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News & Insight

Grandfather Arrested For Taking Photo of A Sign in United Arab Emirates

By Hanssie on November 12th 2014

You’ve likely heard of the adage, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness and not for permission.” And be honest, how many times have you muttered that very adage when you’ve decided to hop over a fence bearing a no trespassing sign just to get the perfect photo or maybe photographing someone on the street….um, YOLO right?

Though we’ve probably all broken some law that we deem silly, such as having a sleeping donkey in your bathtub after 7pm (like in Oklahoma), not adhering to a law, no matter how ridiculous or irrational we may think it is, in a foreign country, doing something as simple as photographing a sign may get you arrested and sentenced to 5 years in jail.


Dr. Robert Alan Black, a 70-year old American professor is in a jail in Abu Dhabi and facing a possible 5 year sentence for photographing a ‘No photography’ sign, ironically. Black was in the capital of the UAE to lecture at a conference when he took a walk around the city. An avid amateur photographer, Dr. Black liked to photograph buildings and was reportedly amused by the sign that banned photography. He snapped a photo of it, unaware of the extremely strict photography laws in the UAE. He was promptly arrested after and was jailed for over a week before a sympathetic interpreter was able to send a message to his family who had been searching all over the world for him. They ended up contacting the US Embassy, who stepped in to provide guidance.

According to article 168 of the UAE penal code, people caught taking photographs of banned areas such as palaces and embassies can receive up to five years in prison and a hefty fine.

Things to Consider When Photographing in Foreign Countries

1. Do your Research

When traveling to a foreign country, make sure you know the local laws. Something that you’d normally think nothing of, like chewing gum on the subway (Singapore) or snapping a photo of a passerby on the street without their permission (Brazil) may be against the law and can land you into heaps of trouble. You should check your country’s tourist office,  or ask someone you know who lives in the country you’re traveling for information pertaining to the country’s customs, laws and etiquette regarding photography.

A good resource for Americans traveling to foreign countries is the U.S. State Department’s website, where they list travel alerts, country specific information, etc to help prepare you for your trip.

2. Respect the Laws, Local Customs and Signs

What could be considered as normal in one culture, could be construed as rude in another culture. Again, do your research. Just because something may be acceptable in your country of origin, does not mean that it is acceptable in a foreign country. It is always good to remember that you do not have the same rights in another country as you do in your home country. Ignoring signs, law enforcement or any official postings is not advised, as they are there for a reason.

When you’re in a foreign country, respect that culture and try your best not to be another clueless tourist, because in some countries like the UAE, not knowing the law is not a defense. Just use common sense.

3. Know How to Contact Your Country’s Embassy

If you do find yourself in trouble on foreign soil, your best bet is to get word to your country’s embassy for help. Keep in mind though, that embassies are limited to what they can do. Just because you’re an American, it doesn’t give you a free pass out of trouble. Your constitutional rights are null and void in a country with their own set of rights and laws, even if the country is an ally of your home country, such as the case with the UAE and the U.S.

Currently, Dr. Robert Alan Black’s family is trying to raise funds to hire him an Emirati lawyer to represent him (as the UAE law states) which costs tens of thousands of dollars upfront. There is a Facebook page set up to garner support and a petition which has amassed over 3,000 signatures asking the U.S. State Department for diplomacy in helping release Dr. Black.

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[Via Huffington Post/additional details Daily Mail]

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Hanssie is a Southern California-based writer and sometimes portrait and wedding photographer. In her free time, she homeschools, works out, rescues dogs and works in marketing for SLR Lounge. She also blogs about her adventures and about fitness when she’s not sick of writing so much. Check out her work and her blog at Follow her on Instagram

Q&A Discussions

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  1. R Stone

    Let me try to explain the situation that Alan Black is in here for those who aren’t very familiar with political systems or cultural differences.

    The UAE is a federation of absolute monarchies. Abu Dhabi is one of those monarchies and its ruled by a monarch with absolute power. The only limitation on the monarch’s power is that which is imposed by the other monarchs in the UAE ruling council. The monarch is NOT accountable to the royal subjects, meaning they have no rights aside from whatever rights he has granted them.

    While some rights will be granted to the average citizen because that’s what’s needed in order to keep everything running smoothly, the average citizen has no ability to vote the monarch out of office or any other way for the general population to enforce any sort of accountability aside from violent revolution.

    Because of this, the king is naturally going to be very concerned about security. (There are always going to be people unhappy with his decisions no matter what he does.) this is the source of the “no photography” laws: photography can be used for the reconnaissance needed to plan attacks. Other security measures that would seem similarly extreme in non-monarchies will also be present here because it’s a monarchy and the monarch has plenty of wealth from oil to pay for all kinds of very technically advanced security measures.

    When there is a “no photography” sign in a situation like this, photographing it is a direct challenge to the king’s right to rule. The underlying cultural assumption that people have is that the king has the absolute right to rule, nobody has any rights except what is granted by the king, and especially nobody has the right to challenge the king. (Some revolutionaries may question the king’s right to rule, but typically they still have the underlying assumption that monarchy will exist and that removing the king just means replacing him with a different king. So even those who challenge the king are just looking to change who is king, not change the form of government to something other than monarchy. Some people may lie and claim that they want a different form of government, but typically they just want to be the king instead of the current king; they are simply lying for propaganda purposes. Almost nobody will have actually changed their underlying cultural assumptions because by definition an underlying assumption is an unstated assumption that people are unaware of until someone specifically asks them the right questions.)

    So it really isn’t enough to just know the law in a country, you also need to know why the law is there and how breaking it will be interpreted. You may think it’s a joke, but in an absolute monarchy doing something blatant like photographing a no photography sign is almost as bad as publicly announcing that you challenge the king’s right to rule because you think he’s a joke or something. As you might imagine, you’re not going to be treated very well doing this in a monarchy especially if the king has been very generous and supportive of the people who he has working for him.

    Furthermore, if you’re an American or someone from some place where people don’t understand these things, you may get made an example of. The attitude will essentially be “These idiot Americans think they can just do anything and challenge anyone they want, even the monarch! We need to make an example of this guy to show Americans and other similar foreigners that they can’t just come here and expect to challenge the king along with everyone else who works for him any time they want.” Failure to make an example of someone runs the risk that behaviors that challenge the king will become more common, leading to even greater security concerns, etc. In other words, the king can’t afford to ignore this kind of thing because if he does then things will get worse for him and other people under him.

    The U.S. State Dept is unlikely to have any leverage significant enough to get the king to pardon and release anyone acting like this because failing to make an example of the guy is a security risk for the king. They’d essentially have to offer him something to offset the security risk, which they’ll be unable to do, and that would only work if everyone involved was being purely practical and actually believed any offers would be followed through on.

    So I do not recommend going to a country that’s an absolute monarchy and doing anything that says to everyone “I challenge the king’s right to rule!” You will find yourself in a very bad situation that you can’t get out of regardless of who’s help you have. This is especially true when the king has extreme wealth needed to hire lots of guards, police, equipment, etc.

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  2. Ian Moss

    Border guards of all nationalities have no zero sense of humour when it comes to breaking the rules. Check out the advice given by insurance companies for UK citizens entering the USA!

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    • Ben Perrin

      This is so true. I wonder if it’s a requirement of the job. “Do you have a sense of humour?”, Yes I do. “Well sir, I’m sorry but we can’t have you working here.”

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  3. Greg Faulkner

    Best not go to countries who’s laws you think are stupid or in some way disagree with is the best course of action whether you’re a photographer or not

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  4. J D

    Whether you agree with them or not, rules are rules and laws are laws. It amazes me that a person will go to a foreign country to visit and choose to ignore laws/rules/policies because they think they are stupid but those same people would raise a huge stink if a foreign tourist came to North America and tried to pull the same stunt.

    I couldn’t imagine traveling to a foreign location and not educating myself on their customs to fit in and keep myself out of trouble.

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  5. Ralph Hightower

    Let me guess. His family is going to start a Kickstarter project to pay for his legal bills. Sorry, but I am not going to fund stupidity. I haven’t been to the UAE, but it probably compares to the Soviet Union with what cannot be done versus what can be done. The UAE is probably one of the most restrictive countries.

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  6. Ben Perrin

    Still, it makes you wonder if common sense ever will be used again by the human race. Sure the guy did the wrong thing in a different country but why is the human race in general full of stupid laws and rules that make sense to anyone but bureaucrats? Everyone seems to take offence at everything these days. I feel sorry for this guy and hope he gets home safely soon.

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    • Stan Rogers

      Speaking of common sense, how much of it do you think was involved in taking a photograph of a “No Photgraphy” sign?

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    • Ben Perrin

      Oh yeah, it was a stupid thing to do for sure. I wouldn’t argue about that. It was probably a joke to him at the time. Someone in UAE didn’t see the funny side of it.

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    • R Stone

      The laws actually do make sense IF you understand the underlying cultural and political situation. The only reason they don’t make sense to you is because of your underlying cultural assumptions which are false in an absolute monarchy.

      See my post below for a detailed explanation.

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  7. Jim Johnson

    This is good advice. Never make assumptions… especially with irony or jokes. It is always best to assume people in charge have no sense of humor.

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  8. Matthew Riley

    I have traveled all over the world and lived in communist countries and the one thing I always do is make sure I know the laws and abide by them. Just being a US citizen will not get you off from committing a crime.

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