Posts Tagged ‘restrictions on photography’

Railway photography in Poland

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Old gentleman

The Railway Children’s ‘The Old Gentleman’. Frame grab courtesy Studio Canal.

Railway photographers lead dangerous lives. All too often they are arrested, their cameras taken away from them and their photos deleted. We asked Dyspozytor how he deals with jobsworth officials interfering with his railway photography in Poland. We have no hesitation in recommending either his regretful approach, ‘I’m awfully sorry. I’m from England. I didn’t know your railway was a strategic installation of military importance.’ or his more apologetic, ‘Thank you for pointing out that I was trespassing. I am very sorry. Now let that be the end of the matter’. However, the last technique he describes here seems to us to be downright dangerous and should not be attempted by anyone who does not at least possess a black belt in the martial arts.

Rule 1. Remain calm and collected at all times.

Let the ‘Old Gentleman’, so brilliantly portrayed by William Mervyn in the 1970 film adaptation of The Railway Children, be your role model.

My first brush against Polish officialdom occurred in 1965, or was it perhaps a year or two earlier? I was a schoolboy and had gone to Stepnica, a tiny port on the Szczecin Lagoon served by a couple of sidings on a branch of the then massive metre gauge railway network centred on Gryfice. I took a couple of shots of an engine at the head of a train at the station.

There are few signs that the port and town of Stepnica were once served by a railway. Satellite photo courtesy of Google Maps.

The station master caught me and delivered a lecture that the railway was a strategic instillation of military significance and that he should call the police. I countered that in the UK we did not regard narrow gauge railways as having any significance at all other than as tourist attractions and apologised profusely.

I was allowed to keep my camera and my film. I used a similar tactic and obtained the same outcome when challenged after photographing a tram depot near Warszawa Wschodnia station in the 1970s.

Sanok Station-2010

Sanok station July 2010. Dyspozytor had strayed off the platform on the left. Photo (GRAD). Licence CC BY-SA 3.0.

But that was then – when Poland was in thrall to the Soviet empire, and paranoia reigned on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Today Polish law has changed. You are allowed to take photographs of trains and railways, but not trespass on railway property.

In 1990, I was with Michael Dembinski (author of W-wa Jeziorki blog) waiting at a level crossing to photograph a Tkt48 pulling a train consisting of a couple of double decker coaches. The level crossing attendant ranted at us that photography of railway lines was prohibited. Michael retorted in his best Jeremy Clarkson manner that the days of communism were over. Which leads me neatly to:

Rule 2. Be firm and stick to your guns.

A few years ago, I was wandering around taking photographs of Sanok station, which was – and still is – served by only a handful of trains a day. I stepped off the platform to get the whole of the station in the frame, shot a set of photographs and found myself facing a member of the Straź Ochrony Kolei (Railway Police).

He told me that I was breaking the law, that he would call the police and would face all sorts of unspecified punishments. I told him that there was no law against taking photographs of the railway. He told me that I was trespassing on railway land and that he would call the police and that I would face… . I thanked him for pointing this out and for having told me off, and told him that I accepted his rebuke and told him that that should be the end of the matter.

W-wa Centralna Pendolino-1030187

Warszawa 06:25 on December 14 2014 . Shortly after taking this photo in available light (no flash) Dyspoztytor was challenged by a uniformed member of the SOK (Railway Police). Photo BTWT.

We repeated this scene some three or four times. I then pointed out that he had done his job and I needed to get going. I suspect that he had hoped for a bribe. With none forthcoming, he left. The next time I was challenged by a member of the Straz Kolejowy, I did not let him off so lightly, which brings me round to my last rule:

Rule No. 3. The best form of defence is attack!

On the morning of December 14 2014, shortly before travelling on the first ever public Pendolino service from Warsaw to Krakow, I was accosted by a member of the SOK and asked whether I had a permit to take photographs. All around me TV crews were setting up, people were snapping away as if there was no tomorrow, yet this SOKista had the nerve to pick on an old gentleman barely supporting himself on a walking stick – me!

Henryk_Pobozny

Henry the Pious before his defeat and beheading at the Battle of Legnica in 1241. From a painting by Jan Matejko.

I saw red. My blood pressure rose past all safe limits. I was trying to change the course of history and fighting the Battle of Legnica all over again, defending civilisation against the hordes from the East. What! I spluttered. Today, everybody in Poland should be rejoicing that at last Polish Railways have taken a cautious step forward into the future, and YOU are behaving as if we were still living under communism!

I had reached the most dangerous moment, the man’s temper was rising. The list of remedies available to members of SOK reads like something out of Fifty Shades of Grey: physical force, weighted baton, handcuffs, tear gas grenade, police dog, Walther P99 and Taser. It was time to go in for the kill, Tell me Sir, when did you last go to confession?

Defeated by an old gentleman with a walking stick, the SOKista beat a hasty retreat.

Prussian P8-5228

Tp3-3, former Prussian Railways G8 class, built Hanomag 2013, active PKP service 1945-1970, displayed as a ‘technical monument’ at Zbąszynek from 1988. Note pile of coal in foreground and shadow cast by the sun. Photo BTWT.

My last run in with the SOK occurred just 5 days ago on 17 March at Zbąszynek. I was with a friend, we were returning from Wolsztyn, where we had been guests at a lunch given by the Mayor of Wolsztyn in honour of the British Ambassador on the occasion of his visit to the Steam Locomotive Depot.

We were both smartly dressed and talking – quite loudly I suspect – in English. It was 15:15, the sun was shining brightly from the South West and we both walked off the end of the platform to get a good view of the Ex Prussian Railway G8 0-8-0 plinthed just off the neighbouring platform.

After I had taken my photographs, we were approached by a couple of SOKisci. It appeared one of them objected that we were wandering too close to a pile of coal. The last part of our conversation went something like this.

Me Zbąszynek should be celebrating its railway heritage not harassing tourists!

SOKista Why are you raising your voice?

Me Because I object to being told off for taking a photograph of a unique Prussian Railways locomotive.

SOKista You can take your photo from the other platform. I am just telling you that you should not be wandering around in the vicinity of the heap of coal.

Me So you you think that I am planning to take the coal away in my jacket pocket? I cannot take a photograph against the sun. I object most strongly to you lecturing me.

SOKista I am not lecturing you… 

Pend_SOK-1030212

SOKisci are human too! Taking photos of the first ever public Pendolino working to Krakow in 14 December 2014. Photo BTWT.

[Here comes the critical moment, the SOKista has as good as admitted defeat, and has delivered his last two lines with a broad grin on his face. Time to let him off the hook, and to show that I understand that he has to work in a wider environment with regulations and bosses.]

Me That as maybe. But I am lecturing YOU. Please tell your boss that, if Zabąszynek is to be a proper custodian of a unique locomotive of world-class importance, photographers should be welcomed not harassed.

And that was the end of the matter. When it became clear that our EIC train from Berlin to Warsaw was lost somewhere in Germany, and that it would be prudent to take the next KW stopping train to Poznan, the SOKisci, seeing my walking stick, guided us politely over the barrow crossing to the platform where the stopping train was waiting. Perhaps things are getting better on PKP after all?

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Damian Green, MP arrested for doing his job

Friday, 28 November 2008

Links updated

damian_green

Damian Green MP, reading a statement to journalists, late on Thursday night, shortly after his release by police. Frame from BBC video.

(Click to see video on BBC website.)

Damian Green, MP, the Conservative shadow immigration minister, was arrested by counter terrorism police in his constituency home in Ashford Kent at 13:50 yesterday afternoon and held in detention for nine hours. One the face of of it this is a matter far removed from the usual subject matter of Behind The Water Tower, but please read on, all will be explained. Mr Green’s supposed crime had been the leaking to journalists of information, provided by a whistleblower, that was embarrassing to UK Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, MP. Among the information that had reached the public domain was the revelation that Mrs Smith knew that the Security Industry Authority had granted licences to 5,000 illegal workers, but decided not to publicise it.

Leaking information into the public domain, which may be embarrassing to the government of the day, but which is in the public interest, has long been part of British politics. If it hadn’t been for senior RAF officers secretly providing Winston Churchill with detailed estimates about Hitler’s rearmament of Germany – information which the Chamberlin government had tried to suppress – Churchill would not have been able to persuade Parliament to vote for funds to build up Britain’s own air defence. Thanks to Churchill, and the bravery of RAF pilots (including Poles) the Battle of Britain was won and Hitler’s invasion plans were thwarted.

Reviewing Mrs Smith’s record, there is a frightening list of authoritarian measures which she has supported or pushed through: Tony Blair’s attempt to pass legislation allowing the police to hold terror suspects for 90 days without being charged; her own attempt as Home Secretary to pass legislation permitting the holding terror suspects for 42 days without being charged; a central database that keeps records of all mobile phone and email/internet traffic; compulsory ID cards; issuing 10,000 taser guns to the police; issuing instructions that the police can restrict photography; permitting the prosecution of journalist Sally Murer who is charged, like Damian Green, with ‘aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office’.

Examining police actions, there is a disturbing catalogue of recent incidents: the arrest of 82 year old Labour Party veteran Walter Wolfgan under the Terrorism Act, after he shouted “nonsense” during a conference speech by Jack Straw; the killing of Jean Charles Menzies at Stockwell tube station, during an anti terrorism operation; shooting of Abdul Kahar, when raiding a house under the Terrorism act; beating up and arresting veteran anti-war demonstrator Brian Haw.

So what has all this got to do with railways and why am I so angry? All is about to be explained. In the 1970s, I led a campaign to preserve a railway line that had been closed by British Railways. A preservation Society was formed and British Railways approached. BR demanded an immediate payment of £150,000 (equivalent to some £750,000 today) to retain the track. A brown envelope stuffed full of photocopied documents arrived in my office. Among them was a letter indicating that BR were selling the track materials to a scrap contractor for £30,000 and were pressing for the track-lifting started as soon as possible. The revelations in that envelope, which was accompanied by a Southern Region compliments slip signed ‘003½’, galvanised local residents into action.

Then my phone rang and a lady who introduced herself as the local secretary of the Rambler’s Association proposed holding a sit-in demonstration on the railway track as a protest against the track lifting. I was very naive, and as our backs were against the wall, a sit-in, or in this case a ‘sit-on’ seemed a bright idea. One the chosen day, a group of veteran lady RA members, accompanied by their equally veteran dogs, arrived at the place appointed for the demo and placed themselves at my disposal. This didn’t affect the track-lifting very much, the scrap contractors were given half a day off, but caused consternation amongst civil servants in the Department of Transport (as it then was). With my East European connections, I was a Soviet mole, a threat to Parliamentary democracy. What made things worse, the lady who organised the demo was the sister of the British Ambassador in Warsaw. I had struck a blow at the heart of the British establishment.

Hastily counter measures were put in place, my telephone was tapped, an editorial in Trains and Railways by John Snell thundered that I was a ‘political huckster’, my friend John Slater editor of the Railway Magazine advised me that my methods were seen as somewhat unusual and an attempt by the National Railway Museum to loan us one of their railway locomotives was blocked by the head of Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate.

You would have thought that, with opponents such as these, the railway’s fate was doomed. Not so! It was a feature of British parliamentary democracy in the 70s that it operated under a system of checks and balances. The local county councillor put me a thorough political vetting which revealed that apart from a slightly worrying tendency to lean towards locomotives manufactured in Swindon I was no student radical. (It’s OK chaps, I’ve got over it. I was only a kid at the time.) He went on to rescue the railway, from rival by-pass plans, during several debates at County hall. The local MP was also recruited to the cause. He helped save our seaside terminal station from a dodgy development deal. Eventually, the local authorities came round, the track was relaid and the South of England gained one of its most attractive heritage railways.

None of this would have been possible without the active support of local residents many of whom helped to make the railway a local cause célèbre. As I bang my head in despair, because it is easier to get British narrow gauge railway enthusiasts in London to put pen to paper about the closure of the Krosniewice Railway, than to get any such action from Polish narrow gauge enthusiasts in Warsaw, I reflect that 5 years of Nazi occupation, and 45 years of Soviet-style terror, have left their scars on the soul of many Poles. Even youngsters who have never known communism, but who have been taught by teachers who have, often lack that willingness to ‘raise their heads above the parapet’. Although the spirit of those Poles, who have spent some time living in Great Britain and have subsequently returned to Poland, gives me grounds for hope.

In the 1960s and 70s, Poles were astonished that people in Britain viewed policemen with affection and had no hesitation in walking up to them to ask for directions or advice. In Poland the milicia were seen as little better than armed thugs whose main job was to protect those in power against the dissatisfied masses in whose name they claimed to rule. It is profoundly depressing, as the screw of authoritarianism is slowly tightened in Britain, how gradually and imperceptibly the situation is being reversed.

Dyspozytor

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