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George F. Will, the Street Photographer’s Friend

A. D. Coleman, 2010. Photograph copyright by Willie Chu.

Perhaps I’m not alone in finding it surprising that a prominent right-wing spokesperson has come out in defense of creative photographers harassed by the police for making pictures in public places. Especially since the police excesses have happened in the name of fighting terrorism. Whether or not I have company, I consider it worth noting (and applauding) that no less a conservative eminence than George F. Will has castigated an increasing police tendency in the U.S. to interfere with and intimidate photographers exercising their legal right to use their cameras in the streets and other public spaces of our cities, making him an unlikely ally in the perpetual struggle against state-sponsored censorship.

Here’s the core paragraph of Will’s January 18 column for the Washington Post“A snapshot of our times”:

Washington Post logo“When the Los Angeles Police Department developed a Suspicious Activity Report program, the federal government encouraged local law enforcement agencies to adopt its guidelines for gathering information ‘that could indicate activity or intentions related to’ terrorism. From the fact that terrorists might take pictures of potential infrastructure targets (‘pre-operational surveillance’), it is a short slide down a slippery slope to the judgment that photography is a potential indicator of terrorism and hence photographers are suspect when taking pictures ‘with no apparent aesthetic value’ (words from the suspicious-activity guidelines).”
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Richard Gylfie

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Richard Gylfie

The specific cluster of cases Will cites involve three Los Angeles-based photographers variously questioned, threatened, and otherwise abused by officers of the famously citizen-friendly LAPD, all of them of course with substantial training in determining the presence or absence of “apparent aesthetic value” in a street scene. Click here for a video of Los Angeles County Sheriff ‘s Deputy Richard Gylfie, Badge No. 2955, acting in his official capacity with admirable professionalism by lying to professional photographer Shawn Nee — claiming falsely that the LA Metro policy prohibits photography — and then abusing his authority by threatening to submit Nee’s name to the FBI’s Terrorism Liaison Officer (TLO) so that anytime Nee tries to travel or take any kind of public transportation he’ll be “stopped, detained, and searched” because he’ll “be on the FBI’s hit list.”

Los Angeles Times_logo

Nee’s run-in with the mendacious and bullying Officer Gylfie happened on October 31, 2009. Despite Nee’s filing of a formal complaint, Gylfie was never disciplined for his excesses. This, plus an accumulation of equivalent subsequent incidents, led the ACLU of Southern California to sue the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and several of its deputies. The federal suit was filed on October 27, 2011. (See Richard Winton’s report of that date for the Los Angeles Times“ACLU sues Sheriff’s Department, alleges photographers were harassed.” And click here for the full text of the lawsuit.)

The Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) in question, developed by the LAPD and finalized in June 2008, is now recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ); the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA); DOJ’s Global Justice Information Sharing Initiative (Global); the Criminal Intelligence Coordinating Council (CICC); and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for study and implementation nationwide. This has already begun to take place.

Which means that it jeopardizes the freedom of anyone photographing in public in the land of the free, so long as loose-cannon cops like Richard Gylfie consider it a license to bully photographers. Here’s the exact language of the SAR protocols:

  • A Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) is a report used to document any reported or observed activity, or any criminal act or attempted criminal act, which an officer believes may reveal a nexus to foreign or domestic terrorism. . . . Incidents which shall be reported on a SAR are as follows:
  • Engages in suspected pre-operational surveillance (uses binoculars or cameras, takes measurements, draws diagrams, etc.).
  • Takes pictures or video footage (with no apparent esthetic value, i.e., camera angles, security equipment, security personnel, traffic lights, building entrances, etc.).

ACLU of Southern California logoThere are other types of incidents on the list, natch, but these particularly affect photographers who are acting entirely within legal boundaries — hence the ACLU lawsuit, with which Will seems to agree, not particularly grudgingly. Will equivocates some about all that, paying due respect to “the difficult decisions law enforcement officers must make concerning the shadowy threat of terrorism,” but concludes that these were “instances of government overreaching in the name of security.” Even a stopped clock, I remind you, is right twice a day. So let’s thank God for small favors and tip our hats to Will for this one, while keeping an eye on this case — and on the increasing harassment of citizens with cameras legally taking pictures in public, which the institution of the Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) protocols will surely serve to intensify.

George Will logo, Washington Post

Not only do I find it impressive that George Will has come out on the side of photographers in this ACLU case , but I note with interest the designation that the Washington Post has devised for him, as evidenced on his logo (right): “Opinion Writer.” An intriguing locution, since prior to its very recent invention the only individuals I would have identified as “opinion writers” were the judges, lawyers, and law clerks who draft legal opinions, a very specific and narrow subset of opinions in general and opinion writing specifically. Designating Will (and the other Washington Post op-ed columnists) as “opinion writers” thus carries the connotation that their word is law without actually saying so. A most curious locution. Does this make me an opinion writer?

(Note: Readers may recall the June 2011 experiment conducted by street photographers in London, in which they encountered comparable harassment, intimidation, and outright lying from private security firms when photographing in public places around that city. I reported on it in a September post; click here for a short film at YouTube documenting that investigation, Stand Your Ground, produced by the London Street Photography Festival. This problem clearly exists internationally.)

(P.S. February 6, 2012: Will does occasionally gore some right-wing ox; click here for neocon Joe Sobran’s whinging about Will not toeing the line dependably. Maybe he really does think for himself, or just likes to be a bad boy from time to time. But consider as the most likely cause of his most recent mild apostasy the fact that his daughter Victoria Will is a professional photographer, as is her husband, Lucas Jackson, who works for Reuters. Click here for their wedding album (they tied the knot on December 1, 2011); here for Victoria’s website; here for Lucas Jackson’s blog; and here for what I nominate as the smarmiest, most embarrassing high-school graduation commencement address by one’s parent that any future photographer has ever had to endure. My thanks to the reader who pointed me toward those sites, yet who wishes to remain anonymous.)

Seeing: Conservative vs. Liberal Genetic Tendencies?

The preliminary findings of a scientific experiment in how people respond to photographic images suggest that people who identify themselves as politically and socially conservative respond more strongly to photographs identified by the researchers as pessimistic or frightening in content than they do to images classified as optimistic and cheerful — and vice versa for subjects who identified themselves as “liberal.”

That’s the upshot of a January 30, 2012 report from the BBC’s Matt Danzico, “Fear factor: The science behind America’s red/blue divide.” The BBC’s synopsis: “Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are studying liberals’ and conservatives’ reactions to happy or pleasant photographs and scary or sad ones in an effort to learn more about the cognitive underpinnings of political preference. The findings? Conservatives tend to concentrate more on images considered to be negative, while liberals’ eyes tend to linger on positive images, says [University of Nebraska-Lincoln] political science professor John Hibbing.”

The various genetic programs built into our individual DNA, systematically getting mapped today via the data generated by the Human Genome Project, consistently reveal that we have genes predetermining physical and psychological characteristics and tendencies, everything from hair color to susceptibility to addiction. Might this mean that we have genetic predispositions to respond to our environment and experience from an outlook either fundamentally fearful or fundamentally hopeful — and that this tendency manifests itself demonstrably through our sense of sight when stimulated by the simulacra of lens-derived images?

If so, that would explain many things, from the antipathy of conservatives like the late Sen. Jesse Helms to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano to the support among liberals for documentary photography addressing difficult social issues. One emergent hypothesis is that both groups were “born this way,” effectively hardwired to respond to certain types of visual stimuli in two opposite ways that, in an image-saturated culture, inevitably lead to conflict.

I hasten to add that the experiment described in this BBC report hardly qualifies as conclusive; though it employed state-of the-art eye movement-tracking equipment, only some 80 subjects participated in the study. So the investigation needs to get expanded substantially, tested in different countries and cultures, examined for its nature-versus-nurture quotient, and otherwise pursued. What it promises to tell us about the eye-brain connection, and its determining effect on the mind-soul condition of the individual, could shed much light on the function of photographic images in lens cultures worldwide.

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2 comments to George F. Will, the Street Photographer’s Friend

  • I find the contemporary state paranoia about photography depressing.

    I grew up and lived in Northern Ireland throughout the period euphemistically known as the ‘Troubles’ when terrorism was the norm – and not just the threat of terrorism.

    The authorities never saw any need for repressive legislation against photographers. Security bases would be marked with ‘no photography’ signs and as long as you avoided taking images of these and of police officers and soldiers, no-one would come after you.

    The state seem to have lost the capacity for common sense judgement these days – whether through fear of being accused of not doing enough or through a more sinister attempt to use the threat of terrorism as a means to exert further control over the citizens.

    The one consolation, having watched the video made by the photographers in London is that the real police officers – as opposed to the private security guards – largely took the photographers’ side.

    We did have a number of incidents in the UK of heavy handed policing but protests led to new guidelines being issued to police forces and these do seem to have had some positive effect.

    I do miss Munich, where I lived for a couple of years. There, I was able to wander around with my camera without harassment from anyone – private or public – photographing anything and everything including transport hubs, industrial plant an government buildings.

  • Thanks for writing about this… I get stopped all the time… usually by private security. Last time, I asked them to call the police… I was photographing a building while standing on public property and when the private security guard asked me to stop, I pointed out that what I was doing was perfectly legal and they were welcome to call the police. They didn’t. But I do find that taking pictures in America is no longer viewed as a free and protected right by many.

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