September Mailbag/Follow Friday

San Juan, Puerto Rico, October 2009

I said last month that I’d feature letters in this space on a monthly basis. It’s been slim pickings, so I’ve decided to put something else in alongside the letters. The last Friday of the month, therefore, will be not only the Mailbag, but also Follow Fridays (a bit expanded from their Twitter incarnation): three photographers (and/or writers on photography) worth knowing, and following.

Three favorites this month:

Steve Coleman: Steve vanished from Twitter sometime between when I started this post and now, as I finish it. No matter. While his blog, Light In Frame, doesn’t update very often, it’s invariably worth reading when it does. Not many shooters will share not only techniques, but also their favorite spots. Steve is that rare exception who will. The photography’s an added bonus; it’s gorgeous. Website: Light In Frame/Blog here. 

Chase Guttman: Chase is the son of renowned travel photographer Peter Guttman, and to all indications, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Guttman fils has already earned recognition for his work, which spans some 45 countries. The kicker? He’s 14 (no, you won’t believe it either). Twitter: @chaseguttman /Website here/Blog here  Facebook here

Photo History: The Twitter account is a compendium of “this day in history” photographic marginalia, most of it related to historically significant photographers (some well-known, others much less so). It’s run by Jimmy Leiderman and Jeff Prinz. The web presence is a series of discussion forums covering topics like vintage photography, archival/restoration work, vintage photography news, as well as others. If you’re not only interested in the technical aspects of photography, but would also like to get a sense of context and history, this is a great place to start. On Twitter: @photohistorian/Web: Vintage Photo Forum

The Letter

Kidlet Wrangler asks: I am curious about the photographer who was arrested for videotaping the police in public. Here’s the part I’m curious about, and it’s mostly because I don’t understand how all those laws work: The photographer was told to stop videotaping, presumably by the very police he was taping. You have told us in a previous blog entry that if the person or persons you’d like to include in your pictures say no, then listen to them. How does that hold up in this example, where it’s technically legal in NY to photograph police in public, but the police have said to knock it off? Do the individuals have the right to say no, or are they included under the mass “police” law?

The laws can vary from state to state, but in NY it’s legal to photograph/videotape police activity. There is, as always, a catch: to circumvent photographers’ First Amendment rights, a number of states have included photos and videos of law enforcement under their states’ wiretap laws, meaning you technically have to get the consent of all parties (or a court order) for your “surveillance activities.”

Moral of the story: the government can conduct warrantless wiretaps; you, however, cannot (and good luck bringing up the point that you’re not conducting surveillance or wiretaps in any real sense).

What I’d written earlier about not taking someone’s picture if they ask is less a legal thing than an ethical one. If it’s a public space, individuals are technically fair game; to my mind, the photo’s not so important that you need to be a prick to get it. As for the police: if you’re in the way (obstructing their work), they have every right to tell you to get out of the area so you’re out of the way. They did, and the videoographer did as he was told, then proceeded shooting from another vantage point some distance away, whereupon they arrested him. Given that he was within his rights as far as whether he was legally allowed to tape the proceedings, and given that he wasn’t in the way, having already complied with the order, it was pretty clear that his arrest had nothing to do with obstruction (the reason given), especially when, as he pointed out, there were other people without cameras standing much closer than he was who didn’t get arrested.

The best way to handle it: basically, know your rights. The law does vary from one jurisdiction to the next, and it’s your responsibility to know the laws where you’re shooting. However, generally speaking, not only are you legally able to take those photos or that video, but law enforcement also isn’t supposed to stop you, ask to search your kit, ask to see the photos, ask you to delete them, or confiscate your camera or media. Some cops don’t know that law; others do, and hope you don’t. Best you can do is politely but firmly explain the law and see where that gets you. Just bear in mind that if they have a mind to, a cop can find any number of other things for which to search, or arrest, you, so it’s something you generally have to be careful with.

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