Musings on Photography

No more running.

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on February 25, 2010


Two of the most read posts on this blog are this one and this one, both of them on the balance between photographers’ legal rights and photographers’ social responsibilities.

If you go and read those posts, you’ll find that, early on in the life of this blog, I urged a policy where rather than use the fact that photography in public places is legal to justify their photography, photographers should instead photograph in public with some sense of responsibility. And you’ll note that I took considerable heat in the comments. Fair enough. That was a bit more than three years ago. I want to make sure that people understand, as they read what follows, that I still am very much in agreement with every word I wrote in that first post titled “The Photos to Not Take”. As photographers, we have responsibilities as well as rights.

But things have moved on, and it has become abundantly clear that the right to photograph in public is under siege. Everywhere in the news, photographers are being harassed for photographing in public places, despite their legal right to do so. It’s happening here in the US, and it’s happening in the UK, and it seems a pretty safe assumption that it’s happening everywhere. Fathers are being harassed for taking photographs of their children riding the coin-pay kiddie rides in public shopping centers. No, not just harassed by rent-a-cop wannabe mall guards, but harassed by honest-to-God police who then go on to accuse the father of being a child molester.


I am the guy who was vilified for arguing that photographers have responsibilities as well as rights. And I am saying, now, that this is enough. It is past enough. It has gone from annoying, to stupid and annoying, to the point where this crap is socially corrosive. Governments everywhere are busily engaged in implementing plans to photograph every citizen in every public place all the time 24/365, and those governments are at the same time busily insisting that private citizens do not have the right to photograph public employees on the job. And that, my friends, is not the way free countries are run.

The time has come to say that we’re not going to take any more. Don’t just push back politely against the people who are painting everyone with a camera in a public place as child rapists or terrorists. No more polite pushing back. Sorry, we’re done with that. This is no longer an issue of polite behavior and going along to get along. The time has come for photographers to use the legal system to not just fight off the false accusations, but to go after the people who are doing the harassing. Go after them, and crush them, leave their lives destroyed and shattered in the way a parent who has been falsely accused of child molestation on the basis taking an innocent photo of a kid taking a perfectly normal bath gets his life shattered.

The problem, as I see it, is that all too often what happens is that some person with limited resources is the victim of this policy of harassment. This innocent person doesn’t have the dough to go after the harasser through the legal system. And no one has pockets deep enough to go after all the assholes who are doing this harassing.

But there’s a misconception, here. We don’t have to go after every single one. We just have to pick one. Pick one, crush him or her completely, along with the people who let him get away with it, in a very public way. Careers ended. Huge libel or slander lawsuits. Make it the stuff that causes politicians to lose elections. Turn it from a little encounter between a private citizen and a mall guard or beat cop into a big, whopping public scandal with cries for big, intrusive government investigations into the guard/cop’s boss, his boss’s boss, and his boss’s boss’s boss.

How to do it?

  1. If every photographer gives $10 bucks, that’s not going to be enough to go after every harasser with lawsuits. It will, however, be enough to go after one, and completely bury him. Make it big enough, and splashy enough, and all the rest of the stupid power-hungry cops and guards will suddenly realize that their ability to own houses, cars, and live with their families is at stake. And, it will make a difference.
  2. When someone engages in this sort of harassment, an effort should be made to photograph or video record the harasser, not just during the event but continuously, as long as that person is in a public space and has no expectation of privacy. Record them driving to work, with the speedometer in the frame so that if they speed there is evidence of their crime. Record them flipping the bird at a driver when they cross the street. Record them, nonstop, and sort through the recordings, and publish the most humiliating, embarrassing ones along with all the ones that contain evidence of criminal behavior. How to organize this? Twitter and thousands of photographers seems like a workable plan.
  3. When someone gets harassed for photographing in a location, thousands and thousands of photographers should converge on that spot and make photographs. Make a lot of fuss. Get on TV. Hold the harasser out in the light of public scrutiny.
  4. While you do those things, make it blatantly clear that the reason this person is being targeted is that they harassed someone beyond the bounds of their authority. And make it clear that this is what is going to happen to people who do that in the future. Maybe not every single time, but often enough that it is a very bad gamble for a guard or cop to take.

Because what I want is, the next time some mall guard or beat cop gets to thinking “Humm, there’s a photographer, I think I’ll entertain myself by going over there and giving him a hard time”, his partner says “Oh, Bob, I don’t think that’s a good idea. You remember Pete? He did that, and that bunch of crazy-ass photographers went after him tooth, claw, and nail. They sued him for everything he had, he lost his job, car and house. Those photographers, they photographed him every time he left the house. They got photos of him cheating on his wife, and his wife left him and took the kids, and if you want to discuss it with him, you can find him down at 1st and Market holding a sign that says ‘Let’s be honest, I need money for booze.’ He’s got lice, and he hasn’t taken a shower in three months. He lives under the overpass over north of town. Those photographers look like they’re artsy fartsy pushovers, but let me tell you, some of them are the meanest, most vindictive bastards you’re ever gonna meet. Just leave them the hell alone, and let’s go get a donut, whaddayasay?”

No more running. I aim to misbehave.

2 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on February 25, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Great timing! This morning I did my brave new world class in national security law where I explain what that 9/11 commission recommendation on breaking down the silos really means – a national police force, including the NSA secret police, reaching from the President down to your dumb brother-in-law working as a deputy sheriff.

    Even the John Birchers were once as frightened of a national police as was the loony left. Harassing photographers is just one manifestation of this. Old people who once knew why they did not want a secret police have forgotten, and most young people do not have a well formed expectation of privacy. This matters because the United States Supreme Court decides your privacy rights based on reasonable expectations. If most of the public has no expectation of privacy, then everyone loses the expectation.

    I have did some research on the right to take pictures in public, and did not any clear statements in the cases that there is such a right under the constitution. You are presumed to be able to do it unless it is against the law, but some of things we take for granted are actually statutes. For example, congress put an exception in the copyright laws governing architecture to allow it to be photographed from public spaces. Absent that provision, the court might find that you could not photography buildings and use the images because it would be a copyright violation. I am not sure what would happen at the current United States Supreme Court if it were asked to rule on the constitutionality of a law banning photographs of infrastructure that Homeland Security deemed sensitive.

    As for things to do. I like 3 a lot. 2 has got problems, at least for real cops. They are technically never off duty in a lot of jurisdictions, so you can run up against interfering with a police officer in the line of duty problems. That could get you arrested, or in some places, shot. Now the charges would probably not stick, but you would have to pay a lawyer and would get an arrest record. For most things now, just being arrested, even on a bogus charge that is dismissed, gets you a record and screwed from everything from credit to jobs.

    Suing and getting much money is also hard, unless you get beat up. The courts do not like claim against police. The government pays for the defense of the real cops so the litigation would not hurt them personally unless you got a large award, and that would be unlikely unless the cop did you real harm or unless you could prove you were harassed as part of a suspect class, such as they only harass black photographers.

    But that does not mean there is nothing to do. Far from it. A lot of photographers are pretty well off private citizens, just the sort of people that local politicians bust their butt to curry favor with. Get a bunch of them, esp. those Leica toting surgeons, calling the mayor, threatening to cut off political contributions, or threatening to back a challenger in the next elections, and you get a politician’s attention. That will screw up the life of a cop and send a strong message that harassing photographers is bad politics.

    Photographers could be really effective at this because they come from all political persuasions. Whatever group the local politician worries about, probably has photographers in it. For businesses with rent a cops causing trouble, get some of their customers to give them grief.

  2. Sam DiSilvio said, on February 26, 2010 at 6:37 am

    An efficient way to go about documenting this sort of thing, and rallying folk to do something would be to make a site along the lines of OTF Wank for photographers. OTF, just as an example, lets people post suggestions for front page posts mocking people for getting too worked up over things. Creating a new livejournal community or the like would take a few minute’s time, and if you specify “getting to worked up” to mean “paranoid mall cop overreacts” this would fit pretty well.

    Also, it’s cheap/free.

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