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So, I broke a law by photographing a clock in a railway station

The Forbidden Clock

(Update 3: Manish (@jimanish) was awesome enough to point me to the official stuff from Railway Ministry (pdf here). It starts off by stating the cause for the rules being strict:

A case relating to lapses in allowing shooting of a feature film (which resulted inburning/damage of some passenger coaches provided to the party causing a huge loss tothe Railways)

It then notes that it’s archaic, since you can even shoot from mobile phones, etc. The first few pages give you hope, because they actually read like they were written by normal people (mass reach of still/videography equipment, pointlessness of enforcement, time wasted by enforcement, etc).

However, they then go on to list the list of documents you’ve to submit to whichever people (possibly in different cities), and pay fees (waived if you’re using it for non-commercial purposes! Be grateful!) and then you can take photos. Multiple levels of bureaucracy, that would perhaps set a Vogon salivating. It also goes on to tell you that in certain cases all these can be waived if you can get stuff written to the appropriate level. Sigh.

So, yes, this rule exists. You cannot photograph railway stations without prior permission from a lot of people)

 

(Update 2: Expert governmental bureaucracy navigator @Planemad (Arun Ganesh) offered first hand experience/advice on flickr that I’m reproducing here:

Ive taken pics right in front of RPF personnel, locomotive pilots and other railway people and have never run into any issues. A law does exist, but is not enforced in normal circumstances, especially with cameras becoming a common gadget.

If you ever run into issues at the railway station, the most sensible guy with authority is the station master, and you can be pretty sure he will understand the situation and sort things out.

The RPF guys are better avoided, its a frustratingly shitty job and they dont miss an opportunity to victimize someone who has strayed into some gray area of the rulebook, especially when there’s nobody else with authority around.

Sounds good. I’m sure I wouldn’t have run into issues even if the guy had taken me in, considering he was drunk. Also, somehow, I think the fact that I was shooting with a DSLR was a factor here)

(Update: Sundar (@oliglot) points me to these guides (1, 2)about the laws in place. In short, *yes* these laws exist. Yes, they are stupid. And no, I’m not going to shoot at railway stations anymore. And I’d advice anyone against doing so too (unless they are expert at bribing people (which I’m not, and which isn’t something I condone)) – just heard another horror story where a young guy with a compact was ‘arrested’ and beaten before being released on being bribed. Sigh)

The law in question is one that says you need permission from two different government departments before you can take pictures inside railway stations. The law itself is not certain – my twitter timeline could find only this reference (thanks @cnu!)- and that seems very much focused towards foreign nationals. I’d be glad if anyone could tell me if such a law really exists. I don’t go about breaking laws for fun – laws exist for a reason. This one, however, just feels so much like just an employee out on a power trip than a law designed to keep someone safe – so my guilt/strong moral compass doesn’t kick in.

Now, the story is simple. I was on my way to Velacherry, my preferred form of transport being the MRTS. I was at Chennai Fort station (incorrectly tweeted as Park, apologies), and since I had just missed a train and had to wait 20 mins for another one, decided it would be a good time to test my new 550D.

So I start shooting randomly. It’s been a few years (3?) since I’ve shot photographs ‘properly’ (and then my camera broke), so it took me  a while to get my lines straight and framing right, etc. I shot off quite a few photos, though only three turned out flickrworthy.

Just a few minutes before my train is scheduled to arrive, I walk along and notice this awesome old clock (pictured above), all dusty and not working. I take a picture. Immediately, an obviously drunk (and old – I’d suspect 50+) railway employee (he had a Union card prominently displayed out of his pocket) started screaming at me. His basic argument being variations of:

“Who the fuck do you think you are, taking photos inside railway stations?”

“I’ll put you in jail and beat the shit outta you, I’m (part of|know the) railway police!”

All were in Tamil, repeated, and spoken in a way that made it very obvious that he was drunk. Unsure of how to deal with this situation, I slowly backed away while keeping my mouth shut. This only seemed to enrage him more, and the abuses/threats increased in intensity. He was screaming for well over two minutes. I never opened my mouth.

The train arrived, I got on it, and went on my way. A few bystanders who witnessed the whole situation (but did nothing) told me to chill, that that was just a drunk asshole I should ignore, and that yes, you need prior permission to shoot inside railway stations. I wasn’t sure such a law existed, so I asked around on twitter and got contradicting opinions (jury’s still out on weather such a law exists).

So, what should I have done?

My options were pretty limited. I think staying shut was the best course of action – you can’t argue with a drunk guy, much less a drunk entitled government employee on a power trip. But, I’m sure more experienced streetphotographers would’ve handled the situation better. How do you think I should’ve handled it?

Photographer Rights

This isn’t the first run in I’ve had with Government Employees regarding photography (the last time was when I photographed some traffic police resting in the shade on a hot summer day, they questioned me and made me delete the photographs. That was four years ago though), and I’m sure it won’t be the last…

Thomas Hawk has a lot of posts about how Photography isn’t a Crime. They are, however, US specific, and hence I don’t think I can rely on them in India. Also, even if Laws do exist, they are not enough to save me – nothing will protect me from a policeman who smashes my camera and then arrests me on a false charge because he thinks you were going to use his photograph in some demeaning newspaper article (you know this isn’t far fetched). I love doing street photography, and am wondering how exactly I can keep myself safe. Photowalking in large groups is one, any others?

P.S. Props again to Vijay and iRatzzz for calming me down right after the incident. Also thanks to HP:MOR (read this chapter and you’ll understand).


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