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Pictures, please!

Wigmore Hall’s new photography policy offers a sensible way forward in today’s visual culture and more venues should follow suit

There are few things as likely to light my fuse as the blue glow of a phone screen during a concert. Recently at the Royal Opera House a lady in front of me took out her phone to photograph Rigoletto mid-aria and I nearly choked on my own outrage.

Gary Hoffman at Wigmore Hall, December 2017

Yet, if you look at my social media feeds, you’ll see they’re full of slightly fuzzy photographs of soloists, bands or actors acknowledging applause, usually taken on my phone from somewhere at the back of the hall. Cartier-Bresson it isn’t, but these snaps capture something of the moment and serve as a visual focus for my posts, which sometimes spark interesting conversations with music friends and colleagues around the world.

I’ve always had strict rules with myself about this. For classical concerts, I only get my phone out once the final applause has started, leaving it on airplane mode in my bag during the concert so I can spring into action. I try not to distract anyone else during the performance or lose my own presence in the music. As soon as I have an adequate image I get back to loud clapping and forget about the phone. I may take a few shots during rock gigs, but only as surreptitiously and quickly as possible.

So I was happy on a recent visit to Wigmore Hall to see their new policy, which is clearly signalled in a series of projections on the back wall before the concert and again after the interval: phones must be switched off and no photographs except during applause.

Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau, November at the Barbican

Allowing photography at the applause stage seems a sensible, pragmatic development. The fact is that many people expect to be able to take photographs these days – maybe not your average Wigmore Hall visitor, but young, social-media-savvy people who might not have been there before to learn the conventions. Other venues may put up no-phone signs but people ignore them, whether to photograph or go on Facebook (as I discovered from the the man sitting next to me at the National Theatre’s Follies). Like it or not, visual imagery is central to today’s culture and story-telling, and venues have no choice but to accept that. They can, however, lay down reasonable boundaries to make sure that phones-as-cameras don’t impinge on the musical experience, and educate audiences to responsible behaviour.

Jacob Collier at ICA, December 2017

After all, it’s in the best interests of venues and artists alike for punters to take photographs and post them to social media – it’s basically free marketing. I’d argue that more people should be doing it more often. My photos may not be slick and posed, or show the artist to their best advantage, but they are a record of the event, and given that few venues regularly hire professional photographers, often the only one. They might not directly sell another ticket or a CD, but they get names into the ether and start conversations that will. For any cultural organisation that wants to be more open (and which doesn’t?), it’s essential to make this sort of interaction easy, without annoying anyone.

The Wigmore’s policy does just that and I welcome it – maybe other venues will follow suit.

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