What would you do if a stranger started taking photographs of your children?
I recently took my sons, aged three and five, on a day trip to a castle close to where we live in Northern Ireland. Perched on the cliffs high above the sea and surrounded by jaw-dropping coastal scenery, it's a photographer's dream, and a hugely popular tourist attraction. Factor in that my sons were dressed in superhero costumes and accompanied by three young friends similarly attired as pirates and princesses, and it's easy to see why the children drew so many comments and smiles from strangers.
"Bellissimo", sighed a middle-aged Italian man to his wife at the sight of five laughing children careering around the castle in fancy dress like something straight out of an Enid Blyton story. A young couple paused to let their toddler drink in the sight, a look of awe and admiration plastered across her face, and I basked in the glow of all the admiring smiles from strangers, obviously touched by the sight of children enjoying their childhood. Then I noticed a man nearby training his paparazzi-style zoom lens camera on my children and their friends, intently snapping away.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no laws in the UK to prevent people from photographing children, except indecently.
So what is the appropriate response for a parent in this situation?
A quick straw poll of my usually level-headed friends surprised me - many said I ought to have called the police, taken my children home immediately, or demanded that the man delete the photographs from his camera in my presence. But why?
Millions of parents post images of their children on the internet every day, with little or no regard for who might be accessing them. Is this really that different? At least this man, one of a highly conspicuous group of tourists, was overt about his photographic interest in our children. Surely a paedophile - the unspoken fear of which is surely what motivates so many of my friends' comments - would be much more surreptitious. And, dare I say it, even in the event that the man's interest in images of my was less than innocent, it's only an image, after all.
Recently two photography students produced a project intended as a commentary on society's concerns about the laws surrounding photographs of children. Class Portraits is a series of traditional school photographs but the only visible face is that of the teacher - all the pupils have their backs to the camera. The students, Anna Brooks and Samantha Harvey, said they hoped the pictures would be seen as amusing, but also wanted to provoke questions about whether we face a future in which photographing children will one day be completely forbidden. Perish the thought.
What if this man was genuinely interested in capturing an iconic, possibly award-winning photograph of children at play in an Irish seaside castle? A future in which such images cease to exist entirely is an unappealing prospect. And I question whether anyone is really 'protected' in a society in which parents can't even take snaps of their own children at school events, or where anyone who shows any kind of interest in a child is presumed to be a bogeyman.
Ken Rayner, a father of two, agrees. 'The fear we have of strangers is irrational, and disproportionate to the actual threat,' he says. 'Yet for some parents it remains a very real fear, and reconciling that is never going to be easy.'
That's a sentiment echoed by Kitty Hagenbach, a child psychologist (www.babiesknow.com), who says: 'Trust is one of the most precious gifts we can give our children, especially in a media driven world of exaggerated fear. I acknowledge that there are dangers in the world and we need to use common sense, but to my mind the level of fear far outweighs the real dangers and adversely affects our children's healthy development.'
So what advice would she offer for such a scenario? 'I would have spoken to my children and said' "I notice that man is taking photos of us/you and I would like to find out why." Approach the gentleman in question and ask him if it is true and why; depending on his reaction either accept his intention is pure or ask him to delete the photos. In this way you let the children know you have a concern, and you deal with it in a responsible adult way.'
Interestingly, that's exactly what my instincts told me to do. For as long as my children seemed comfortable I was happy to allow them to be photographed, and we did approach the man and felt there was no cause for concern. I'll probably never know exactly where those images ended up and although I've had moments of wondering if I did the right thing, I have no regrets about the situation.
What would you have done?