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A CASE OF FIRST DEGREE PHOTOGRAPHY

by Robert Rosetti

The camera is a stimulus that never fails to get a response.

Some people laugh or sheepishly grin and turn red with embarrassment, but most commonly, when people are photographed without permission their response is a negative one. The reaction is usually just a frown or a shaking of the head or fist, but sometimes the person attacks like a cornered animal.

This is the land of photographic opportunity, for in the United States it is legal to photograph anyone at anytime without permission, that is, as long as we do it in or within a public building or location such as a street or a park. However, this legal right is no guarantee that some irate person won't beat you up for your invasion of their privacy. Of course, when the photographer is attacked (which is no isolated event), there usually isn't a cop around. Besides, the police have no love for photographers. They associate all camera bugs with newspaper people---and we all know what scoundrels the press can be. Unfortunately many people, including the police, view the photographer as an agitator who is doing something to them that they don't want done--that is, take their picture. As a consequence, the only relevant virtue of the law is that it's on the photographer's side in court. When on the street you're on your own.

The photographer on the street first must realize that there is mass aggression toward the camera, even though more than half the population of our country owns one. To better illustrate this paradox I will cite examples of my own experience. When I first became interested in photography I carried my camera everywhere and when I met up with an interesting character, I politely asked if I could take a picture of him or her. Nine out of ten times the answer was no and most of the time when the person said yes, they expected to get paid for the trouble. It didn't take a long time to realize that asking permission was useless, so now I live dangerously - shoot first, ask questions later.

The result of that philosophy has caused me a great deal of hassle. Once while on Chicago's Madison Street I was forced into two fist fights within one city block. The first fight started while I was taking a photo of an old man leaning against a decaying building. A drunk came from behind me or from my side (I didn't see him coming) and unsuccessfully attempted to take my camera away from me. The second fight erupted when I refused to pay a subject for his pose with a bottle of White Port. On the same day, in another section of Chicago, I was swung at by an old man with a cane. But worse yet, one time I was arrested while filming a movie on Milwaukee's South Side; however, it was a false arrest and the police had to release me after a few hours.

It is interesting to note that attitudes and laws change from country to country and from culture to culture In Greece and Mexico, for instance, many people love to be photographed, especially children. In Greece, on more than one occasion, people have jumped in front of my camera while I was taking a picture of something else. Another time, while standing on a street in Athens, an old man tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned around he stepped back, smiled and motioned for me to take his picture, which I willfully did. In Mexico, if you start taking pictures of the kids, you may end up taking them home because they'll never leave you alone again.

While some countries are havens for the photographer, others are not. In fact, going to the far extreme, some countries oppose and restrict the camera to a point where the photographer has no personal freedom in choice of subject. In Peru, taking photos of military personnel and installations is forbidden. In some Moslem societies such as Turkey and Morocco, laws are sculptured to protect the religious beliefs of the people. Not all but some Moslems believe that a photograph can steal their soul. As a result, the photographer, especially the tourist with a camera is often viewed as a sort of unscrupulous, sacrilegious creature with no morals at all. To protect the people from these antagonistic tourists, photographs of the villagers are forbidden in some parts of these countries. If a photo is taken of a person or site and the matter is taken to the police, the photographer's film could be confiscated. If the matter is pursued further, the photographer could even be jailed. But whether the police are involved or not, it could become a major hassle.

On the other hand, it is legal to take pictures freely in most Western European countries, however, the side effects could be as hazardous to your health as they are in Turkey. After all, theoretically the law was on my side when a woman in London tried to scratch my eyes out for taking her picture. The law was also on my side when an old man in Paris threw the franc in my face that I had just given him, which he demanded for having his picture taken. Then, to top it off, he attempted to bludgeon me with his cane---insulting me wasn't enough.

Once again, the law was on my side in Amsterdam's red light district when a tall, thin, black prostitute, dressed in a silver sequined gown and wearing a lopsided red wig on her head, assaulted me with one of her matching silver sequined spiked high heels. She chased me for about two blocks. I can laugh about it now, but at the time, these people were out for blood. In all honesty, I realize that these attacks do not rest entirely on the subjects' shoulders, for, as we should all know, it takes two to tangle. In their eyes I was probably seen as an intruder probing into their private lives and I may have inspired some of these angry esponses with my lack of discretion. But most of these responses are simply due to the camera being pointed in their direction.

Adverse responses can be difficult to predict for even the kindly looking old lady sitting on a park bench can turn into a raving beast within moments after she catches sight of your camera.

Sometimes, with the insight of a coming dilemma, the photographer can avoid an ugly situation by either using a telephoto lens and hoping the person doesn't see him or by quickly snapping the person's picture and being prepared to run fast in the opposite direction. There is another alternative, not take the subject's picture at all---which is a cop-out but it's safe. However, as you may have figured out, that last option is simply not my style.



This piece is copyright by the author. It may be forwarded electronically, provided this notice is kept with it, but may not be otherwise reproduced without permission from the author. Thanks.

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