Wednesday, January 24, 2007
There is a really interesting post by Richard Rothstein, and an accompanying discussion, over at Art & Perception about his experience, as an amateur photographer, of being harassed by authority figures in NYC. Here are some excerpts:
[T]o members of the New York City Police Department, several doormen and a couple of security guards, I looked like [...] a terrorist threat. Clearly, a lone man photographing details of buildings from various angles and wanting to enter lobbies of city landmarks to photograph cherubs, statuary and mosaics is now assumed to be a threat to the safety and security of our fair city.
I’m a photographer. I’m an artist. But such explanations no longer fly. I was denied entry to the lobby of the landmark and fantabulous Woolworth Building. I was asked for photo ID in front of a Soho luxury condo. Two of New York’s finest approached me in front of a Prince Street church and asked me to please “move on.” I explained who I was and what I was doing. The response was a second “please move on.” Two security guards asked me why I was photographing crowds shopping the stalls on Canal Street. Why is it any of their business, I asked? “Please move on.”
Photographing the details of Manhattan used to be a very enriching hobby, now it’s a awkward negotiation through a maze of uniforms.
The general rule in the United States is that anyone may take photographs of whatever they want when they are in a public place or places where they have permission to take photographs. Absent a specific legal prohibition such as a statute or ordinance, you are legally entitled to take photographs. Examples of places that are traditionally considered public are streets, sidewalks, and public parks.
I think one may be bound to obey an order by a bona fide police officer to vacate an area, but as I understand it, citizens are under no obligation to identify themselves to, or follow the orders of, a private security officer if the citizen is on public property.
In his post, Richard Rothstein offers a talismanic disclaimer:
I was tempted to post my photograph so that you could determine for yourself just how much I resemble a threat to democracy and freedom–but that’s probably not wise. Suffice it to say that I am a 58-year-old very white, bald, Jewish, Gay New Yorker with a very neatly trimmed silver beard. I was wearing an $1,500 Italian dark green leather and fleece coat, a black cashmere scarf and a matching black pull on cashmere cap. I looked like your typical over-paid and perfectly stylish self-indulgent New Yorker on his way to or from a chic brunch. Today’s weapon of choice was my Canon Digital Elph with optical zoom.
This is a common but dangerous way of thinking. The disclaimer offered here is “How could anyone think I am a threat”. The implication is that it’s perfectly clear what kinds of people are dangerous, and that although it’s OK to harass them, that we should be left alone. The outrage is “how dare they bother me; can’t they see I’m not one of them?”
The problem with this line of thinking is that suspicion is not proof, and suspicion is not grounds for lesser rights. There are thousands of people imprisoned around the world by our military, based only on suspicion. Many of them are certainly innocent, something easily extrapolated from the fact that scores have been set free after belated realizations that they posed no threat and were guilty of no crime. Suspicion is no justification for the fact that they were treated unjustly. In fact, proper application of due process would have revealed their innocence.
In the discussion thread, Paul Butzi, a photographer living here in Washington state, takes Richard to task:
You cite your description. Apparently you feel that middle-aged, white, bald, jewish wealthy folks should be exempt from scrutiny. I’m sorry, but as a society, the United States seems to be pretty strongly resistant to the entire idea of racial/ethnic/social status profiling. Why, exactly, do you think that racial/ethnic profiling is a great idea, given the widespread dislike of it especially amongst the urban population in the US?
Paul is being combative here, but I basically agree with his objection.
Social protests often involve rallying cries like “As long as any one of us is not free, none of us is free”. A specific way to understand this idea is to realize that if it’s OK for authority figures to unaccountably hassle people based solely on, say, their appearance, then they are free to hassle any one of us. We may choose, collectively, to allow the authorities to hassle anyone they wish in the name of security, but it’s seductively wrong-headed to try to escape the matter by wishing for the authorities to hassle only those people, and to leave us alone. Richard invokes his appearance hoping to get a free pass. In a perverse way, this way of thinking leads to a world in which he can be hassled with impunity.
A couple more comments:
The photos are, for me, an escape from the political and social turmoil in which we live and struggle. So the intrusion of politics/uniforms on my time with the city felt like a violation and an invasion of my personal privacy and personal space.
– Richard (the author)
I’ve had similar experiences. I used to get harassed by security guards at airports a lot. It took me some time to figure out how I was triggering them. Finally, I saw that I was carrying into civilian life the attitude and mien from my time working for the military. I had to learn to imitate the downcast, submissive, poor eye contact, fearful attitude of the general population.
After that, no more searches.
One security guard actually told me that “they” send through people to test security, and I looked and acted like a cop.
What delicious irony.
Again, it’s worth reading through all the comments.
As always, if you are a photographer, I think the best approach is to politely but firmly stick up for your increasingly-encroached right to take pictures in public areas. There’s no sense in being unnecessarily confrontational, but I think it’s important not to take harassment lying down.
Remember: nobody has the right to confiscate your equipment except a police officer in the course of an arrest, and any intimidation, threat of physical force or the use of physical force by a private citizen is likely a criminal offense and/or actionable via lawsuit.