Friday, May 19, 2006

What? No photos?

The other day I was in the embarrassing and unenviable position of being told by a waiter I was not allowed to take pictures of my food. My food. The food I’d ordered and paid for. NOT the food on the next table or in the kitchen and NOT with a large tripod, massive Nikon Digital SLR, umbrellas for flashes, professional lighting, and two assistants. Just my little ‘ol plate of food and my lunch pal’s plate sitting next to me. With a little Casio digital camera with the flash turned off.

Now, this wasn’t some exclusive, mega swank, oak-floored eatery with damask from here to next week, silver cutlery that weighs a ton, and people speaking in hushed tones in tuxedos. Nor was it the bestest, newest, funkiest, most innovative ‘it’ venue, stacked to the gunwales on opening night with faux-bashful celebrities on the lookout to dodge roaming packs of paparazzi.

It was an ordinary Wednesday lunchtime in a café above a fruit and veg shop in a Sydney suburb. And the food in question? Ah ha! I hear you say: looking to rip off and duplicate a wildly inventive gastro-artwork for fun and profit, à la Interlude? Well, no, in fact. It was antipasto and a plate of spaghetti.

Bemused, I asked the waiter as to why this was the case as I’d never encountered any problem in other restaurants. He replied it was their policy. Fine, I said. Why?
“I’ll get the manager”, came the reply.
“It’s ok”, I said, “– no need – just tell me why you don’t want me to take a picture.” Undeterred, the manager was fetched and relayed the same information.
“I understand”, I reiterated, “but can you tell me why?”
“The owner doesn’t like it”.
“I see”, I pressed on, “but why?”
It seemed a simple enough question to me, but maybe I had all of a sudden started speaking Swahili without knowing it and was not making myself clearly understood.
“He just doesn’t”.
“Yes, yes”, I attempted in my best English, making sure it wasn’t Swahili, “I appreciate that, but I would like to know why the owner objects to it. A simple reason will suffice as I’m curious”.
“Someone tried to take a picture of the blackboard menu once.”

Maybe I come from a different planet to everyone else, but the blackboard in question looked like every other Italian blackboard menu I’ve ever seen. It had the same stuff on it – pastas, risottos, mains, panini, side dishes, desserts. No gold plated truffle jus reduction with foie gras foam and pavé tian batons of wagyu solar plated resin shards. Rigatoni Bolognese is hardly something even those most desperate in culinary espionage would bother with. And I didn’t want a photo of the blackboard menu anyway, just the plate of food I’d ordered that was sitting within the safe confines of the edges of our table. Realising she might be worried that a ruthless competitor might be coveting the spelling and menu calligraphy of the ‘figs with proscuitto’, I assured her I was writing about my meal and wanted to post a picture on my website for readers to view, and that no other restaurant proprietors in the English (or other language) speaking world that I’d encountered seemed to have similar concerns. No go.

So what’s the problem? What’s the big deal about photographing food in this very decent, yet unremarkable café? Most times when I quietly (without disturbing any other diners) photograph the lovely bounty of a kitchen and ask questions about the food, the staff and managers are delighted that someone is actually interested in what’s going on in there, instead of asking for more pepper and tomato sauce. Should I have informed them from the outset of what I was about to do? As a communication professional and academic, I adhere to the Association of Food Journalists’ guidelines for food writing and reviewing, viz, arriving with unannounced intentions so a balanced review and description, based on what any other punter would experience, can be delivered to my chosen media, rather than the kitchen being on best behaviour for a review. Also, no explicit consent is required for photography in Oz.

But whether or not the owner of this café is trying to control images and critique of the venue and food within public media is unknown to me because the staff and manager are obviously in the ridiculous position of having to enforce a policy whose reason for existence is apparently unknown, at least to them. I must admit I felt sorry for them. The owner was unavailable for a chat regarding the motivation for the policy.

I can’t comment on the food as I discovered I had a rather bad taste my mouth and had quite lost my appetite. No point presenting a biased review, now, is there? And as a member of the typically good-willed food blogging community, as well as a member of the general dining public, I was quite offended by my experience at this establishment and will not patronise it again. This is Sydney, after all, and today’s café is tomorrow’s bargain book basement, so there’s plenty of other places to keep me and you readers entertained. In the meantime, the only picture I can present to sum up this outing appears below.

photo reference:

Undeterred, however, and being the glass-half-full type, I thought my experience could be not only amusing, but instructive as well. I’ve done a little digging around because I thought any bloggers reading this might want a potted guide to your rights in such a situation. There has been a post on Accidental Hedonist about this, but they’re operating with a Bill of Rights, which we don’t have in Oz.

I’ve mentioned the AFJ’s website above which is a great place to start in terms of basic conduct. Another fantastic resource for the image side of things is Andrew Nemeth’s site about photographers’ rights, which is very up-to-date and from both an Australian and International perspective. Some of the information I have quoted here is from his site and is used with his permission (thanks, Helen, for the lead) but browse through the entire site as is has some very interesting information. I’ve restricted this summary to food itself – a whole lot of other things come into play when there are people involved, which is why I restrict my photos to inanimate things on a plate. So here are some tips from what I’ve found out (please note this does not constitute legal advice).

To cut straight to the chase: if you are in a restaurant and the staff ask you to not take a photo, you can’t. No question, no argument, just put the camera away. It’s private property, it’s their call, you have no recourse to any law or rights to allow you to snap. Yes they are morons, yes they are jumped up ponces, yes they are up themselves wankers. But it’s their restaurant and they get to say whether you photograph or not (link).

Being challenged in the middle of a restaurant about your behaviour is a bit confronting and not altogether pleasant. People at other tables stare and whisper. You will feel like a criminal – a hunched and shunned social pariah skulking about the dark periphery of society with base intentions. Try and convince yourself you are dangerous and glamorous and living on the edge. Blog, James Blog, 007 gastronaut. You’ll feel better about yourself.

Once you have taken a photo (ie if you are not asked to stop and later they decide to question you) it’s too late. The photos are your property, they can’t take them off you and they can’t stop you publishing them. They do not own copyright of the presentation of the food on the plate (link).

If you photograph from a public place (the street or footpath for example) they can’t stop you. The benefits of a telephoto lens and a window table become obvious here if you are determined and desperate enough. Unless of course you constitute a public nuisance or breach the NSW Summary Offences Act and they call the police, which is highly unlikely unless your camera is the shape of a 9mm revolver or the people eating the food are naked (link).

But ultimately, as Helen so eloquently put it, it’s their loss. The best revenge is just not to write about them and don’t give them any publicity. Touché. I also hope it doesn’t ever happen to you, particularly if you like running around taking nice pix of pretty food and showing everyone else. If you’ve had similar experiences and want to add a comment (or tell your story as a form of therapy) please feel free to rant. I have purposely not mentioned the name of the establishment I visited, but if you’ve guessed where it is, then let’s keep it our secret!


Blogger PiCkLeS said...

I've always been worried that I would find myself in that sort of a position! Usually if i'm with a large group I'll pretend to take pictures of my friends when I am really taking pictures of the food. More recently I bought myself a sony k750i camera phone, so I just quickly and discreetly snap with my phone (though the quality of the photos can be pretty bad).

2:18 PM  
Blogger neil said...

'... skulking about the dark periphery of society with base intentions.' Sounds rather fun to me ;) Sorry to hear about your run in, but you did get something else from them...a really great post, but yeah, that would be embarrassing and offensive. Good on you for questioning their motives. Perhaps a better quetion for them, at least as hard to answer would be,'Why should I eat here at all.' But you've already answered that for them.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Kalyn Denny said...

Very interesting post. I usually write more about home cooking, but when I do want to take pictures in a restaurant I usually give them my blog business card and ask for permission. So far, no one has turned me down. I like to give them the card so they can come back later and read the review.

3:04 AM  
Blogger Julia said...

Might this be the cafe on top of a fruit and vegie shop with the same double initials? Just so I know, as downstairs is my favourite foodie place in Sydney and I've been known to pop upstairs for a bite.

That would also leave a bad taste in my mouth, and I'd be very embarassed, as I already embarass my friends by occassionally whipping out my camera/phone for a photo of the food (ah, the world of non-food bloggers!).

It's not like it's a wedding dress shop, where you're not allowed to take photos as they're worried you'll steal the design. It's a regular cafe. I'd understand it perhaps in the poshier restaurants, but these kinds of mid-range eateries are a dime a dozen in Sydney, and if they don't appreciate it (and are so stupidly stubborn with not giving you a reason!) than good riddance.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Reb said...

Thanks to all for reading my therapeutic ravings!

Hi pickles - I used to use the camera in my personal organiser but is wasn't giving me good pix so I changed to a better one. But good luck with your more discreet snapping!

Ah yes, Helen, it's hard being the vanguard *world weary sigh* but someone has to do it :) Dirty old food perve doesn't sounds like an accolade to me!

Hi 'Taco - it's about the only time a geek gets to feel edgy. I can see the attraction of the gig for Clark Kent!

Hi Kayln - indeed I do a similar thing - I usually email the restaurant afterwards giving them the link to the post, and most are thrilled that they are getting some public mileage. I try not to tell them beforehand because I've been in the situation where the service and food changes if they think they're on show. All of a sudden free stuff and comps start coming out of the kitchen. Bit ethically problematic for an unbiased review!

Hi Julia - I'll email the results of your guess (nod nod, wink wink) and I absolutely agree with your points - if Tetsuya's lets you take photos, the argument is kind of over right there.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Ange said...

Unbeleivable! Luckily this has not happened to me (yet!) and as you say so far everyone has been all encouragement

11:44 AM  
Blogger kestypes said...

Most disappointing. I'm assuming I get what Julia's guessing and I've heard about the same reaction from downstairs. I didn't realise you could protect a tomato's image.

8:24 PM  
Blogger Reb said...

HI Kestypes - sounds like you're on the money. ANd as for the tomamto - you know what Oscar Wilde says - the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about!

7:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The same thing happened to me today when I tried to take photos in a cafe in Melbourne. The thing is, the waitress has been very nice so I want to write a review on the cafe. However when the boss saw me taking pictures, she yelled all the way from the counter ( believe me, it was quite a distance from my table) and told me I have to ask for permission before I could take any photos. well, she could have just walked to my table and told me that. Never have this kind of experience before. And definitely wont go back again.

8:45 AM  

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