OPINION: The rights of photographers

Aaron Stein-Chester

Members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, federal intelligence officials, and security personnel: I am not a terrorist.

I am making this public announcement right now in order to forego any further difficulties that may arise next time I’m out in public shooting pictures. Whether it’s for the Lariat, for photography class assignments, or just for my own enjoyment, I am often stopped and told that taking pictures in public places or of government property is prohibited.

Well, it isn’t.

Two years ago, in the wake of a failed attempt to ban photography on all New York subways, the National Press Photographers Association hired a law firm to clarify the issue.

It released a memorandum on the rights of photojournalists to take pictures in public places, which concludes that there is “no specific post-September 11 federal law that grants the government any additional rights to restrict visual newsgathering, photojournalism, or photography in general.” What is more, photographers can take pictures of federal buildings from outside the property boundary.

Though the memo was issued nearly two years ago, this isn’t a dated issue. Only weeks ago, Miriam Jukaku, 24, a graduate student at Syracuse University of Indian decent taking pictures outside the VA Medical Center was questioned and ordered to delete images from her camera.

Security officers copied her I.D. and driver’s license. They also asked her if she was a U.S. citizen.

Gordon Sclar, a spokesperson for the medical center later commented that, “There is a policy that requires if video or photographic equipment is being used on our property and we don’t know about it, [the operators] will be questioned. It’s a government building and we’re living in challenging times.”

The questioning is not what is under scrutiny here. Jukaku was within her legal rights to take pictures from the sidewalk (where she remained while shooting). It is that officers deleted images and photocopied the student’s I.D. where this falls into the harassment category. Sclar rightly apologized for these actions.

The post 9/11 world also happens to be the age of the digital camera, and cameras in the public’s hands are more of a reality now than they have ever been. They will only become more of a force in the coming years.

We may be living in “challenging times” but things aren’t going to get any easier in this regard. Fear is not altogether unjustified. Questioning in many instances may not be unjustified either. Rather, photographer-citizens should be given the benefit of the doubt and be allowed to take pictures after security officials have addressed them with the due respect and prudence that citizens expect from their law enforcement.

Whether it’s their everyday lives, friends, fellow citizens or the buildings and structures that dot and shape our landscape, photography affords people a chance to explore and document their world.

Members of a free society are especially keen to take advantage of this opportunity.

So, to reiterate: photographers are not terrorists.

It’s important that officials at Saddleback and Irvine Valley College photographers know that when taking pictures in public places, we don’t want to blow up buildings or bring down the government.

We just want to take pictures.

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