THE BLOG

An Incident While Photographing in Urban Zimbabwe

28/02/2013 15:30 GMT | Updated 29/04/2013 10:12 BST

Call it instinct, but seeing a bloke wearing a Chelsea FC shirt sprinting towards me in a city centre usually has me expecting bother. That's as true on the streets of Zimbabwe as it is in England.

On this occasion I was in Bulawayo, photographing the city's attractive colonial architecture, when trouble struck.

To be fair, people had warned me to be careful while photographing in Zimbabwe's cities. They'd told me not to photograph government buildings, the police or military personnel. Otherwise, I'd been told, I might run in trouble with the law.

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So maybe I should have been more careful? Perhaps I should have done more research before heading out onto the streets to photograph? To be fair though, I'd asked a local if there was anything I should be careful of photographing nearby, and I'd been told everything was okay.

That's when the man in the Chelsea shirt started his threatening dash in my direction. Hearing him screaming that I'd be arrested for photographing the courthouse, a government building, did not bode well. It transpired he was an undercover officer and his uniformed support arrived seconds later.

The conversation that followed went like this:

Me: I didn't know it was a government building.

Man in Chelsea shirt: That's no excuse. You are in serious trouble with the law.

Me: I can delete the photo.

Man in Chelsea shirt: No! Do not touch your camera. That photo is evidence and it will be used in court against you.

Me: Come on, it's a beautiful historic building. I didn't see any signs and want to go home with a series of photographs showing the attractions of Zimbabwe.

Man in Chelsea shirt: Come with us.

Fortunately, I had the business card of Walter Mzembi, Zimbabwe's Minister of Tourism, in my wallet and suggested they call him to clarify the situation. This was sufficient to change the tone of proceedings. We ended up talking football and I was even invited the courthouse to photograph, an invitation I politely declined, before a cordial goodbye that masked my relief.

Most travellers to Zimbabwe, especially those interested in photography, concentrate on the country's nature and wildlife, so are unlikely to run into problems. Hwange, Matobo and Victoria Falls National Parks have much to offer. But coming away from the country with a series of urban images, to balance the portfolio, is also good. So it would be a shame if photographers feel unable, fearful even, of capturing the nation's diversity.

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A few days later, in Harare, I touched upon my incident during an interview with Mr. Mzembi and asked him to provide clarity on what may or may not be photographed by visitors to Zimbabwe. On hearing of my difficulties in Bulowayo, he was apologetic:

That's probably an obsession from the past. If you are not moving at the same with technology, you can harass people for things that would not otherwise get people harassed elsewhere in the world. Of course today your cell phone can take pictures anywhere, anytime. The thing is you're carrying something that is visibly a camera.

What we are doing, we have forged a partnership with the police in this country to develop our tourism policy, so that they understand our concepts and that you, when you take a picture of building, you don't mean any harm. We now live in a global village.

So there's nothing that we would hide today that could pose a security threat to anybody but is just, I think, paranoia and we would hope to get over it with education. The ZTA [Zimbabwe Tourism Authority] meet weekly with the police hierarchy here in Harare to bring them on board as to best practice and what are other countries doing. I think, so far, it is working well. You get the odd policeman here and there who may forget where we are.

As Zimbabwe opens up to foreign tourism, and looks forward to co-hosting the 20th general assembly of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation in August, sending out a clear signal that tourists will not face problems when toting their cameras on the streets will help to allay concerns and may tempt more visitors to the country.

Of course, the problem of photographers being hassled by officials is not specific to Zimbabwe, it happens in many of the world's countries, including, from time to time, the UK.

Further information

For more information about tourism and travel in Zimbabwe go to the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority website.

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