When Not To Stop Aim And Shoot In Bulawayo

Whilst in Bulawayo Zimbabwe last week I spent a few days photographing sites and scenes around the city. I recently posted a blog of my visit to Centenary Park but today’s post will have no photographs.

On Sunday morning I went to the iconic Bulawayo Railway station, a place I had not visited since I was in high school some twenty years ago. On arrival I was impressed at how well maintained the main station entrance area is and it photographed really well in the morning light. I walked onto the platform and as I expected I found it in dire need of attention but much of the original structure is still intact.

The platform is a budding photographer’s dream with combinations of colonial and art deco architecture that have blended together over the decades as the station grew from it’s original structures. The long views down the railway lines as they disappear out the station to far off destinations. The iron struts that hold up the platform roof look like they have been there an eternity and will be there for an eternity still.

The faded advertising boards feature products that have not been seen anywhere in Zimbabwe for years, some since the eighties. Whilst quaint and photogenic, none of the advertising light boxes work anymore and I wonder when last anyone paid rent for the advertising space they still take up. There are no engines on the platform today, just fully loaded coal wagons and a few closed wagons possibly loaded, possibly empty. As I photograph a concrete pillar a passer-by says to me, “don’t get caught” I look up but he is already moved on so I continue with what I am doing.

I walk to the end of the tracks looking for the shot that will make my day and notice a guard sunning himself on a bench with his back to me. Not sure I have found what I wanted I make my way out of the station only to be stopped by a now wide awake security guard who asks me what I am doing. I tell him and he asks me to come with him, I ask why I should if I have done nothing wrong but he is insistent, politely so. After sparring for a few minutes like this I realise this will end badly if I continue to resist so I get in the car and we go to his office a short distance away.

At the office he asks to see my photographs so I show him, it is at this point that he tells me I have broken the law. He points to a notice on his wall which states there will be no unauthorised photography of any national railways structure or property and violation will result in a fine or jail time or both. Lucky for me we had had a cordial discussion so he allowed me to leave with a warning and advised me who I should seek permission from in future, a Mr. Masikati at the NRZ Head Office in town.

This was not the first time I had been stopped from taking photographs at a train station, a few months earlier at Johannesburg’s Park Station the guards there had threatened to take my phone but let me go when they realised I was a tourist.

Still reeling from that close shave I went across the road to shoot the power station who’s cooling towers are a famous Bulawayo landmark. No sooner had I taken my first shot a security guard comes across the road to usher me into the station’s guard house. Turns out it is a criminal offence to photograph any power installation punishable by a prison sentence, a US$2000,00 fine or both. Mr. Banda, the guard, told me i had broken the law and that he was required to call state security, known locally as the President’s Office, believe me, these are the last people you ver want to deal with. I asked why this was so serious an offence he explained thus:

If Zimbabwe was to ever come under attack the two places to first be neutralised would be the power and fuel supplies therefore all such installations are regarded as national key points requiring the highest security. He then asked to see my photographs and asked me to delete them as he watched. I was gutted but grateful the situation didn’t go further than it did, I may not have been here today to write this.

You know how they say bad things happen in threes? Turns out fate was not done with me yet, fast forward to Friday, my last morning in Bulawayo. After shooting in Centenary Park I walked to the council buildings looking for unique angles for my blogpost. I hand’t taken five shots before a security guard approached me and the now familiar dance began. “Who are you, where are you from and what are you doing? Let me see your photographs because what you’re doing is not allowed. Ok last warning, don’t do it again, be gone.” After a great morning shoot in the park this was deeply frustrating, to make matters worse, the guard told me they were simply enforcing a verbal instruction from some superior and he was not even sure if it was enforceable.

Whilst I can appreciate national security concerns I find barring tourists from taking photographs of state structures is an archaic and unenforceable regulation. You would think the station in a city that suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks in history would have the most restrictive measures but no, New York City’s Grand Central Station has an Instagram account and hundreds of photos are uploaded daily by travellers passing through it. Johannesburg’s Gautrain has no problem with photographers at it’s stations or on it’s trains as long as they don’t cause a danger to themselves or others.

In Zimbabwe the people expected to enforce these rules are bored and disinterested, you just have to google these places and you will find hundreds of photos. In an age of drones and spy satellites who would walk up to the front gate of a national key point in broad daylight and start taking photographs in full view of security personnel? This is an example of technology outpacing technology and those who write our laws are woefully ill-equipped to meet this challenge.

Until that day, take this as a word of advice from one who got lucky twice in fifteen minutes on a Sunday morning, you may not be so lucky when next you’re out gramming wherever you are.