Friday, February 27, 2009

Photographic Freedom

Crossposted from my Dispatches Column on The New Gay

"Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it."

"The virtue of the camera is not the power it has to transform the photographer into an artist, but the impulse it gives him to keep on looking."--Brooks Atkinson
The photograph has played an integral role in the creation of our world. They decorate our homes, fill museums, and permeate the media. From our walls to our wallets, we have pictures of our loved ones, of our past, and of places we've been. They are sometimes a way to tell a story, sometimes a way to hold on to our memories, and they are sometimes a way to express ourselves. Photographs evoke emotion and trace the narrative of the human race.

Each moment is fleeting, and with an infinite number of images available only for a split second never again able to be captured by a camera, those of us who are shutterbugs are constantly in search of the shot. We search for something that will capture the power of emotion or frailty of humanity or the majesty of nature. We are hunters, oft on the trail of a picture that will capture what we see and what we want to show. We look through the lens of our eyes and see juxtaposition, we see a kaleidoscope of colors, we see the mixture of races and peoples; we see the amalgam of cultures.

But some are insistent on keeping our apertures closed. In this day and age, photography is becoming more and more taboo. And while property owners have always had the ability to bar picture taking on their land, the line between the public and private realms is seemingly becoming less clear. In the summer of 2007, an innocent photographer capturing the vibrant street life along Silver Spring's Ellsworth Drive, was accosted by security guards and ordered not to take pictures. As it happens, Ellsworth Drive, despite massive amounts of public funding for redevelopment, is in private hands. But protests and complaints from community leaders helped to change the mind of the property owners.

Similarly, a few stops away on the Metro, stands one of Washington's most ornate buildings. Designed as the grand foyer, the entryplace to Washington, Union Station is a breathtaking way to enter the Capital. Legally, it belongs to the federal government, but it's leased to a firm responsible for its day-to-day operations (this does not include the Amtrak-owned railroad terminal at the rear of the station). The federal government says that it's okay to take pictures in the station, but that hasn't stopped security guards from hassling tourists, travelers, and fans of truly great architecture. They even stopped a news crew from filming a story about the harassment of photographers in the station.

Believe it or not, when the Bill of Rights was signed, the camera already existed. It was not much of a device back then, but it was a technology that would soon change the world. Still, the Founding Fathers probably had no idea about the existence of this invention. They set out to ensure that the rights of Americans would not be infringed on by the government. Among the rights which they elaborated was freedom of expression. But you'd better not get caught with a camera in the subway station steps away from where the document was signed. That's because Philadelphia's transit operator, SEPTA, is one of many systems that has made using a camera illegal, even on semi-public property, like a train platform.

These bans on photography presume that there are no images worth capturing in these places where we live our lives. For some of us, the subway or the shopping mall are daily parts of our lives. Things happen there worthy of film. Whether only the act of commuting or children visiting Santa Claus, sometimes seemingly innocuous scenes can capture the mundane in a way which touches and inspires us.

The sun rising over the Capitol, a clear blue sky behind the snow-capped Rockies, a herd of bison sweeping majestically across the amber tinted prairie, these are all images we can accept as moving. But to photograph the sunset as a backdrop to the sweeping architectural masterpiece of the terminal at Dulles is to become the definition of suspicious. To see through the lens the Empire Builder winding through Glacier National Park casts unwanted doubt upon the best of intentions.

Some places are more accepting than others. Washington's subway operator does not restrict photography and when New York's MTA tried to in 2004, the outcry was loud and swift. As the zeitgeist surrounding September 11 begins to fade, clearer heads are beginning to prevail. Sacramento's transit operator advises customers to report suspicious activity: photographers taking pictures of areas not of general interest to the public, for instance. This is certainly a good approach. Instead of a blanket indictment of shutterbugs, people who are merely getting a shot of a train in front of the State House are no longer as suspect.

When I was living in Atlanta, MARTA decided to ban all photography from the system. I have seen customers hassled by staff just for taking pictures of friends while on trains or in stations. Not only does this do little to increase security on the system - indeed, it wastes resources chasing teenagers with camera phones - it also antagonizes customers who see no reason for the attention. Perhaps understanding this some MARTA leaders are moving to overturn or at least lessen the ban.

But, as I elaborated before, these bans extend beyond transit agencies. As an urban planning student, I constantly look for good examples of urbanism. When I see one, I like to take a picture or two (or three). They're particularly helpful when you blog. Instead of typing at length, I can just insert a picture and voilĂ . But many instances of good urbanism are, like the aforementioned Ellsworth Drive, opposed to photography. Atlantic Station is a mix of public and private spaces, but the private spaces are not well-delineated. Private streets look just like public ones, but despite the public funding for the project, the developer reserves the right to regulate seemingly harmless behavior - like photography. So when I visit the sprawling metropolis of Atlanta, I'm barred from taking pictures of this new quarter, nationally renown for its good design.

Recently an ironic event took place to demonstrate the extremes our paranoia has reached. A railfan taking pictures at New York's Penn Station was taking pictures when he was arrested by Amtrak's police. The interesting part is that he was taking pictures for Amtrak's photo contest. And since he was a ticketed passenger on a train platform, he wasn't engaging in anything illegal. Except taking pictures, apparently. But an Amtrak spokesperson says that Amtrak does not have a photo ban. This story is so convoluted that even Steven Colbert picked it up.

The pendulum of security is beginning to swing back toward freedom. One of our Framers, Benjamin Franklin, tells us that "those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither." While Franklin probably couldn't have imagined photography in its current form, but he was certainly able to imagine freedom. I suspect that were he alive today, he would have lodged an objection with SEPTA by now. Or perhaps not. It's impossible to determine what the Founding Fathers would have done if confronted with a world of constant electronic communication and global terrorism. But I'd like to think that they'd stand by their beliefs - their unalienable truths.

1 comment:

Ed said...

Great post. The entire notion of banning photography in places like train stations is ridiculous. I fail to see the security threat in someone with a camera, whether it's a point and shoot or a full-scale DSLR.

If I were a terrorist casing the joint, do you think I'd be that obvious?

The Union Station example is one of the more ridiculous. In many cases, it's someone wielding what little authority they have, or it's a vastly undereducated cop.

Security expert Bruce Schneier has a good article on his blog