Back in college, a few of us aspiring shooters teamed up for the dreaded spot news assignment. Not having emergency band scanners makes covering actual spot news really hard — a fact I learned in my previous photojournalism class, when I turned in a really stupid photo of a smoldering trash can as spot news.
This time around, we all went out to the downtown bars on Fat Tuesday, assuming a fight or some other alcohol-related "spot news" might break nearby. Sure enough, we saw some red and blues flashing, so Alex Pajunas (now a photographer at the Daily Astorian in Astoria, Ore.) and I rushed to see what was up.
I blitzed in all "Press! Coming through!" and blasted some direct on-camera flash in their faces:
The officers told me to move back, so I did, snapping several terrible terrible photos of the scene:
I kept circling closer as I "worked" the scene, and after another warning or two, officers sat me down on the sidewalk. It was 2006, so one of the officers wondered aloud if he should take the film as he fiddled with my camera. Alex tried out the night vision feature on a camera he rented from the school and shot the scene:
I withheld as much sass as possible when telling him that it was a digital camera and that it was illegal for him to take the photos. After calmly explaining what I was doing, they let me go.
That funny encounter plus Alex's tongue-in-cheek caption shows the trite nature of this brush with crossing authority:
While searching for a spot news assignment for his photojournalism class, University of Oregon student Kai-Huei Yau is questioned by the Eugene Police Department for ignoring a warning and approaching the officers during an arrest. The fear can be seen in his eyes, or as a result of a strange night vision feature on a digital camera rented from the Knight Library. Yau's police run-in was later determined to have saved fellow UO photojournalism student Alex Pajunas from a failing grade on his spot-news assignment.
What's not funny is how aggressively authorities have cracked down on photography in public places. This 2005 piece tells the story of a photographer whose photos were taken away in the name of national security. The proliferation of cameras has only made things worse and several professional shooters have run into problems covering the Occupy movement the past few months.
Freelance photojournalist Andrew Burton, whose Occupy coverage just won an Award of Excellence in Pictures of the Year International, touched on the subject in his blog, but maybe the most disconcerting example was the arrest of Carlos Miller by a Miami-Dade police officer.
Oh, and she's a media spokesperson too.
Police apparently deleted some of the files on his camera, and after seeing video that he had professionally recovered, it's hard to see how he was resisting. Miller, who runs Photography is Not a Crime, also rocks a mean grin in his smug shot, and though his own account of what happened doesn't make him seem very nice, it's not illegal to be a jerk.
As for us in the Tri-Cities, we're pretty lucky. Kennewick police are especially easy to work with, even while I was covering the fatal officer-involved shooting of Christopher D. Villarreal on Sept. 14, 2009. That's a situation where you'd expect some resistance to the media, but they were very open and allowed as good of access as I could have hoped for.
Not all local agencies are as enlightened in media relations, but the worst I've had to deal with was an officer who told me to stand at an excessive distance and even turning around at one point to see where I was and stepping over to purposely block my shot completely.
The severity of these recent problems only makes my brief encounter six years ago seem even more silly. After the police let me go, a bystander walked up and gave me $5 because he was so impressed with how I had handled myself.
And while I wouldn't behave any differently after being detained, I definitely approach real spot news with a lot more tact these days. Writing this blog reminded me of another college incident after I rushed in, camera blazing at another non-event. This one is immortalized in two lengthy threads on Sports Shooter. You can see the second thread here if you really have some time to kill.
The poor guy I strobe-rushed on the street was being arrested for some outstanding fines or something similarly minor.
I'd like to think that my current spot news approach with better news judgment would keep me outside jailhouse bars, but it's hard to say. Those arrested have years of experience — more than I have right now even.
And while I find people who crow about how the U.S. is a police state as annoying as any hyperbolic battle cry throughout the political spectrum, there's no denying the danger of restricted information. Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States 47th in the world in its 2011-12 Press Freedom Index.
The First Amendment isn't spinning in its grave yet, and it will be interesting to see how official policies change after these recent clashes with journalists.
Speaking of Rights...
Joseph Gordon-Levitt teamed up with the Gregory Brothers of "Auto-Tune the News" fame and the ACLU to make this video about knowing your photographic rights. The animation production value leaves a lot to be desired, and it's nowhere near as good as "The Backin' Up Song," but maybe its quirky wannabe-viral nature will enlighten some.
Contest season is rolling, with winners from the aforementioned POYi and World Press Photo being decided. Here's an interesting piece in reaction to Samuel Aranda's photo of the year award — one that's a departure from the usual complaints of overtoned and violent images. The woman in the image has also responded to the photo's success.
The Denver Post's Craig F. Walker won POYi's photographer of the year award. Make sure you check out this interview with Walker at The Image, Deconstructed about his Pulitzer-winning project Ian Fisher: American Soldier. from a couple years ago.