Asheville Argus: Open letter to photo-phobes

There’s an issue that’s been coming up a lot lately. Let me set the scene:

One of my assignments last night was to photograph the

BID meeting. Now, I’m a newshound, and I love my job, and politics, and all that other stuff. But while we’re being honest, I’ll tell you a secret about us media types: We get bored too. Our entire profession is built around capturing drama, and we’re all tightly-wound, type-A alpha-journos who are more often than not cranked up on five to 10 energy drinks. When you put us in a stuffy meeting with a bunch of suits and politicos, we get a little … fidgety.

So I got all the shots that presented themselves, including some really cerebral pictures of the carpet, and I was just about to wrap it up when what to my wondering eyes did appear but a bunch of Occupy types/homeless people wearing sashes that said “AMBASSADOR.” 

Finally, some excitement. The press swooped in like vultures.

But among these colorful folks were a couple of shirtless guys wearing bandannas over their faces. One of them quickly sought me out to tell me that I couldn’t take his picture. Those were his words, exactly:  “You can’t take my picture.” 

“Yes, I can,” I replied.

“No,” he said, removing his mask to talk. “It’s my federal right.”

The semantics of that assertion could by themselves fuel another Argus post, but let it suffice to say that I disagreed. He then said that what I was doing was endangering him. In these modern times, he said, (and I’m paraphrasing here, mostly to omit the profanity) photography is a tool of the police state.

So, Mr. Ambassador, now you’ve gone and questioned my patriotism. Let’s talk.

I have heard this line of reasoning before. Most recently, it was used in response to our photos of the Anti-Amendment One march. The idea is that the media, either complicitly or by accident, plays into the hands of the capital-P Police by photographing protesters.

First, let’s ignore the fact that you passed two dozen security cameras just to get into the place. And that everyone here is taking pictures, even the other protesters. And that there are a ton of authority figures present that can actually see you, right now, in person. So now that we’ve discounted the reality of the situation, we can talk about hypothetical things like rights.

Believe it or not, I’m on your side. Read the Constitution. The very first thing the framers enumerated was the right of the people to peaceably assemble (that’s you) and the freedom of the press (that’s me). We’re in this together. By our very nature, both the media and protesters are set at odds with authority. And an enemy of my enemy is my friend.

But friends can disagree. For example: we do not live in a police state. I know, I know: domestic spying, un-manned drones, warrantless wiretaps, Guantanamo Bay, and the Patriot Act, man. These things concern me, too. Listen, the whole Argus schtick is that the world is going to hell. I’m one step away from wearing a tinfoil hat.

But as slippery as the slope is, we’re nowhere near a police state. Looking at history, it’s easy to see that the first indicator of totalitarianism is the lack of a free press.

That’s right. A healthy media—and photography in particular—is antithetical to a police state. The media, by its nature and in spite of all its faults, promotes limited, accountable, and transparent government. This is our job.

But what about the right to privacy?  Well, it doesn’t exist. There is no expressed right to privacy in the Constitution. And even if it did exist, you waive it the moment you walk out your door. If you are in a public place, or if you can even be seen from a public place, you can be photographed.

I did my best to explain all of this to Mr. Ambassador. He was, as you might imagine, unimpressed. And I know there are many of you photophobes out there that will be equally unimpressed. So if you really don’t want to be photographed, let me give you some pointers.

1. Don’t go to a protest. The whole point of a protest in a public space is to get attention, specifically, media attention. If you don’t want that attention, stay home.

2. Unless you are truly a wanted-dead-or-alive outlaw, don’t wear a mask. There is no better way to ensure that you will be photographed than dressing outlandishly. And if you really are a stagecoach robbing bad-ass, you can bet the media will be attracted to that, too.

3. Don’t ask not to be photographed. While every photographer I know, including myself, tries to be respectful, we are just doing our jobs. Asking us not to is like walking into McDonalds and saying “You better not offer me fries with that.”  Furthermore, if there really are federal agents sitting in a van and combing the Internet for pictures of you, and I agree to your request, I’ve just made myself an accomplice.

So, after all of this, Mr. Ambassador and his colleague (the deputy Ambassador?) said that if I had to take their picture, I could at least give them a dollar. And with that, I began to lose my journalistic impartiality. Here ends our story.

But there is an epilogue. After finishing up a long night of election coverage, I sat down to read the story about the BID meeting and discovered that some of the protesters said they showed up at the meeting only because they’d been bribed with cigarettes by a local political operative. An operative who, I happen to know, absolutely hates being photographed.

So I’m preparing to send my next batch of photos to the CIA via satellite uplink, and I just wanted to mention that some top-shelf bourbon might convince me to cancel the transmission.

I mean, you know. Just saying.

Follow on Twitter: @DarkTopo
Other dispatches from the Asheville Argus:
Archive Purge
The Midnight March
Cats and Dogs
The Leader
The Asylum
The Lay of the Land
Merry Christmas from the Asheville Argus
Crying Wolf
Birds, Part II
Birds, Part I
Eyes on the Street
The Public Space
Collected Street Portraits
The Day it All Started
Fog on the Top Deck
Two Storms
Introducing the Asheville Argus



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12 thoughts on “Asheville Argus: Open letter to photo-phobes

  1. Bill Rhodes

    This is something which seems to have cropped up int he last couple of years, something I never heard (or rarely heard anyway) when I started taking photos during the Nixon Administration.
    People seem to revel in their ignorance now.
    But the other side of the coin is also becoming the norm.
    More and more photographers, especially videographers, are being illegally detained, arrested, having their memory cards seized, harassed, and hounded by the very police which the above black-bloc wannabes say employ us.
    Mercifully, this attitude among law enforcement in Asheville is rare. Nationwide, it is an epidemic of stupid.
    So, we photographers get it from both sides. What a weird world.

  2. D. Dial

    I thought the addition of “AMBASSADOR’ banners was to bring about attention. Demanding privacy is kinda like push me, pull you, from Dr Doolittle.

  3. Matthew Burd

    Oh what a joy it is to see this subject again so soon. Again I assert it is your right to take theses photos, I just think its a bit rude to take photos of someone who does not consent. Rights can be abused.

  4. bsummers

    “…some of the protesters said they showed up at the meeting only because they’d been bribed with cigarettes by a local political operative. An operative who, I happen to know, absolutely hates being photographed.”

    Who cares what he hates? Frankly, I think that ‘political operative’ who bribed those folks with cigarettes (which he reportedly then failed to cough up), should have a camera on him at all times to document whatever outrage he commits next.

  5. Dionysis

    A good article, accurate and informative. However, with regard to this ostensibly true observation:

    “The media, by its nature and in spite of all its faults, promotes limited, accountable, and transparent government. This is our job.”

    Speaking in a broader (or macro) sense, I question whether anyone is actually doing their “job” or if the perceived nature of journalism hasn’t changed. The press (including print and electronic) is supposed to be a watch guard, a check against the excesses of government, corporations and other societal institutions. You know, the ‘Fourth Estate’.

    What happened that real news, important news of all sorts, has to fight to find a venue while we get daily doses of celebrity, sports and assorted other worthless social detritus? Yes, media consolidation, the focus on short-term profits, the collusion between government and the media (let’s scratch each others’ backs), the increasing vacuousness of the populace in general and a kind of numbness of the collective psyche are at play. But how many real journalists, committed to real journalism, are even out there anymore? Precious few, it seems, when comparing the world to just a few decades ago.

    Perhaps those under a certain age don’t see anything wrong (anyone who thinks he can stop a picture being taken while in a public place, citing a “federal law” seems typical), since they don’t know any better, but for many of us, we feel we are watching the death spiral of what was once a biting, incisive and important element of our social structure. An informed citizenry is vital to a healthy democracy; being “informed” about fashions, celebrities, sports figures is not what was meant, it seems.

    Now excuse me while I tune in to ‘Russia Today’, ‘BBC World News’ and Al Jazeera to get news of the non-fluff variety.

  6. bill smith

    Did you ever ask him to clarify what he was referring to when he said it’s his ‘Federal Right’?

    • Dionysis

      My guess is that even if asked, he would be reluctant to amplify his ignorance by trying to come up with an answer.

  7. Bifidus

    Max, very witty but Fred Hampton, Tim DeChristopher, Bradley Manning and others who performed direct action for political change would disagree with your assertion that we do not live in a police state. Just because harmless protests are tolerated does not mean we are free. In fact, your assertion proves the state can use its tolerance of some dissent for good press.

    • Max Cooper

      “Just because harmless protests are tolerated does not mean we are free.”

      So the government must tolerate harmful protests?

      Were any of the folks you mentioned arrested because their photos were taken at a protest?

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