Creative: What to do with it?

I never thought I would have to write this post. When I first picked up a camera for real, which was the summer of 1987, my goal was to learn the craft and then attempt to become a professional. I wanted to be great and I wanted photography, and journalism, to be my career. My test scores might have betrayed this as a sensible move, but my heart was in the right place.

A self-portrait, Tirana Albania. One of the only remaining safe images.

As I began to change so did photography. Equipment changed, technology, film, scanners and delivery mechanisms, but perhaps more importantly, so did the perception of photography. When I first reached a professional level I was rewarded with my first official press pass. To get a pass like this you had to prove your skill, your training and you have to prove you were part of a professional news organization. It wasn’t easy.

The press pass came with an inherent power that comes with being vetted. The pass symbolized being professional, trained, educated, informed and dedicated. It wasn’t like there weren’t less than ethical photographers running around, there were and I saw a few do things that shocked me, but to the general public the press pass around my neck meant, “He’s a professional and someone who can be trusted to be non-biased.” (Most of the unethical things I saw revolved photographer on photographer crime.)

Getting this pass was like getting a permission slip to investigate nearly ANYTHING I wanted to investigate. Doors opened, hearts opened, people allowed me in to photography the most intimate and personal details of their lives often minutes after meeting me. There was almost no suspicion whatsoever. In fact, the opposite was true. I would get an assignment, no matter how personal, and know that my pass would open that first door.

I spent a day with the mayor of a major city. From the time he got up till the time he went to bed. Nothing was off limits, and the morning of that day was the first time I had ever seen him or spoken to him. I rode with anti-gang police squads, covered the Super Bowl, earthquakes and celebrity funerals. The pass forging my path. At one such funeral, the security detail tried to limit my progress and the wife of the deceased told security, “He is with the paper, he can go anywhere he likes.” I ended up photographing her with a 24mm while she was draped over the coffin in front of the entire gathering. I was invading, so to speak, but the pass made things right and assured here we would treat the imagery with the respect it demanded.

But there were also the beginnings of a change in the prevailing wind. When digital technology arrived, first in the form of transmission system, I began to notice a change in the public’s view of what photography was and the change was not in the positive direction. A hint of skepticism emerged and I began to encounter people who viewed me with suspicion.

I was assigned to photograph someone who had lost both parents to a horrible crime, and when I showed up the man got in his car and rammed my vehicle on purpose then drove off in a cloud of smoke. The responding officer seemed miffed to have to deal with the situation and basically said “You deserved it.” I ventured to cover stories on the border and was met with suspicion and frankly illegal detention by authorities. Migrants were mostly okay with me, but I did have someone pull a knife and attempt to stab me. Luckily, he was somewhat hammered and telegraphed his move, but it wasn’t all that fun.

Over the years the benefit and power of the press pass began to fade. And then came The Internet.

Very shortly after the arrival of the internet I first heard, “You are taking these pictures and getting rich off of me.” I was so floored by this idea, and my bank account was surely evidence that this was quite to the contrary, but the perception was I was the bad guy. Again, stopped on the border, I was asked if I worked for Newsweek. When I said “No,” I was told “you can’t be here, it’s illegal, so move on or you will be arrested,” which is a lie and also illegal. (I was on a public highway twenty miles north of the border.) When I asked “Would I be allowed to stay if I did work for Newsweek?” the officer responded, “No, Newsweek ran something online we didn’t like.” “We hate Newsweek.”

Suddenly, the number one feeling I encountered was suspicion. This utterly changed my life. I began to realize things like usage, model releases, lawyers and defending myself were going to be a serious part of my professional life. Photography now had a secondary cloak of legality that I never imagined would be so thick.

A few years ago I walked to the end of a jetty off the California coast, a long, rough jetty that was no easy feat so that I could photograph the ocean, unobstructed. That’s it. Just a shot of the ocean. The only other person out there was a fisherman who without even looking up said: “You can’t photograph here.” I said, “What are you talking about?” “Nope,” he said, “It’s illegal.” Now, this rubbed me the wrong way, to say the least, and I made my point very clear that if he had an issue he was more than welcome to try to stop me. He backed down the idea of this encounter really stuck with me. Why? Why would he even think this?” He wasn’t in the photograph. But he felt the need to try and stop someone from making pictures.

A few days ago I photographed an inanimate object in a public place and was met with suspicion and threats. “Who are you?” “Why are you here?” “Why are you photographing this?” “What is it for?” AND THESE QUESTIONS WERE DELIVERED BY CIVILIANS WHO HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH ME OR THE OBJECT.

This is not heading in a good direction. Really, this impacts all of us. There are countries attempting to ban photography in public places and the EU just passed a copyright law that is going to make many of the images you see online and on things like IG in violation of copyright. Get ready.

Finally, I had coffee with one of my informal mentors. We spoke of past projects, current projects, and the future. He spoke of a long-term project of his that ran in Europe. He got sued. Then he spoke of his current project and said: “I can’t do anything with it, nothing.” “I would have to go back and release every single person, with multiple releases, and I just can’t do that.” He added, “I’m almost entirely out of photography now.”

I have huge plans for photography here in New Mexico but I can’t really do anything with the work I make. Now, in an ironic twist, I don’t want shows, don’t want to publish, don’t want to sell images, but if I did it would truly be something I’m not sure I could find a way around at this point. Remember, it’s not just people that have to be released. You have to have architectural releases and in some instances, you have to have location releases as well. And oh by the way, if this isn’t already a total downer, a model release will not keep you from getting sued. Not by a long shot, and in some cases it has ZERO bearing on the case going to trial. I know. I was told by an attorney who specializes in photography law “You should be prepared for perpetual litigation for the rest of your career.” No joke.

So when someone asks me about my work and they ask the dreaded question, “What are you going to do with it?” There isn’t much I can say. I guess it’s time for a selfie barrage. In truth, this post is long overdue. I’ve been finding ways of creating work that is untouchable, conceptual and vague. The odd part is that the work is very different from what I’ve done in the past, but it is challenging me in new ways. It might be good or it might suck but I’m doing it. Our world is changing and so it photography. Watch yourself out there and cover the bases you can cover.

27 Comments on “Creative: What to do with it?”

  1. Well, I was planning on giving street photography a good college try starting next year. Never really done it on a serious consistent basis, but you’re right suspicion is on an all time high, just someone seeing you with a camera, just carrying it, not even photographing with it, is enough for someone to call the police on you (thankfully that hasn’t happened to me…yet). You have to get architectural and location releases in New Mexico, like if you’re shooting a movie?

    1. Laidric,
      I think street photography as we know it will be gone in less than ten years. Perhaps sooner. The EU copyright law of six months ago is terrifying to anyone with a camera. And they will come after you. Same for many US orgs. Depending on how you are using your images, commercially, you need location, model and architectural releases all over the world, not just in New Mexico. If you photography Disney Hall in downtown LA and you are on their property you are in violation. You have to be standing on the street, and even then using those images commercially can be complicated.

  2. One irony is that people are being photographed constantly these days, whether they are aware of it or not. Video cameras in most public and commercial spaces, on streets and in private homes record every movement and action. This information can be used by private companies and government entities without our consent or knowledge. Facial recognition technology can easily be used to identify you, so all rights to anonymity in public are out the window. Just like our internet habits are tracked to target us with specific advertising, I’m sure the places we visit and the things we do are also being tracked so that some company will figure a way to make money from us. Unless I have a specific need, I disable the microphone and camera on all computers and devices in the home. It may seem paranoid, but you can ask Amazon Alexa about it. People are out in public all day with their cel phones snapping thousands of pictures and selfies in all sorts of locations, and no one bats an eye. I pull out a 35mm or medium-format film camera in a public space, where I have a legal right to photograph, and I’m seen as a potential terrorist. And this is just personal photography – I can’t imagine the complications of shooting commercially.

    1. Jim,
      You are dead on. It makes ZERO sense. And, we are constantly being surveilled, and those doing so know there really isn’t any penalty at this point. The DMV database is apparently a treasure trove of violations. But who is there to police the police?

  3. One tangent to this that I have encountered is this: if I’m entering a large office building, security will often not allow my camera inside because of purported security concerns.

    And yet every single person owns a phone capable of very discreetly photographing or videotaping anything they want!

    In these cases I suspect that it is more a case of these security people wanting to feel like they have a little bit of power. Concerning nonetheless.

    1. Beth,
      Most security is following a procedure written by someone else. And yes, it makes ZERO sense. The most dangerous camera of all is completely accepted.

  4. Hi Dan,
    It is sad, but true. Photographers are now the new target of not the government, but every single civilian on the streets.
    The EU law passed to protect individuals’ so called freedoms and privacy is a good thing in principal. It has however left the member countries to define their own regulations and most of them have not yet come up with solutions.
    However, luckily this does not yet apply to individuals who take photographs for personal use. This only applies to those who either professionally take images for publication and release or intend to make a profit from their image taking. If I take images for my own collection, photo album or blurb trade book…for family and friends…I cannot be sued.
    But…there is always the doubt, especially when using modern, large, extravagant or professional looking equipment. Funnily enough you can spot the enthusiast easily in a crowd of photographers as they usually have the most expensive and newest cameras. A professional doesn’t really need the newest flagship camera to deliver professional results. It’s the hobbyist who recons he needs it to get the best picture.

    Anyway, I was close to selling all my gear and even giving it all up until I just stopped publishing. I now call myself an image collector rather than a photographer.
    But yes, I agree, sad days indeed.. It is a being similar to that of a spy who needs to operate under cover.

    1. Duncan,
      Good point and thank you for writing this. I will throw out one possible wrinkle. The line “you can’t be sued.” Actually, you can and it happens all the time, even with releases. But, it comes down to the judge allowing it to go to trial. Most likely it won’t but you still have to go through the procedure which can be terrifying, expensive and time-consuming. Me, I just shoot for fun. I make a single copy of a pub, for myself, and move on. I have ZERO interest in BEING a photographer these days.

  5. You are aware that property releases are not required for public spaces with editorial usage? In addition model releases for editorial usage have very low requirements and are rarely enforced.

    1. Matt,
      In theory yes. But nothing is cut and dry. I know, personally. Two years of lawsuits over editorial usage, so just know if someone wants to sue they will and your releases and public space arguments don’t hold water. The hope is that the judge throws out the case but you still have to go through the procedure. It sucks. I quit working as a photographer in 2010 and have no interest in going back. Just a hobby for the last ten years.

  6. You are aware that property releases are not required for public spaces with editorial usage? In addition model releases for editorial usage have very low requirements and are rarely enforced.
    !

  7. What if you used a cell phone to do all your work? I mean people with phones can point there phone anywhere they like but if you have a camera then you are immediately stopped. It’s the equipment which with the next version of the iPhone might not be all that different than what you are using now. I also think the Western part of the US is more problematic then the East coast. But it’s all a crap shoot. Hell, I live in the closest city to America it’s called Miami. Plus if you get sued and don’t have any money, besides the judgement what will the litigant gain? You can’t get blood from a stone!

    1. AK,
      They will take everything own and will then put a lean on further wages. The camera doesn’t matter. An image is an image. I’m glad I got out….nine years ago.

  8. I remember saying to myself after the early 90’s that I could pick things back up when my kids were older, I did that with a lot of things, for the right reason. When they were in HS I started kicking around a bit as an indi, contacting old colleagues, trying to build back up enough work to get my name back out, enough stuff going on in the world. That was 2004. Things were already a bit dicey in where and what I was taking photos of here, thank you Homeland Security. But the odd glances, the hostility was beginning to be like a raw nerve ending in even the most remote places. I ordered new cover without the word Press and no longer used bags or dressed like anything other than a tourist unless necessary and required. It was an odd feeling. Then there was the increasing numbers of cell phone photos being front and center, and they were free. Foreign bureaus were closing faster than the speed of light it seemed. But that moment, the day I realized my dream needed a rapid shift, was when I was sitting on a beach needing some extreme downtime after a gig and my son being at a hole of a FOB in the triangle, I got a call, in fact both my phones where blowing up. People wanted to know if I could get to Haiti. During the last call that day I simply told the caller ‘dude, are you serious? Even if I could get in, the only photos coming out of there are from peoples phones…’ To say that I could fill the rest of my time with travel works would have been nice, then social media exploded. My last gig was almost 4 years ago and I came home from North Africa sick. Two new rigs are still sitting in boxes that were supposed to be my sand blown replacements. And my dream on full halt. It’s never been about the money, what money? lol It was always about being able to give others eyes to a world they new little about. But in watching, reading and talking to old friends, I can honestly say that right now I’m so glad I’m not working. My archive needs a good going through and stories retold. But the world to a photographer, even with the best contract isn’t anything I’ve ever seen before and it’s scary in ways that stepping on a defunked landmine makes tame. It will circle back at some point, the scale always tips. In the meantime though… Thanks for the thoughts on it, makes one feel like their not quite alone in a time very surreal.

    1. Carlee,
      Wow, great comment. Thanks for taking the time to write. The fact you have an intact archive is an intriguing thing, and could provide a lot of great editing and sequencing experiments, not to mention some cool self-pub works. I’m not sure how the PJ world makes it at this point but it looks like some folks are forging on, thankfully.

  9. I realize this may sound stupid but my coping mechanism has been to use small cameras, no DSLRS medium format cameras or any camera that requires a tripod. My latest acquisition a little Fuji xf10 has been quite helpful. As far as press passes, I had a stack of them many years ago but now feel that even freelancing for editorial customers has become an expensive hobby as apposed to a viable livelihood. BTW recent developments in Germany and France seem to indicate an exception for street photography to the EU privacy laws but we’ll see.

    1. Jim,
      My cameras are small but they are still cameras. I just ran into this in a museum in Europe. Phones were allowed in the museum but they assigned someone to follow us around and say “No cameras,” as soon as someone raised a mirrorless. At the same time, there was literally a guy systematically photographing every single aspect of this museum with his iPhone and was basically streaming every single thing he was doing in real-time. He might have even been live casting his visit. We brought this up but they wouldn’t budge.

  10. Hmmm weird but I’ve experienced that too. In that situation I’d pull out my cellphone but I know that response isn’t satisfying. I track the start of the phenomenon you observed to the merging of entertainment and news media. The American public wants to be entertained. They don’t want to be unsettled in their world view and don’t really care to learn about the world outside the boundaries of their lives.

  11. Dan, …and there was a time when I never thought I’d be reading a post like yours. But this seems to be where things have been heading.

    Below is an Instagram post from long time friend and internationally recognised Australian landscape photographer Ken Duncan. And this post was written in November 2015.
    This issue created such attention and furore that it aired on mainstream TV news, in the newspapers and eventually reached the then NSW premier. …and it’s not over yet. Ken Duncan is calling on the current NSW premier – Gladys Berejiklian to enact legislation to reduce the oppressive restrictions for photographers around NSW.
    Here’s the post:

    “What a ridiculous day. I was nearly arrested for taking photos at Barangaroo in Sydney. I was there taking some photos for my friends at Gosford Quarries as they did all the sandstone for this area. They are a great Australian company and the owners are like family to me so I thought I would help them with some happy snaps of their great work. So on entering this great new park area with my camera and starting to take some images- I was then accosted by two Rangers and informed that I was not allowed to take photos without paying a fee and having a permit. They were nice Rangers and when I told them that I was just taking a few images for the company that did all the rock work they understood how silly it seemed that we were not allowed to take some images. They informed me that I had been seen taking photos by big brother on a video surveillance camera and they had radioed the Rangers to come and stop me.
    The Rangers pleaded our case to their management as one of them had previously been a photographer but management would not budge. The Rangers informed me that if I didn’t stop the management said they would call the police. So I said go ahead and make my day as people need to know how silly this is. It will make a great headline for Bangaroo, an Australian Landscape photographer arrested for taking photos. I said what law am I breaking? And they could not answer me. Even if they did come up with some laws of their own they can’t take away my common law rights to photograph in public areas. I said tell management to send the police as they will not know what law they can stop me under either.
    Also I said there are no signs saying that I could not take photos.
    So it is OK for you to video me without my permission but I am not allowed to take photos. They went on to say but you have a tripod so you must be a commercial photographer so you definitely need to pay and have a permit. I said that is discrimination against me being a professional photographer.
    So any one else can take a photo and you pick on me when I am just helping out a friend and it is not a commercial job.
    So fellow photographers fight for your rights and don’t let the turkeys get you down.” Posted on Instagram in November 2015.

    Barangaroo Reserve is Sydney’s newest Harbour foreshore park (close to Sydney Harbour Bridge) – marking the transformation of one of the city’s oldest industrial sites into a spectacular, six-hectare headland open space for Sydneysiders and visitors to embrace and enjoy.

    1. Peter,
      This is happening all over the place, especially the part about not knowing what they are arresting or hassling you for. You can’t shoot here but we are going to film you. And oh, by the way, you can’t film us, which is also not true. Law enforcement tends to make things up as they go, and under our current admin they have no restrictions on breaking the same laws they swore to protect.

    1. Jim,
      Money. But some of those reasons have a bit more standing. I’m spending less time in museums and galleries these days. Too many people and I’d rather be on the street.

  12. Dan, …and there was a time when I never thought I’d be reading a post like yours. But this seems to be where things have been heading.
    Below is an Instagram post from long time friend and internationally recognised Australian landscape photographer Ken Duncan. And this post was written in November 2015.
    This issue created such attention and furore that it aired on mainstream TV news, in the newspapers and eventually reached the then NSW premier. …and it’s not over yet. Ken Duncan is calling on the current NSW premier – Gladys Berejiklian to enact legislation to reduce the oppressive restrictions for photographers around NSW.
    Here’s the post:
    “What a ridiculous day. I was nearly arrested for taking photos at Barangaroo in Sydney. I was there taking some photos for my friends at Gosford Quarries as they did all the sandstone for this area. They are a great Australian company and the owners are like family to me so I thought I would help them with some happy snaps of their great work. So on entering this great new park area with my camera and starting to take some images- I was then accosted by two Rangers and informed that I was not allowed to take photos without paying a fee and having a permit. They were nice Rangers and when I told them that I was just taking a few images for the company that did all the rock work they understood how silly it seemed that we were not allowed to take some images. They informed me that I had been seen taking photos by big brother on a video surveillance camera and they had radioed the Rangers to come and stop me.
    The Rangers pleaded our case to their management as one of them had previously been a photographer but management would not budge. The Rangers informed me that if I didn’t stop the management said they would call the police. So I said go ahead and make my day as people need to know how silly this is. It will make a great headline for Bangaroo, an Australian Landscape photographer arrested for taking photos. I said what law am I breaking? And they could not answer me. Even if they did come up with some laws of their own they can’t take away my common law rights to photograph in public areas. I said tell management to send the police as they will not know what law they can stop me under either.
    Also I said there are no signs saying that I could not take photos.
    So it is OK for you to video me without my permission but I am not allowed to take photos. They went on to say but you have a tripod so you must be a commercial photographer so you definitely need to pay and have a permit. I said that is discrimination against me being a professional photographer.
    So any one else can take a photo and you pick on me when I am just helping out a friend and it is not a commercial job.
    So fellow photographers fight for your rights and don’t let the turkeys get you down.” Posted on Instagram in November 2015.

    Barangaroo Reserve is Sydney’s newest Harbour foreshore park (close to Sydney Harbour Bridge) – marking the transformation of one of the city’s oldest industrial sites into a spectacular, six-hectare headland open space for Sydneysiders and visitors to embrace and enjoy.

  13. I don’t know how to deal with the shift as a photographer or a photography educator. Even educational institutions photograph us often without our permission. (We might be notified of cameras, but students don’t really have a choice.) Educators often take pictures from the internet, and use the images freely, while enforcing plagiarizing rules.

    Photo passes have often been problematic. Sometimes I have better access without them. Recently, I took better photos at a concert with my phone than I had with a recent photo pass. I was surprised by the access I had at both shows. (too little and more than enough.)

    Thank you for writing the article. I wish it didn’t need to be done, but at least we can continue the dialog.

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