Friday, April 4, 2008

The right to photograph

On a photography forum, someone posted a link to a story (here) about a photographer asked to delete the images he took of the entrance used by the President for the Opening Day games at the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium. I wrote about my own incidental exchanges while photographing on the Washington State ferries.

Outside of those incidents the only other negative exchanges I have had have been with people who didn't like the picture taken. The only exception to that was a City of Tacoma worker (here) who didn't want his photo taken and didn't want to listen, let alone understand, about being a public worker in a public space.

Anyway, my point? Well, it seems ever so slowly we're losing our freedoms, and law enforcement officers, from local to the FBI, Secret Service, etal. are taking a lot of presumptions about their right to control what photographers can do where and when. A few years ago a photographer working in downtown San Francisco was taking photos of a hotel when Secret Service officers arrested him and confiscating his camera equipment.

It turned out, unbeknownst to him and anyone else, Vice President Cheney was entering the hotel from another street totally out of sight of the photographer, and none of his images had anything remotely capturing the incident. But they wanted to be "sure." Or was it on order from the VP to protect his activies regardless of the law?

It seems routine now the law enforcement officers are overly zealous withh photographers only to later release them without charging them, but more often than not deleting the images or worse damaging their equipment, like this photographer who lost all his equipment that day when they denied the arrest and confiscation of his equipment.

While they are or trying to restrict our freedoms and those of photographers, they're making several really stupid, and I do mean stupid, mistakes.

First it's not illegal to photograph. You can get a summary of a photographer's rights. It means that unless explicity identified in state, local or federal laws, ordinances or regulations, it's perfectly legal to photography anyone or anything anywhere at any time in or from a public space or in a private space with permission of the owners.

And it's not about safety and security. How many times have you seen videos and images of the movement of high government officials, even the President, taken by media videographers and photojournalists? And often they'll let people photograph them with less than professional-grade cameras, but then restrict photographers with better cameras?

Second, they're not being consistent with the types of photographers (tourist versus "professional"). This is being done because it's easy to identify and isolate photographers using fairly standard or traditional, often described and serious or professional, film or digital cameras. They have rarely prevented or stopped people with camera phones or point&shoot cameras. Only with larger, obvious cameras.

Third, and mostly importantly, they forget when something does happen, the first thing they want are images. This seems to escape their logic or reason. Whenever something happens, an event, crime, whatever, the first thing everyone, especially government and law enforcement officials want are photographs or images. So, why on one hand restrict photography while on the other hand then wonder why there aren't any later?

What don't they understand is that the freedom to photograph empowers both the people and the law, and especially law enforcement agencies. The more photos and images that exist, the more people know and the more they have. But I also know it's about power and control over people. I remember going to a John Kerry rally in 2004 and while they would let people take in small cameras they didn't want "professional" cameras.

The freedom to photograph empowers and helps everyone. What's not to understand?

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