John Byford ~ Visual Artist   |   Skegness, England
Contact: 07742 050065

Stealing our souls

Report from the UK Press Gazette:

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.


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All Photos by John Byford ©