The public reaction to my previous blog posting Stonewalling Stonehenge has been remarkable, and understandably the majority of comments have been in favour of the rights of photographers.
I wanted to address each individual comment in turn, but there were simply too many for me to cope with and keep fotoLibra ticking over at the same time. So firstly I want to thank everyone who took the trouble to make their points. Over 10,000 people, among them BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, read the comments, and PM invited me on air to discuss the subject. Eddie Mair gave us four and a half minutes (the piece is about 40 minutes into the broadcast). The story was picked up and repeated (with varying degrees of accuracy) in blogs around the world.
By the way, I know some of you think Jacqui Norman wrote this, but in fact the writer is Gwyn Headley, the founder of fotoLibra. Jacqui writes the fotoLibra Newsletters and the Picture Calls. Rather than adding to the comments on the original blog, I decided to lay out my subsequent thoughts in this second posting.
In this economic climate I do feel it is ambitious of property owners to ask for a commercial photography fee from photographers upfront, unless exceptional access conditions are granted in return.
But the strength of feeling against English Heritage surprises me. I almost find myself in the invidious position of having to defend them.
First of all, English Heritage is a wonderful institution doing an amazing job with diminishing resources in the face of hostility from both the public and the Treasury. One small thing that would make a big difference to their ability to cope would be the removal of VAT on building repair and conservation work. But our politicians and tax officials are too craven, indifferent or greedy to allow that minor concession.
Like all organisations, English Heritage will have its fair share of zealots, jobsworths, and staff who are plain barking mad. They can be rigid, bureaucratic and inflexible. They will retreat behind barriers of obfuscation and legality. But behind it all their purpose is simple: to do their best to preserve the threatened, imperilled heritage of England. In Wales, we have Cadw, banished by the Welsh Assembly Government to a prefab on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Cardiff, so highly do Welsh politicians regard our heritage. Scotland has Historic Scotland, about which I know less. They all suffer the same slings and arrows.
My parents, living in a Grade I listed house, were not allowed to change their bedroom wallpaper. It was a Chinese print dating from the eighteenth century, and it needed to be preserved. We had no problems with that.
There is always the danger of the Taste Police stepping in and obstructing development, but when there is pragmatism and understanding on both sides a mutually agreeable solution can usually be thrashed out.
I remember with sadness the wonderful Art Deco Firestone Building on the Great West Road in London. It was listed by English Heritage, but being office workers they tend to go home at 6 o’clock. At 6:05 on a Friday evening, the bulldozers went in and by the time English Heritage officials were back at their desks on Monday morning the fabulous, unique Firestone Building was a pile of rubble. The slimeball developer was fined the maximum — £5,000.
But let’s get back to photography and the rights of photographers — specifically fotoLibra members — to photograph what they like. In a free country (and I don’t believe there is any such place, on this planet at least) people should be allowed to photograph what they can see. How you subsequently use that image is up for discussion.
It would be unwise, unjust and unfair to use a photograph of an innocent stranger to promote a commercial product, or to illustrate an editorial piece on the perils of drug abuse, sexual perversion, or any other rabble-rousing indiscretion. The person concerned could sue and would quite possibly — or would certainly deserve to — win.
I might think it tasteless to commandeer Stonehenge to promote some commercial service or artifact, but we’ve been worrying this bone for six days now and there doesn’t seem to be a thing anyone could actually do about it in law.
So instead of issuing poorly worded and hastily thought out decrees which have the unfortunate effect of getting up everybody’s nose and giving bureaucracy a bad name, why don’t organisations like English Heritage open a dialogue with organisations like fotoLibra and see if we can work together towards a common goal?
They want to preserve our heritage (and so do I) and we want to sell more images. I’m sure we can do a deal.
I’m picking up the phone right now.