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Guard! Picture Picture!

I heard of the group called Bawal Mag-Shoot Dito (BMSD) demonstrating their objection over the policy of Rizal Park administration on photo-taking. I quickly applied for membership because I was “victimized” by security guards invoking ridiculous anti-tourism and anti-marketing policies before.

The video of the group has gone viral and was even picked up by foreign media networks. Their issues and advocacy deserve some discussion here because all parties involved have different perspectives and perceptions.

Through social networking and viral marketing, the group has already accrued more than 4,500 “members” and was able to organize a significant number to join the march towards Rizal Park to highlight their “advocacy” on November 11.

After reading the group’s manifesto and the exchanges among leaders and members in their Facebook page. I realized that I may not qualify since the group is for professional photographers. They describe themselves as partners in economic development. Their call for dialogues with the officers from the public places and private businesses should be specific. What makes BMSD special than one individual challenging the regulations, fees and application for permits? Is BMSD a legal entity already? Is BMSD composed of “economic-driven” photographers only or those who experienced being barred from taking photos? What about the other organizations of professional photographers in the Philippines?

Like most of the BMSD members, I also experienced being barred mostly by security guards and never by police officers at several public and private places in the Philippines. Why is this so?

Since there are always two sides to a story, let us take the side of the person whom the guards report to and take orders from. Juliet Villegas, Executive Director of the National Parks Administration Committee, which is under the Department of Tourism, understood very well the value of viral marketing in promoting tourist spots under her office. When I first met her during a crisis management seminar of DOT in October 2010, she briefly shared with me her plans to make our national parks more known and accessible to local and foreign tourists.

In a phone conversation days ago, she explained that there is a standing instruction for all her staff to enforce the policy of monitoring commercial photo sessions. She defined commercial photography as an event where photographers set up lights, several cameras and tripods, with models or particular product, for advertising purposes. The purpose of the monitoring is not only to ensure that the visiting public or tourists are not obstructed and distracted by the commercial photos sessions but to collect fees as well.

Villegas disclosed that the new security agency, Variance Security Agency, is just a month old in their contract. She said she clearly instructed the agency to be courteous and polite in enforcing the policy. Obviously, there are variances in implementation this month and during the time of the former agency.

She stressed that, “there is no such thing as a ‘no shoot policy,’ as the public may take personal photos in all public places of the Rizal Park and Intramuros.”

True, but what distinguishes personal photos from professional and commercial ones? Where are the “public places” in Rizal Park and Intramuros manned by private security guards?

In my past life as former estate, property and facilities manager and head of security services, I have never barred anyone from taking photos of the properties of the companies that are exposed to public eyes because I know that those with sinister plots (terrorists) can always use zoom lens or hidden cameras.

There could be high resolution closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras across the street or a telephoto perched inside a nearby high-rise building? In the first place, companies like DHL Express and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts make sure that their facades are photogenic and marketing-ready. Taking photos of the “private parts” or restricted areas is obviously a different matter.

I was and still am aware that, by default mindset, the security guards are still averse and suspicious of anyone taking pictures of the building they protect. Most, if not all companies make their exterior look nice when photographed. But there are still those with “utak pulvora” or military sandbag mentality and paranoia who don’t understand the value of marketing, advertising and good reputation.

Only a few number of security officers can strike a balance between addressing their paranoia with the essence of photography and marketing. Imagine if these kind of security officers and managers report to non-security superiors with wrong notion of security.

The security guards (sadly, majority of the 440,000 in the country now) will automatically react when people take photographs or aim their “big black lens” or high-tech cameras at the “assets” they are guarding.

In areas outside Metro Manila and private industrial estates, guards will react only with surprise or bewilderment but will not prevent taking of photos. Photography is a non-contact activity. Most of the security guards and officers are focused on protecting the physical assets. They forget that they are also to protect company image and reputation. Were the actions of private security guards beneficial to the image of Rizal Park and the country? They could have swayed the group to “less relevant” terrain or ground. They should have called more marines to protect the statute of Rizal from being stolen or shot again, this time by photographers.

Such mindset of guards is similar to the No ID, No Entry policy.  An “old school” mindset of security officers who still believe that terrorists or criminals are out there without ID cards or carrying big high-tech-looking cameras to reconnoiter their area of responsibilities. They thought that by confronting the BMSD members they are fulfilling the essence of their contract? The guards are either simply following orders or implementing their default actions in the absence of sensible and specific orders.

When I was the regional security manager of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, I met an American security consultant based in Singapore who insisted that our security officers should accost and interrogate those taking photos of the hotel from outside. This is a typical military mindset taking charge of civilian or corporate security management. He was even requiring Makati Shangri-La Hotel to have sandbags around the hotel to reduce the damage of car bombs.

BMSD lost its cool and resorted to actions that negated their noble intentions. The group’s manifesto clearly showed that it’s a professional photographers group who are demanding for freebies. I won’t say that they have cast a negative label on people carrying cameras who are now deemed as anarchist for they could be ordinary people who just want to have the freedom to take photos. There is a big difference between no-shoot policy and asking for fee. What dignity did the “indignation rally” against the guards and the misinterpreted policies give to the national name? “Only in the Philippines?” This is an often abused and misused phrase to self-humiliate. In Burma, carrying a camera in public draws watching eyes. There is always someone beside you who will stop you from taking photos of government areas. Try Kuwait, Iran and North Korea.

The video, taken from the point of view of one of the photographer-members, showed the BMSD members venting their ire on the security guards. They humiliate and degrade the security guards, who they agitated. Personally, their actions don’t augur well on their character and reputation as a group and as individuals. The guards may not be good in English but it doesn’t give anyone the right to confront the guards that way. The moment they become a mob, acting in organized fashion, the guards and the police have the right and duty to protect other individuals (local and foreign tourists) in the vicinity. It is a shrine and not a venue for rowdy behavior.

They should have requested for a dialogue or directed their complaints to the National Parks Administrator if the group’s intention is to air their advocacy. Villegas is open to a dialogue with the BMSD but does not know who are the leaders to talk to.

Venting ire against Rizal Park guards could be interpreted as more of a political stunt, not because it was 11-11-11, but it was timed during the Tourism Congress. Are there any hidden agenda? Why encourage nationwide action when such “BMSD” mindset does not exist among guards, security officers and photographers in the provinces?

Let us not “kill” the messengers of questionable policies, especially when the messenger can shoot back with a 9mm pistol, .38 cal revolver or 12-gauge shotgun. The guards, like other soldiers, may have defined the price and quality of cameras and lenses with the length, firepower and price of their weapons. So let’s be wary when guards will call for freedom to shoot as they like.

The photographers have voiced out their sentiments over being ‘restrained’ from taking pictures when the truth of the matter is, it isn’t actually the issue on hand. They are not banned from taking pictures per se, they are only being subjected to ‘regulations’. There was no prohibition against taking pictures for personal use. Park administrators were simply requiring them to ask permission before they click away. Now, if they’re snapping away for commercial purposes, then that’s another story. It requires forking over a fee. Are the BMSD leaders and members expecting exemptions from fees?

The fees, just like in many other government parks, are collected to cover utilities and to contain excessive use and abuse of the facilities. This is the equalizer for other taxpayers who are not using the park for commercial or paid services. But we can’t blame some BMSD members for being cynical over the receipted payment of fees. Almost a majority look down at private security guards as corrupt as public servants. The society look down at the security guards, police and soldiers who possess guns to provide protection services. This is the irony of the security services in a cynical society.

Since the BMSD is composed of professional photographers who make their living by capturing beautiful imagery, I wonder—do they ever wonder how the park gets to maintain its cleanliness and beauty? If they are going to use the public places for free, are they going to give out their photos for free, too? Or their professional services with corresponding discounts?

Me thinks, the photographers simply misunderstood what was being asked of them. Or did they? Nah, the fees are just too high.

On the part of the guards, were they clear on what is covered by the policy and what is not? Or were they really just overzealous about shooing the shooters away? Is it a question on the competence of the security managers? Why do we have private security officers guarding a public place? Where are the so-called tourist police? Are our tourist police sitting on desk inside air-conditioned malls while private security guards do all the work? Try to take photos of these policemen and security guards at mall and hotel entrances. If they prevent you from taking photos, you know the reason why.

How to resolve this issue

Taking into consideration that BMSD members are not only talking about public parks and places but also private business and commercial areas, I suggest the following steps:

For the Administrators and Security Officers

Do not mind the people taking photos of your property or area of responsibility. Just monitor them or better, shoot them too. Of course, using a camera or CCTV system. They will or can always find means to take the photos they want. Try to assist them instead by guiding them the best angle to take photos. I always experience this in Singapore and Thailand.

Conduct risk assessment first to determine the factors to consider in drafting a policy on being photographed. Consider that there is a difference between being photographed and a photographer taking photos of the subject from a certain location. What are the security risks when one is at Quirino grandstand or at a condominium taking photos of Rizal Park? Or by someone standing on the grassy portion of Rizal Park and taking photos of its surroundings? How much is the monthly collected and receipted fees (oh, cynical me?!) “worth” compared to the dignity of public areas? Can’t we have public servants (tourist police) assisting tourists and photographers? What are the risk, threats and hazards with or without the policy on bsmd (small letters mine)?

Communicate clearly the essence of policies with the security guards. They are as educated as the photographers but just cannot afford to buy cameras and peripherals. I encourage that security officers and security guards be oriented on basic photography. Security personnel should understand the essence or the rationale of policies instead of sticking to response procedures.

Train guards on how to handle “difficult” questions or situations. There would have been no miscommunication if the guards were knowledgeable about the policy they were tasked to implement. Saying ‘Stop!’ entails knowing why you’re saying ‘Stop!’ in the first place.

For the Administrators

Administrators of both public and private sectors should have a clear policy that is beyond question. They should have ready answers and actions when confronted with commercial and professional photographers. They should realize that the real issue here is not solely about who’s banned from taking what, it also involves how much and why should they be paying.

That said, I agree with John Chua, a professional and commercial photographer, as he propose to classify different photography ventures that usually take place in the park with corresponding permits needed and applicable charges. For example:

Class A: TV Commercial, Movies, and MTV (video). This requires crowd control and securing the place. Permit required.

Class B: Print Ads, Magazine Pictorials. This requires crowd control and blocking off specific areas. Permit required.

Class C: Pre-nuptial Shoots, Class and Group Photo Sessions. This requires securing small areas for limited time only. Permit required.

Class D: Photo walks, Newspaper/ Magazine Pictorials. Free. Park rules apply. Any damage to property is the responsibility of the individuals/ groups involved. Notify administrators 3 days in advance.

Class E: Newspaper/ Magazine Pictorials. Free with photo credits.

Post online the fees and policies for quick reference of tourists and photographers alike.

DOT and BMSD should meet, shake hands, agree on legal common grounds, and work to promote tourism and growth in their respective professions. Both claim to ask for dialogues in the first place.



(Photos from BMSD Group Facebook page)

3 responses to “Guard! Picture Picture!”

  1. Ken Go Avatar
    Ken Go
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