Like many amateur and professional historians and archaeologists (including those interested in family history (genealogy), the history of death, social history, as well as landscape history) and the many, many more people who visit historic sites for a variety of leisure and educational interests, I regularly take photographs of gravestones in cemeteries and churchyards. Indeed, I have conducted a series of archaeological graveyard surveys (with permission of the relevant authorities) which, while not in the public domain, I have used as part of my teaching and research and I have plan to work further on this research area.
This evening I read that Birmingham City Council has banned an amateur group of historians (The Jewellery Quarter Research Trust) from photographing any more historic gravestones for inclusion in their database of the Warstone Lane and Key Hill Cemeteries. Only by written permission and on a case-by-case basis will they consider permitted photographs. The story is here and here. Check out their fab website here.
What is not satisfactorily reported is the reasoning behind Birmingham City Council from making this stipulation, and it clearly hasn’t been communicated to the historical group in question who publicly express their view that the ban is unworkable and incomprehensible. It isn’t clear what information held in these photographs might be sensitive or problematic, and certainly none of the details of the gravestones are the property of the council in any case.
Let me make the key points clear:
- Yes, these are cemeteries owned by and managed by the city council, and gravestones presumably remain the families’;
- However, these sites are already heritage attractions with regular guided tours including ghost walks;
- The sites regularly feature on heritage trails of the Jewellery Quarter;
- The cemeteries are in receipt of £1.3 million of Heritage Lottery Fund grants to pay for restoration work;
- Local councillor has made public his view that working with voluntary groups to foster engagement with local heritage is absolutely essential;
- If there is a problem, then why aren’t Birmingham City Council asking for existing photographs to be taken down from the JQRT’s website?
Looking elsewhere across the internet, I found another story about a potential ban on graveyard photography in a part of Northern Ireland ahead of plans by the Brigham Young University in Utah to create a BillionGraves.com web-based app to GPS record headstone positions worldwide. Here, the Sinn Fein Councillor who responded was aware that the distinction of permission related to the council ownership of the site but the family ownership of the gravestones.
Yet do owners, managers and families have the right to object to photographs of their property being photographed in a public place? Well, cemeteries and churchyards, while publicly accessible, are not really public spaces. Moreover, gravestones are not owned by those who manage the space but by families. Therefore, even if the gravestones were owned by the landowner, that owners of space and memorial (individual, family, private company, religious organisation or local authority) do have rights to set rules on behaviour and activity.
In an extreme case, St Mary’s Whitby has banned photography taking place given the large number of Goths languishing on gravestones here: this is the churchyard associated with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is an interesting parallel, since this churchyard closed in 1861 and still photographs around and on the graves was seen as disrespectful and the activities of Goths distasteful to the rector of the church.
But is it really a good idea to ban, or tightly control photography in cemeteries and churchyards? No! And here are some (admittedly overlapping) reasons:
- Photography is an integral part of recording listed monuments as primary record for genealogists and archaeologists: it is essential to our work and we need to do en masse for information to be of relevance and use;
- Photographs are an important medium of popular engagement with heritage of all kinds including memorial art and monuments and including historic cemeteries and churchyards. It puts people off visiting if they feel their behaviour is being monitored and criticised;
- It is almost impossible to avoid gravestones appearing in photographs within cemeteries and churchyards when they are not the primary focus of interest;
- Photographs are a cheap and easy way of recording memorials, the vast majority of which are not individually listed. Therefore the public’s photographs might be all there is in terms of formal recording;
- Photographs should be the copyright of the composer, not the subject matter, unless it is in private space. I defer to legal experts on this point, but I really think that publicly accessible spaces should not be stifled by photograph bans when living things are not the subject;
- Most of the gravestones under discussion were raised long before living memory, and even if descendants survive, it is difficult to understand how photographs of monuments could cause offence to them;
- The very tradition of gravestones is an historically situated one and speaks of family’s wishes for the dead to be remembered and recalled publicy by non-relatives: photography extends this tradition and does not counter it. It is not an infringement on private space;
- There are absolutely no theological or traditional religious or social reason why recording gravestones in any fashion, including photography, can be construed as an inherently disrespectful act. There are simply no ethical issues surrounding the photography of gravestones unless defamatory comments are made about their appearance or text. I regard even graveyard and cemetery ‘selfies’, as long as gravestones and offerings are not interfered with or subject to unnecessary or tasteless comment, are appropriate;
- Gravestones are a threatened historical resource, subject to all manner of natural and human agencies that might foster their destruction including vandalism. Without a detailed record of photographs circulating of these spaces, it is surprising how much will be lost before it is formally recorded. Moreover, multiple photographs over time can allow monitoring of their state of preservation. Finally, the more images are circulated, the more they are likely to be respected, understood and thus preserved;
- I cannot see any possible benefit to authorities or users in restricting gravestone photography as long as the taking of photographs does not infringe on living people, including mourners and other formal ceremonies taking place in churchyards or cemeteries. There is no profit to be made from the sale of photographs and very few artists and researchers make money out of the photographs they take;
- Taxpayers directly or indirectly pay for the maintenance of these environments, and therefore surely these are not spaces sacrosanct to mourners only;
- I cannot see how a ban on photography can be enforced in open-air spaces that are publicly accessible;
- I can only see it as positive that we encourage any legal activities in cemeteries that keep them ‘alive’ within local communities. Without fostering such engagements, how can we expect communities to respect and value them?
- We need to specifically foster digital public mortuary archaeology: the use of digital media to engage communities with their local heritage, including their churchyards and cemeteries, as discussed here.
Therefore, in summary, I think this startling and incomprehensible case in Birmingham will hopefully be a idiosyncratic response of an ill-considered pen-pusher at the city council, rather than the beginning of a wider ban on photography in accessible cemeteries and churchyards maintained by tax-payers’ money.
What’s wrong with photographing gravestones? Absolutely nothing in my view. There is plenty that is good about it in archaeological, heritage, historical and other regards.
What’s wrong with photographing the bodies of the dead? That is a far more complicated question and a short answer could be ‘depends…’ Like it or not, millions of photographs of cadavers and skeletons are found through the internet already… This should be of concern and debate far more than photography of memorials and monuments!