Self Portrait on 6th Avenue, 2012
[I realize the title of this post might seem in poor taste in light of the recent shootings in Colorado. I trust you’ll understand that I’m referring to photography.]
It’s funny what we take for granted in the United States. But one thing I’d never thought much about before is the freedom to go about taking pictures pretty much anywhere you like in public space.
To be sure, there are unsafe neighborhoods. Retail stores, banks and many corporations likewise prohibit or discourage photography on their premises to thwart corporate espionage or keep the media out of their faces. I’ve written here about my own run-ins with military police and Homeland Security.
Several students in my workshop at the International Center for Photography are from countries in South America where making photographs on the street can put the photographer at serious risk. We’re not talking about pesky copyright model release issues here. We’re talking about getting picked up by the police, the national army or any of several secret police or paramilitary groups.
One fellow student in my workshop is in the United States attending college because he’s not safe in his home country of Venezuela. Both his mother and an older brother have been kidnapped and held for ransom, which, according to this young man, sounds like something of a national pastime in Venezuela.
Another classmate, a young lady from the suburbs of Buenos Aires who long ago gave up wearing good jewelry out in public because of the high likelihood that it would be stolen off her body, said the gulf between the rich and poor in her country is so great that people who commit petty crimes are seen not so much as criminals, but rather as distressed people just trying to feed their families.
Kidnapping happens in Argentina, too, it seems. And if you’re predisposed to complain about it to the police, you might want to think twice before saying anything since it’s the police who are sometimes the kidnappers.
In such conditions—similar circumstances were described in Guatemala City and Rio de Janeiro—classmates said it’s just plain stupid to assume that you can step out onto a public street and start photographing people. People don’t want to be photographed because 1) they don’t know who’s doing the photographing and 2) they don’t know how the photographs will be used or where they’ll end up. It may help some readers to recall that we’re talking about countries where vast numbers of political dissidents merely “disappeared.”
As best as I can tell, the only risk the members of my class faced last week as we spread out across the streets of New York photographing strangers was being told “No” when we asked strangers if we could photograph them and encountering the occasional drunk or mentally unstable person. I encountered one of the former while photographing men playing chess and my classmate Joe was accosted by one of the latter while photographing a man in Bryant Park.
Who knew fending off drunks was an American freedom?