Fear and the Photograph

Check out your rights as a photographer: http://tinyurl.com/4neyed

Washington, D.C. in the summer. The humidity is a given. So are the tourists, camera clicking away. But times are changing. While the public is getting used to less privacy as video cameras watch them from street corners, parking lots and store security stations, the police and security guards and chasing photographers away, telling them that photographs taken in public places, while standing on public property, is illegal.

It isn’t, of course, but who wants to argue with an official with a gun? Jerome Vorus, a 19-year-old college student was detained by police after he took a photograph of a traffic stop in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. Although he stood 20 feet away from the scene, the police accused him of photographing the inside of a cruiser, and claimed this was illegal. (It’s not, according to the police guidelines.)

The Washington Post recently ran an article citing a number of cases where ordinary citizens were prevented from taking photos in public places. Often, the photos were of federal buildings, and images of those buildings were posted on the governments website.

This is another case of fear. Once fear is set lose, the reaction is more fear. Tourists are seen as terrorists, citizens as threats. Non-citizens are seen as bigger threats. Courts have ruled that anyone standing in a public area have no expectation of privacy, but it’s hard to carry around a court ruling and reason with someone who has seized your camera and is deleting your photos.

Fear of strangers, fear of your neighbor, and fear of people and ideas we don’t understand have risen considerably since 9/11. We create our own reality—if we see harm and malice in every photographer, we become a nation that makes decisions out of fear, that reacts in fear. That leads us to a nation that abandons the First Amendment or allows security guards to define the law as they see fit, and enforce it in any way they choose. Let’s put down the fear and settle for a little thinking, instead.