As one of the photographers who helped to put places like Kakadu on the map, Ken Duncan is furious at the level of restrictions that now exist for anyone with a camera trying to capture the beauty of this country. With the birth of Arts Freedom Australia, it could be well past time to regulate the regulators.
It happened in the middle of a glorious day as I was standing on Main Beach in Surfers Paradise, camera at the ready to capture the rolling surf – might I add, an extremely large, professional-looking panoramic camera. It was then that one of our Aussie icons struck.

Clad in Speedos, a bronzed lifeguard accosted me. “What are you doing?” he asked accusingly, even though it was quite obvious that I was taking a photo. I replied as much, only to be told that I wasn’t allowed to without permission and a permit. I saw red – and it wasn’t the sunburnt shoulders of a swimmer. I hadn’t even been trying to photograph those; I was shooting a large panorama and not focusing on any person in particular. My refusal to stop making the most of the lazy scene before me resulted in Mr Manpower threatening to confiscate my camera. It was only when I requested a word with his supervisor – an older man from my generation who, praise God, happened to know who I was – that I was given the okay.

This madness has escalated to a point where some in the photographic industry now refer to our iconic landmarks Uluru and Kakadu as “Ulurules” and “Kakadon’t”.

But this silly scene is not okay. It keeps happening, and not just to me. Welcome to the world of bureaucracy gone mad. I’ve been travelling through Australia taking photos for 30 years, and the main thing concerning me is the increasing amount of bureaucracy creeping into every aspect of our lives. It’s a spreading plague across all three tiers of government. It seems that while we’re busy trying to get on with life, there’s a group of pencil-pushers who want to confound us with even more red tape. These sorts of people hide behind politicians, and they are like a self-perpetuating play – the more rules and regulations they make, the more people are needed to enforce them. I’ve had enough.

It’s time for us to make these bureaucrats accountable for the confusion and frustrations they are bringing to society. We need to wind back the clock and get a bit of commonsense back into a system that is out of control. We talk about Australia being the country of freedom but, for a photographer, there’s more freedom to photograph in Communist China than there is in our own beautiful nation.

The restrictions on photographing in public places have become so severe over the years that nowadays photographers are treated like predators. The funny thing is, it’s the photographers who first made places like Surfers Paradise famous. We’re the ones who have shown these things to the world and helped to bring in the tourists – and now we’re being crucified for trying to do our job. This madness has escalated to a point where some in the photographic industry now refer to our iconic landmarks Uluru and Kakadu as “Ulurules” and “Kakadon’t”. You can’t take photos at Bondi Beach without being questioned – and for professionals, slugged more than $500 a day. And try pulling a camera and tripod out along Sydney Foreshore and see what happens. The rangers will try to confiscate your gear. Sad, but true.

Fast-forward a couple thousand kilometres up the Queensland coast to sunny Cairns, where I recently opened a new gallery. Keen to gather new images of the region, I headed down to the local sea pool early one morning. I stepped over a little rope to go into the pool and took a photo, and was then informed by the cleaner that the pool was closed. I began photographing from outside the pool enclosure – and lo and behold, up came a security guard, who told me I wasn’t allowed to without a permit. His reason? I may be invading the rights of other people at the pool. At this point I reminded him it was sunrise and we were the only people around – but it got me nowhere, and I was threatened with “forcible removal”.

At present, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is coming up for review, and I for one am going to be all over it like a fat kid on a smartie.

The following day, I headed down to the council to try and uncover what stupidity made them create a permit system for those trying to photograph the area. Our councils and governments should be promoting photography wherever possible – even paying photographers for their work – because it’s free advertising right around the world. Apparently they’re concerned about paedophiles and are trying to protect people from predatory behaviour. It’s flawed logic, which I can’t comprehend. The bottom line is, charging a licence fee won’t stop predatory behaviour. They didn’t conduct a police check on me, but they did eventually bend and give me a discount off the usual rate of $140 a day to take photos. However, when I went back to the sea pool with my permit in full view, the security guard still harassed me by claiming that I should have asked the lifeguard’s permission to enter the pool.

This particular incident doesn’t just affect me – it affects everyone. The day after my run-in, a German photographer had his camera confiscated and was made to show his images to the bureaucrats, because he didn’t have a permit. This guy got so upset he said he never wanted to come back to Cairns ever again.

These crazy rules and regulations are going to decimate our tourism industry if we’re not careful. These days, you basically have to make an appointment to take a photograph – and how the heck do you do that, when factors like weather frequently come into play? Enduring shots like Max Dupain’s famous The Sunbather would never have happened if Max had said, “I can’t take that, I have to go and get a permit.”

At the crux of this issue is a 187-page Federal Act that commenced in 2000, called the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Although its main aim is to protect the environment, it also very much touches on access and copyright issues. At present this Act is coming up for review, and I for one am going to be all over it like a fat kid on a smartie. The politicians tend to vote on these documents while the rest of are sleeping, and I don’t believe there are too many who have read the full document – only the one- to two-page executive brief. Then all of a sudden these things are law, and they begin to roll out and take away all the freedoms we once had.

We are so overregulated right now that we need to regulate the regulators.

I’m not taking on this fight just for my own sake – it’s about the up-and-coming generation of photographers. They need to have the same freedoms I had when I grew up. Here’s the reality: if someone these days felt they wanted to publish a book on Australia – like I did with The Last Frontier: Australia Wide back in the ’80s – it would be nigh on impossible. They’d be forced to confront the bronzed Aussie lifesavers, the burly security guards and cavalcades of council and national park bureaucrats for permissions. There would be reams of paperwork, and they’d have to predict the days they were going to turn up in each spot. And it would likely cost tens of thousands of dollars.

In case you’re a bit slow on the uptake, this issue has me at boiling point. So much so that my industry colleagues and I have started up a group called Arts Freedom Australia, which is uniting all photographers to try and fight back. Many of us are the same people whose images were recruited to help Kakadu obtain World Heritage Listing – and now we struggle to pull out a camera in the park without being pounced on. The pencil-pushers who hide away must be exposed for some of this stupidity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are some good bureaucrats out there and we do need some regulation – but we are so overregulated right now that we need to regulate the regulators.

If these rules and restrictions continue, we are going to stifle the recording of our national history. The rules and regulations I’m referring to are so insidious that I simply do not have the space to tell you how far-reaching they are. And I fear they’re only going to get worse. I’m tired of seeing red – tape, that is. If we don’t start to create a stir, if we don’t let these bureaucrats know they’re under scrutiny, if we don’t put the spotlight on them – then those freedoms we know in Australia will be lost forever. And that will be a very sad day.

*HAVE YOUR SAY: Got a question or a comment for Ken? Email or check out

Enjoy this article?

You can find it in Issue 28 along with
loads of other great stories and tips.