, assuming that I would declare that sale as income, I would be required to pay tax on it. And since I am not a professional photographer, I could not claim the permits as a cost of doing business. So, in effect, I would be having to pay twice.

Laws are generally designed to protect the innocent; and a society without laws would clearly be unmanageable; but we need laws that are clear, consistent and simple to understand and administer; we need laws that address the specific issues that require legislation and do not inadvertantly catch the innocent in their net; we need laws that protect without stifling the spirit that enables humankind to reach its potential; and above all, we need laws that enable, not disable.

So, if you are a photographic artist, passionate about your art, take note and take action; for history has taught us that failure to resist the repression of the arts can lead to far greater, far more terrible, far more widespread repression in the future.

I'm a photographer, not a criminal


4 thoughts on “16. Australian photographers are revolting

  1. My mouth is agape. What madness, these permits. You’ve written about this with great clarity, and I’m completely on your side, needless to say, being another amateur photographer. I routinely put all my photos in the public domain, because I don’t even dream of making money on them, the competition is so vast; by putting them in the public domain I can hope that they will be of some use to someone somewhere. But suppose I came to Australia and took a picture, put it in the public domain, then it was downloaded by an Australian and sold: who would be the criminal? Would your government come search for me and haul me off to the klink in, say, Perth? What action can those of us on other continents take? Is there an email address we can send outraged comments to?

    • I believe that the initial intent of the legislation was to enable Local Councils to recover costs incurred by commercial photographers and film makers where their activities required action by the council (e.g. road closures) or caused inconvenience to the public. And that is fair enough. But it seems that some councils have latched onto this legislation as a revenue generating tool or simply as a way of exercising their photophobia. What we need are clear, uniform and unambiguous laws that differentiate between disruptive and non-disruptive photography and filming, regardless of any commercial outcome.
      Often, governments ignore the voices of their own community because they operate in the mistaken belief that success at the ballot box gives them a mandate to do what they like (until the next election, at least). But criticism from overseas often carries more sway because criticism from those who are not directly affected illustrates the inequity of the legislation (or application thereof); and in this case, it could potentially result in a reduction in tourism and a resulting loss of revenue far exceeding the income generated from the permits themselves. So, if you wish to voice your support, I suggest that you do so through Arts Freedom Australia (linked above in the essay) to ensure a coordindated response. Many thanks for your comment and your support.

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