No time for 'photophobia'

10th December 2010 at 00:00

In 2002, Edinburgh Council was one of the first local authorities in Scotland to ban parents from taking photographs of their children at school events. Subsequently, taking a photo of your child's sports day or nativity play has become increasingly problematic in Scotland, and indeed across the UK. Something that was once a very natural part of recording a lovely event in someone's life has today become a child safety minefield.

I had always said that if a headteacher of my children's school stood up at their nativity play and told the parents and relatives in the audience not to take photographs of their children, I would stand up and demand that we all collectively take a vote on this. Of course, a few years ago exactly this did happen. And of course, I did precisely nothing. Not because I bottled it, I like to think, but because for me to have intervened at that moment, with the children sitting all dressed up and excited on the stage, and us sitting in the audience already beaming and feeling all Christmassy, would have been the equivalent of tossing a turd into a swimming pool as a point of principle (if you'll excuse the analogy).

But perhaps I'm being soft on myself: if nothing else, it would have been interesting to see how the parents and the headteacher might have responded.

Talking to friends, relatives and the students I teach, almost all of them have come across some examples of photophobia from officials, teachers, priests - or, in my uncle's case, the umpires' association in Newcastle, which recently instructed its members to watch out for anyone taking a photograph at junior cricket matches.

Reading past articles about this issue suggests there is a high degree of confusion over the correct approach to take towards people photographing children. Some Scottish local authorities have outright bans; others have no policies at all. Some officials talk of a minefield of data protection and, indeed, of child protection policies.

People appear either to tie themselves in knots about this or simply ban the taking of photographs altogether. What rarely seems to be discussed is how sick these bans are, how degrading they are to parents and communities, and how potentially damaging they are to a society that finds it harder and harder to know how to relate to children. The debate generally remains at a Kafkaesque, technical and practical level. Paedophilia is rarely mentioned when heads ask us to put our cameras away, but this is the elephant in the room.

There are no laws banning the taking of such photographs. That schools and councils implement bans is entirely due to their own overzealous attitude towards child safety: an attitude that ultimately sullies these occasions and drags the paedophile (where there is none) into the room.

These bans are a nonsense. They are degrading. They are unhelpful. This Christmas, let's put an end to the nativity photophobia so that we can all sit back, relax and enjoy our children, our Christmas, and each other's company.

I have now launched a campaign against photophobia in schools. For more information about this, visit:

Stuart Waiton lectures at the University of Abertay, Dundee.

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