London's Spitalfields market: shoot the architecture, we take away your camera

Yesterday, I met my friend (and editor) Patrick Nielsen Hayden for breakfast at Spitalfields Market, our local Sunday market here in London. Spitalfields has been around for centuries, and it's just undergone a massive, years-long renovation. If you ask me, this has not been entirely successful, removing a lot of the market's charm, but there are some lovely grace notes, like the cartoony architectural flourishes in the joists that support the glass roof.

Just as we were arriving at Spitalfields, I got a call from Patrick: "You won't believe what just happened: I was taking a photo of the market and a security guard came up and tried to take my camera away and delete the picture!" Apparently, this guy had invented a new Spitalfields policy prohibiting photography (some of the stalls have had this policy for a long time, including -- hilariously -- a stall that sells photos of Banksy graffiti) and was planning on enforcing it by taking away people's property -- without a warrant or badge, without any kind of posted signage.

Here in London, you get photographed upwards of 300 times a day, by every junior sneak, pecksniff, and petty CCTV operator who can afford a cheap little camera. The cameras often fail to help catch criminals, and they certainly don't deter desperate muggers and junkies and stupid drunken kids. All the law seems to require by way of consumer protection is a sign saying, "You're being filmed."

You can be photographed again and again, but heaven help you if you take a picture back. Your person isn't deserving of any serious privacy protection, but buildings, t-shirts, shop-windows, and market stalls are all entitled to unlimited protection from having their precious photons stolen.

I've bought plenty of stuff at Spitalfields over the years -- like I say, we go every weekend -- but if this turns out to be the new official policy, consider me out. People have been taking pictures at the market since cameras were invented (the town hall archives are stuffed filled with old box-camera shots of Spitalfields during the Jubilee) and any market that doesn't welcome my camera doesn't deserve my money, either.

Generally speaking, I love being a Londoner, but when my fellow residents decide that the best response to terror isn't keep calm and carry on, but rather "When in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout." it's downright embarrassing -- like being a Bostonian or something.

Taken at Spitalfields Market, 9:20 AM, Sunday, March 30, 2008. I liked the cartoony cloud-trail decorations seemingly supporting the left side of the ceiling, and the fact that the spire of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church Spitalfields was so dramatically framed in the transparent roof.

Right after I took the shot, though, a large security guard walked directly up to me. “We don’t take pictures in here.” “Oh?” I said. “Yes,” he replied, reaching for my camera. “We’ll have to delete that.”

“No you don’t, and I’m leaving the market right now,” I said, walking away briskly. And as I did so, I swear to God, I heard him get out his walkie-talkie and radio for backup. You can’t be too careful with these terrorist photographers.

Out on Brushfield Street, wondering if I was about to be wrestled to the ground by Spitalfield commandos, I phoned the people I’d come to the market to meet for breakfast in the first place. “Hey, Cory,” I said. “You’re not going to believe this, but…”



  1. I’d say that calls for an act of civil disobedience.

    Who doesn’t have a camera these days, anyway?

  2. The moment the security guard made a grab for Patrick’s person or property, he committed assault. I’d have been on the phone to the proper authorities immediately.

  3. Come on Brits, you’ve always been a smart lot when the chips are down. Please protest this nonsense with a full on Flickr meet up, Flash Mob, or whatever. You have to resist this Nazi crap (again!)

  4. I’m with Dan. I’d have been on the phone to the police the moment he went for the camera.

    Of course, I’d recommend never going to Spitalfields now anyway, since I regard uprooting the thriving market and replacing it with a generic selection of chain restaurants to be a horrific act of cultural vandalism. The fact that they are employing horrible little jobsworths to indimate their customers is just the icing on the cake.

  5. I’m with Stephen – they don’t want the photos taken because it just serves as evidence for the complete gutting of any kind of atmosphere or history, in what was a really vibrant area of the city.

  6. I think you and several of the commenters below are confusing two issues.
    1) Its illegal to take photos on private property and the market is private property. This isn’t a new law and is consistent from country to country. While certain markets like Borough Market don’t seem to bother photographers, that’s just internal policy. They don’t have to post a no photography sign either. You’re not suppossed to be ignorant of the law. The heavy handed technique of not posting No Photography signs and then sending the security guards to hassle you is not a very clever policy and maybe you should complain to Spitalfield’s management about that. But generally these policies are about maintaining and controlling the brand of Spitalfields Market and have nothing to do with terrorism.
    2) There is a real problem for citizen-photographers on the streets however. It’s not only that the Terrorism Act of 2000 allows for officers to stop you and enquire why you are taking photographs (most of us street photographers get stopped regularly these days and get written up on Form 5090 the Stop and Searches Form), its the new campaign by police to get the public to notify the police of anyone who looks “suspicious” when taking photographs. THAT is scary.

  7. I have been living in London for 4 years and the real issue is the total apathy of Londoners and Brits in general. That is how all these cameras have been set up in the first place, no one seems to care and people just go with the flow. There will never be any type of protest regarding behaviors like these because people are too busy looking the other way.

    So keep calm and carry on…

  8. The “UK has more CCTV cameras per capita than any other country” meme is an urban myth, based on bad methodology – some cops counted the cameras on Putney High Street, then multiplied that figure by the number of high streets in Britain.

    As with global warming, it’s very important to stick to unarguable facts and figures to back up the case, lest opponents scream and shout about “media myths” and so on in an attempt to discredit the campaigning work of No2ID, Liberty and the like. (Full disclosure, I’m a member of these and other civil liberties/ digital rights organisations.)

  9. Regardless of the legality (and I have my doubts that it’s illegal, but IANAL), what a ridiculous and petty law to insist on hiding behind — in a public place!

    But it is common, and has been for some time now, for people to be hassled for snapping their family and friends in public (privately-owned, yes) shopping centres.

    It is part of the absurd authoritarian state, from bus lanes to security guards, that London and UK has become and, as an ex-Londoner, a Brit living abroad, I’m glad to be out of it.

    fontastique is quite right about the apathy too. Maybe ‘they’ put something in the water!

  10. 1) Its illegal to take photos on private property […]

    “What law? What statute, Act of Parliament, Order in Council, Departmental Order, police regulation or by-law have you in mind?” – A P Herbert, Uncommon Law

    It’s possible that there is a law in the UK that makes it illegal to take photographs on private property. This would turn most birthday parties into illegal conspiracies, but nothing Her Majesty’s Government does surprises me any more. None the less, I think what you meant to say was that the owner of private property may make your presence on his or her land contingent upon you agreeing not to take photographs. The security guard would have been within his rights to ask Patrick to leave and the owner could have sued Patrick for damages (which would surely be merely nominal) but under no circumstances would the owner or the guard be entitled to take anything in Patrick’s possession. Attempting to do so would be assault; succeeding in doing so would be theft.

  11. Curiously Incongruous @7

    Could you cite either statute or case law in support of your claim that photography on private property is illegal?

    As I understand it, the situation is rather that if you are on private property without having paid any sort of admission fee then you are in effect there at the whim of the owner and can be asked to leave without reason.

  12. Further to this, as I’ve noted over at Making Light, there’s a good argument that deleting files from someone else’s digital camera against their will would in fact be a criminal offence under Section 3 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 (‘Unauthorised Modification’). And, as has already been noted, getting the camera off you in the first place would be common-law assault.

    (Joe @11 – it wouldn’t be theft though, as there would be no intent to permanently deprive. But it would be actionable trespass.)

  13. Been there before. Many areas in London which appear to be public are in fact private land, the South Bank for example.
    In many areas “professional photography” is often verboten, and tripods aren’t welcome. This being the UK, a tripod ban is for health and safety reasons, obviously. Pro photography being banned in places like Tate Modern’s turbine hall or St Paul’s cathedral is understandable for locations that derive income from selling their image.

    I had a run-in with a jobsworth security guard a while ago. Unfortunately for me, he told me professional photography wasn’t allowed. I’m not a professional, and so a battle of wits ensued

  14. You entered the premises with an unlicensed photographic device at 9.20 AM, with the premeditated aim of taking pictures without proper license.

    You then fled the scene once challenged. This is tantamount to admitting guilt for the Camden market arson attacks barely a month before.

    … too bad you had to boast of your crimes on your “online forum”. Citizen Doctorow: I am performing an internet arrest and reporting you to KEN LIVINGSTONE.

  15. Attempting to do so would be assault; succeeding in doing so would be theft.

    So, would deleting the image be theft of Intellectual Property?


  16. when they start routinely demanding ID and searching you for weapons at places you formerly attended for pleasure,it is time to vote with your feet. It’s a world ever changing, somewhere,somewhen, somebody is struggling to start a new enterprise or make new art and is hungry for your patronage. Seek them out and leave the worn out and paranoid behind.

  17. I’ll give it five years, tops, before cameras become illegal and possession lands you many years in prison. Because we might use them to prove something government/businesses can’t refute.

  18. I say we do a flashmob next sunday at Spitafields… ten of people whipping out their cameras on cue and taking pictures of the security guard and the market.

  19. Right fellow photographers… Everybody pile into Spitlefields in your 1000s and take LOTS of photographs. We have to overwhelm the bastards… publish them all on flikr. There is no justification for this sort of nonsense…

  20. As if taking a pic of anywhere will aid terrorism.

    Properly funded terrorists have the schematics of where they want to go not some crappy cell phone pic of Spitalfieilds.

    And besides, the current crop of London bombers only have to turn up and blow up, no pics required to explode on Oxford street.

    Almost enough to make one oine for the old days of IRA bombings.

    At least they gave phoned warnings sometimes.

  21. “Its illegal to take photos on private property and the market is private property. This isn’t a new law and is consistent from country to country” …. Sorry CURIOUSLY INCONGRUOUS but you are 100% wrong. It is not and has never been ILLEGAL to photograph on private property. The owners simply have to right to forbid it. There is NO law forbidding it per se. It is the right of the owners of the private property to take civil action against a photographer taking pictures within their space. The police will NEVER be interested.
    (I do know this stuff, I have been a pro photographer in London for 25 years!)
    I personally don’t believe that the owners should be permitted to forbid photography in publicly accessible spaces, and am all in favour of flashmobs of photographers defeating this nonsense.

  22. Oooh. Snap! Cory, I caught that crack about Bostonians and you’re walking on thin ice there! Except for, of course, the fact that you’re totally right and Menino and the ham-heads who generally make up the authorities here are a bunch of numbskulls. Blinking LEDs at Logan are apparently a threat and they are still proceeding with charges against the MIT student who was wearing DIY electronic jewelry. Some years back towards 9/11 there were security people hassling folks about taking photos at the John Hancock building… there’s always going to be some petty tyrant Rent-A-Cop lurking in the shadows in just about any ambiguous situation.

  23. I like reading about London’s social issues, but what I’m not hearing is the criticism of the British Government that allows these sorts of things. If I was Mr. Neilson Hayden, I would have told this mugger-in uniform to get the hell away from me. I will not be bullied by people that are paid to protect the public. So Big Brother’s London is filled with CCTVs, and there are places that don’t allow picture taking, and the cost of living is insane and the air is bad and traffic is horrible. To each his own, but Canada sounds Much to me. Or New York. I would not support a Police State the likes of which is obvious in London if I had a great city like Toronto to live in. Come back home Cory, Canada needs you.

  24. these are known to exist

    therefore, all hats must be banned. Anyone wearing a hat is a terrorist. Further, now that they are known to exist,persons responsible for security cannot plead ignorance and must be dismissed for nelect of duty if hats are not immediately banned.
    Anyone failing to jail a hat-wearer is a terrorist.

  25. Well, even if a guard grabs your camera and delete all the pictures taken, unless he removes the sd/cf/xd/ and confiscate it, you will be always able to recover the deleted pictures via a restore sw like photorescue et simili (you have only to take care of NOT shoot any new picture with the same memory card). You will succeed even if the moron format your entire memory card! So, bring along a spare cf/sd/xd card and you will be able to even continue your photo reportage…

  26. Takuan, but does it come as a Prada man-purse?

    Taking pictures of everything is a tourist’s duty, and any place that wants to suck the money out of tourists’ pockets better have a better policy than this market does. Isn’t there an ACLU-like organisation in GB?

  27. how about a trick camera that shoots steel blades out the sides when handled wrong? Or just crumbles to pieces in the renta-cop’s paws, opening the door for a damages suit? Or gives electric shocks? Or explodes? Or is covered in something disgusting? Or emits a 120 decibel siren? Or takes fingerprints for later identity theft? Or has a live snake in it?

  28. Or…ah, have lots of mice in the bag! They’ll all run out and make elephant artists stampede, crushing all the cops to death! And everyone else too! But, since it’s artists doing the stamping, the bloody mess can be saved as a huge work of public art. Perfect.

  29. I think the photo posted along with Hayden’s account gives away the real reason that the guard wanted the image deleted: he managed to capture an image of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, and as we all know, from this one can begin to triangulate the secret sacred geometry of the East End. Of course, given that the Freemasons have a history of insinuating themselves among the police and security services of England (DO YOUR RESEARCH), it is not surprising at all that when Hayden failed to provide the correct code word and handshake he was asked to turn over the camera. The guard was likely just acting on standing orders from his lodge.

    I will now go on and on about Freemasonry, public schools, Canada House, Dodi Fayed, bimetalism, the return of wild boars to northern England and the recent sale of Jaguar and Land Rover until I fall over, foaming at the mouth…glaaarghhhh.

  30. i agree that this is ridiculous and should meet with civil disobedience, but i’d like to point out the guard wasn’t actually trying to steal his camera – they watch you delete the picture, and then you continue on.

    happened to me in westminster abbey. thought about responding to the steward (?) in french and wandering away.

    i find not being allowed to photograph westminster abbey more ludicrous than the spitalfields thing, because they charge you 10 pounds to walk in the door.

    on a side note, spitalfields is where jack the ripper did his thing.

  31. I agree that banning photography in a mall is just stupid, but unfortunately quite common and within the property holders rights.

    How about changing Spitalfield’s minds about casual snappers?

    Perhaps Cory and Patrick could use their considerable skills to organize a flash mob? It would be interesting to see the reaction if several hundred photographers descended on the mall at once. Don’t forget to invite the press/blogosphere.

    Often the best way to get rid of a stupid rule is to illuminate it.

  32. I love the total absence of anything resembling sane threat-modelling here:

    We must defend ourselves against terrorists and pirates here — they’ll stop at nothing!

    So we’ll delete their images, because these unstoppable pirratists may be incredibly determined and nefarious, but surely they’ll be discouraged at the thought of a) buying a small, secret camera or b) using an undelete tool to recover the image off their memory cards.

    When your “security” plan relies on easily discouraged suicide bombers, you’re just fucking around.

  33. is there a rule against holding your camera up and framing things through the viewfinder? Prove I’m pushing the shutter. I’m practicing composition.

    How about realtime RF transmission? Delete all you want, I’ve got a receiver with a harddrive in the parking lot. Hell, look in the camera’s memory, nothing. You gonna check that guy’s hat? Wanna see all the photos of here I downloaded off flickr today?

  34. Cory,
    You’re right. This is what I call “benefit-benefit analyis,” looking at what’s to be gained without taking note of reaction effects and opportunity cost.

    “If we foil just one terrorist attack through this, then it will have been worth it.” Well, if the only bad thing that could ever happen is the destruction of this one spot, yes.

  35. It’s time to put on your camera glasses and go around recording everything to your heart’s content. Including the cop that’s going to be recorded trying to take your camera. But he won’t know he’s being set up just for a special Youtube segment entitled: Why is this pig trying to steal my camera? A little more negitive press and this won’t be an issue.

  36. “Generally speaking, I love being a Londoner, but when my fellow residents decide that the best response to terror isn’t keep calm and carry on, but rather “When in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” it’s downright embarrassing — like being a Bostonian or something.”

    I don’t quite get this dig at Boston, please explain yourself furtha.

  37. I understand the dig at Boston, but Boston isn’t some weird parallel universe where paranoia reigns supreme and everyone walks around hunched over and their eyes darting back-and-forth, it’s a normal American city like most any other. Your own article impugns London as being similar to Boston with regard to this paranoid stupidity, and yet I’m sure 6 months from now, when another city does something stupid you will bring up Boston, and forget London.

    Hey– don’t get me wrong, I agree that the Boston Police over-reacted and the A.G. and Mayor’s Offices only compounded the matter during the ATHF scare, so perhaps Boston is an ideal example, but you do your own city a disservice by thinking it’s immune from this kind of thing. I’ve read plenty of news articles here on BB and the web that show this generalized kind of of paranoia is going on in lots of places, but just manifests itself in different ways and different magnitudes. (For the record, yes, I live in Boston, but I have no great allegiance to the city; I just think it’s an OK place to live).

    The problem is everybody in power wants to stop terrorism, but doesn’t really know how to do it, so instead they come up with “security measures” that don’t help matters, but sure seem like they might help. They may as well issue “magic beads” that protect the wearer against terrorists.

  38. Let’s not bother to mention how painfully easy it is to hack into the radio signals of CCTV cameras. You don’t need to know where they are if you already know what you can see.

    You’d think that the underground bombings and other events which tend to speak of careful planning would tell these idiots that stupid stuff like this isn’t going to stop anybody who’s truly interested in doing damage.

  39. “The problem is everybody in power wants to stop terrorism, but doesn’t really know how to do it, so instead they come up with “security measures” that don’t help matters, but sure seem like they might help.”

    edit: “The problem is everybody in power wants to stay in power and has discovered terrorism. To keep people from having time to ask “is this normal?” they keep them off balance by constant fear, perpetual “emergency” and just enough fascism to keep their individual mouths shut.”


  40. FYI #42 “justoneguy” — the Boston reference is a poke at the police and mayor’s office in Boston going ridiculously overboard with regard to anything that might be interpreted as a bomb.

    (upon re-reading the article, I see that the dig at Boston was actually pretty much in-line with how I feel anyway– it WAS pretty embarrassing, but then again too much of the time our authorities and elected officials ARE an embarrassment, aren’t they? Some things never change.)

  41. I grew up in Massachusetts and lived in Boston in the 70s. Hopefully things have relaxed a little in the intervening 30 years. However, I remember a day, down by the Tremont Temple, when the police were summoned because a man on the street said hello to a woman whom he did not know. Boston has a very long history of regarding strangers with suspicion.

  42. I love Boston for a lot of reasons. Some of the “natives” that I know, from the older familes, can speak of newer arrivals with some disdain, as if the blood supply were being contaminated.

  43. Hi there! I also try to steer clear of spitalfields market and head off down to up market (just round the corner) on a Sunday which retains more of the community spirit that made spitalfields market so exciting to visit.

    One point that hasn’t been made I think is that it is still absolutely fine to take photos on the tube and in tube stations (just not flash photography, but that’s more to do with the safety systems).

    Would be interesting to see whether this ‘rule’ is related to the fabric of the market itself or whether it’s enforced more on the requirements of the new breed of shops that have occupied the space.



  44. Remember the four boxes.
    soap box,
    ballot box,
    jury box,
    and last (the most important one),
    the ammunition box.

    The last box has been used, and quite recently here in the states as well…

    The Battle of Athens
    2 AUGUST 1946

    On 2 August 1946, some Americans, brutalized by their county government, used armed force to overturn it. These Americans wanted honest, open elections. For years they had asked for state or Federal election monitors to prevent vote fraud — forged ballots, secret ballot counts, and intimidation by armed sheriff’s deputies — by the local political boss. They got no help.

    Remember ATHENS

  45. Sorry about the off topic, but I feel quite strongly about the continued erosion of individual rights by non-governmental entities.
    I’m waiting over here for when the idiot barista calls the cops on me because I took a picture of my wife and daughter while inside of Starbucks.
    (has already happened to other people)

  46. “keep calm and carry on”

    As you know Bob, “carry on” used to have an additional meaning in British English.

  47. Boba Fett Diop (34), his surname is Nielsen Hayden.

    Treetop (52), please go easy on the boldface.

  48. What makes this any different than the disembowellment policy on BB?
    Serious question.

    Posting of rules or verbal statement of the rules.
    Private property cited in those rules.
    Whim of the security guard.

    I don’t agree with it, but I also don’t agree with selective outrage about “civil rights”.

    The seemingly arbitrary behavior of the security guard is no different than the “policy” of the comment moderator here at BB.

  49. From the link:

    A short guide to photographers rights in the UK written by Linda Macpherson LL.B, Dip.L.P., LL.M, who is a lecturer in law at Heriot Watt University, with particular experience in Information Technology Law, Intellectual Property Law and Media Law.

    “Even where property is open to entry by the public in general, as in the case of most business premises, the owner or occupier has the right to demand that a photographer cease taking photographs and the right to demand that he leave the premises.”

  50. There’s a load of pedantry going on here. The point is that this silliness must met with equal silliness. A flash mob is the ideal form of civil disobedience to show these chaps that they’re on the other side of Bishopsgate now.

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