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With wide ranging clampdowns on the freedoms of Street Photographers throughout many parts of the world, this article was written upon request from the STREET PHOTOGRAPHY AND PHOTOJOURNALISM GROUP to provide members with some informative guidelines to avoid legal problems when out shooting photos in the Middle East.

It would be very difficult for me to find, quote and analyse any official, legal facts on general Middle Eastern policies and laws on Street Photography, but I can share some of my own experiences and observations that can perhaps help to keep photographers out of trouble with the law. These thoughts and observations are entirely based on my own experiences within the countries mentioned and I welcome any additional thoughts and / or facts from anyone who can share their own knowledge on this subject.

It is important to understand that laws are not as clearly defined in “black and white”, as in the west by example, and new laws, regulations or decrees can seemingly be issued overnight in reaction to a specific undesirable occurrence. All shades of grey are usually considered in the implementation of the law, both positive and negative, hence it is advisable to ALWAYS act in such a way that you can be ignored. Overstepping this guideline can result in some very unpleasant circumstances, such as jail, court, fines and confiscation of your equipment, in that order.

There was a recent, but isolated case in Abu Dhabi (U.A.E.) where a photographer met with exactly such fate when he was arrested for taking photographs of a sunset over a military harbour. When confronted with such an unfortunate position, and any other milder objections for that matter, it is always to your benefit to NEVER respond with aggression. A smile and friendly, amicable discussion about the matter can prevent a lot of problems, and never swear at, or insult anybody that may be involved, whether an official or just a member of the public. No image is worth the amount of trouble it can bring upon you. Though I don’t know the particular details surrounding the above-mentioned case, I’m tempted to think that the photographer probably did not act too sensibly in trying to resolve the matter in an amicable way.

A general, sensible rule of thumb is to avoid shooting woman without permission, as their privacy is highly respected in Middle Eastern society and can be easily offended. Some of the more fundamental Muslims may also object to being photographed at all due to their strong belief that Islam prohibits any captured images of the human being. Despite being just general courtesy anywhere in the world, if anybody objects, stop shooting and move on. At the risk of stating the obvious, any government building, military installations, soldiers, police or any politically sensitive events such as protests are best avoided.

Some of the more liberal and open Middle Eastern societies, such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, generally invite and welcome tourism and it feels unlikely that street photography will attract any real problems if adhering to the “rules”. Cairo can feel unsafe in some areas, but mostly as a result of mild aggression from some men rather than official policies. From experience, the more “fundamental” countries, such as Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent, Kuwait, are very unfriendly towards photographers and my personal advice would be to abstain unless you are a journalist with all the right credentials and back-up from the right places when things do go wrong.

Street photography opportunities in the wonderful historic city of Damascus, Syria

Some of my most memorable and rewarding experiences were from Syria and Lebanon. As with many Middle Eastern countries, the most intriguing places for street photography are usually the old, historic parts of the cities. Tourists are generally well received in such areas, the people are friendly and hospitable, and you are unlikely to run into any uncomfortable situations. The same may not be true when venturing into other areas of such cities, and you are best advised to do some research before doing so. These countries are very sensitive to protect their military and government installations, and it may not be obvious where such sensitive facilities are as a visitor. Another potential hazard can be that you inadvertently find yourself in an area occupied by an extremist group that may not be in any mood to respond positively to any sensible reasoning.

The closest I’ve come to some real trouble was during a business trip to a town in the north of Syria. We were out looking at a beach site for potential development when a wonderful, old Russian army vehicle attracted my attention. In a moment of complete lapse of good judgement, and upon taking a quick snap of it, I was instantly confronted by a number of agitated men, who all turned out to be off duty soldiers ready for some action. I had forgotten that behind the soil embankments beyond the vehicle was an entire heavy artillery anti-aircraft installation. At the same time, my business partner was confronted further away and his camera confiscated. The confusion was intense, as all communications were in Arabic, but fortunately one of our entourage was a member of parliament who quickly intervened and managed to neutralise the situation. The funny thing about this experience was that moments later, my partner, again armed with his camera, clambered up one of the embankments only to face a bank of manned anti-aircraft guns, attracting another round of aggressive responses. It pays to be sensible and aware of your surroundings at all times.

Taking a seemingly innocent photo like this can get you into trouble

The Middle East contains a wealth of really interesting photography opportunities, unique experiences and wonderfully warm people, which can be a whole article on its own, but the key to unlocking all of this potential is to always remain sensitive towards local social, religious and political sensibilities. The local legal systems do however also ensure one very positive benefit for photographers in general. Petty crime is virtually unheard of in most Middle Eastern societies. Photographers can be sensibly safe in the knowledge that it is very unlikely that they will be robbed or assaulted in even some of the most decrepit areas of cities, even in the middle of the night.

This is perhaps much easier to understand if you’ve lived in the Middle East for a number of years, but for any photographer who wish to visit, remember the most important rule – ALWAYS act in such a way that you can be ignored. You will be warmly welcomed, respected and rewarded for doing just that.

Mike de Lange March 2010

A small collection of some old images of mine, taken in Lebanon in February 2004, the effects of civil war still evident in daily life. My experiences here, both happy and sad, but always fascinating and thought provoking, have largely contributed to my love for street photography and exploring unusual places. Unfortunately a 3MP compact camera was top of the range at the time.

Journal Comments

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