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Saturday, 30 June 2007

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Big brother is watching us!

I urge everyone to write to the Mayor's office about this. It only take a moment to fill out the online form to send an e-mail and has the potential to make a difference. At the public hearing on these rules, nobody even showed up. No wonder that they plan to implement the rules in their current form.

Photographers and filmmakers cannot keep silent when such rules are proposed and then complain afterwards. As trite as it sounds, the time to act is now.

This strikes me as a classic example of over-reaching on security concerns to limit civil liberties. According to the article it seems that the sequence is as follows:

(1) security concerns are high following 9/11
(2) police overstep their bounds and detain an Indian filmmaker for having violated a non-existent policy
(3) policy is drafted to legitimize original overstepping by the police and leaves room open for future abuse (intentional or otherwise)

It is possible to strike a sensible balance between legitimate security concerns and the freedoms of artists, amateurs and tourists. The draft rules should be revised to distinguish between professional/commercial activity and other activity.

10 Minutes? Sheesh, that will totally kill an LF photographer.

That's scary. On different levels. As a possible tourist, you wander if you could get in trouble (I'm going to London in a few days and things over there aren't looking too bright either). And also, you start wondering if there might be real danger in going to these otherwise very attractive cities, "if they go to such extents there might be some real danger into it". And I will not even get into how your looks (ethnically speaking) might diminish your photographic opportunities. The complexity of demonization on all sides goes up a few notches. Sad. I'm not saying it's bad, may be at some point it becomes necessary, but it's sad.

I doubt that any complaint campaign will have any affect. Most cities have enacted or resurrected similar reflexive municipal regulations since 9/11. It really doesn't matter much what the actual text of the law states; police and private security personnel enforce it to their personal levels of knowledge and/or convenience -- which are most often at wide variation to the actual regulation. Still, you can find yourself sitting in a pokey incommunicado for hours, stripped of your camera and being generally treated as a criminal if you pose any challenge. (Just try waving Bert Krages' "Photographers' Rights" wallet card at a cop.)

These looks-good-but-toothless laws are, of course, in the same catch-all category as "disorderly conduct", "loitering", "vagrancy", "jaywalking" and our new favorite in Chicago, "talking-on-cell-phone-while-driving". They don't protect any of us but do provide an "other" type of infraction to enable police to investigate and detain people.

Yes, as a photographer, the face value of these things is multifacetedly irksome. But before you drive yourself to a day-long acid reflux episode on this topic consider two points.

First, these laws are rarely enforced at all, even inaccurately. The police in New York have much more urgent maters to devote their attention towards than whether of not some schmuck and his buddy have spent 31 minutes in the same spot with a $400 camcorder. If the aforementioned characters raise the cops' suspicions you can bet that they'll be detained and questioned with or without this law.

Second, this law might actually be useful to better control pedestrian traffic in areas particularly crowded with tourists. I have seen apparently permit-less photographers set-up small professional wedding/fashion/portrait shoots in the most inconsiderate, and sometimes downright dangerous, places on busy city streets. Their attitude seems to be to hell with the rest of the world, Bubby and Sissy are going to have the best wedding photos my 30D can produce. It seems that this regulation might principally be addressing this matter rather than terrorism in NYC.

While I'm opposed to the proposal, this seems to have very little to do with security and everything to do with the city's civil liability, which Bloomberg has been trying to reduce through the entire course of his administration. Landlords are now responsible for the sidewalks adjacent to their properties, for instance, because the city used to spend millions of dollars every year on slip-and-fall suits. The proposal says nothing, for instance, about photographing from private property, vehicles, boats, or aircraft, which all could be security concerns, but not liability concerns for the city.

Currently there is no insurance requirement for a tripod permit, but I believe there was such a requirement in the past. The permit requirement isn't rigorously enforced, unless you've got a crew and/or you're in a high-traffic area. There are some parts of the city, like Battery Park, where you need a separate permit for commercial shooting, and you are very likely to be questioned, but they usually let you get on with what you're doing once they've ascertained that it's not a commercial shoot. This was the case before 9/11. In Central Park it seems that much photography and filming takes place, commercial and non-commercial, with little permitting except for commercial film crews.

I have no problem being questioned or asked to move on, or even have my shot interfered with. If they had the power to arrest me, damage or confiscate equipment, or fine me on the spot, that's when I'd have the problem. Suspicion alone isn't sufficient grounds to penalize a photographer, or anyone. And yeah, if you put that discretion into the hands of the police, there's a potential for abuse.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine, who is an owner of a major publishing house in my country, was arrested and held at a NY police station for thirteen hours because he took pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge. That was his first and I presume last visit to USA. No, this is not a joke.

Welcome to the so called "land of the free"!

To Paul Kierstead, don't let the recent scares in London or elsewhere stop you from travelling to them.
Remember that there is always more chance of you coming through unscathed than not and if you stay in your good old home town something 'could' happen to you there.
I travelled extensively in Israel during the 1980's including 1983/84 when Israel was still fighting in Lebanon and invading Beirut, rockets were being fired over the border etc, etc. I never even saw any trouble, yet I travelled from far North to far South and up into the Golan heights. I got some good pictures.
Likewise in the early 90's (ie 91/92) I travelled in Kashmir with my then 61 year old mother, again some great pictures, no trouble, even when the rebel fighters used our on land kitchen (we were on a houseboat in Srinager) as a staging post one night to take a wounded fighter to a doctor under cover of darkness.
The point is, go, travel, enjoy and get pictures (and memories). If you stay at home you are no safer.

Since 9/11 there have been separate rules about photographing bridges, and there are certain places where one is very likely to be questioned when photographing the Brooklyn Bridge with a tripod (particularly from Fulton's Ferry Landing on the Brooklyn side), mainly because they want to control commercial use of that viewpoint, but these regulations are completely unrelated to the tripod permit issue or the Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting.

Someone could still be questioned about photographing a bridge, even if this proposal fails. Realistically I don't think too many people are questioned about photographing bridges in the city, but technically, I doubt that having a tripod permit--the main function of which is to relieve the city of liability--would override the regulation about photographing bridges. The current city permit only allows the permit holder to set up a tripod in a certain part of the city within a specified time frame. It doesn't say anything about what you can photograph (though it asks for a description of the scene), and it doesn't sound like that would be part of the proposal, if it were to succeed.

Here is a page that describes the current permit and contains a link to the application--

http://www.nyc.gov/html/film/html/permits/still_photography.shtml

I read of the increasingly hostile approach some civic authorities seem to be taking to photographers in these all-in-the-name-of-security times we live in and cannot ignore the irony. Just today, the police in Glasgow are appealing to any amateur photographers who may have recorded the airport around the time of the recent attack there to volunteer their pictures in case they contain useful evidence. A similar appeal was made by London police at the time of the bombings there a couple of years ago. So, we restrict and discourage photography in the vicinity of 'sensitive targets', then after an attack if anyone has any useful pictures. Left hand, meet right hand.

I was in NYC ten days ago and walked over the Brooklyn Bridge -- an old haunt -- eagerly snapping pictures as I went. [Insert plug for M8 and a CV 15mm lens] There were literally hundreds of others doing exactly the same thing with digicams, DSLRS, point-n-shoots, sketch pads and so on. I don't think that this sort of thing is going to be prohibited in the future. They'd have to station a police officer on the bridge every 100 feet or so to enforce a rule like this. On every bridge (I think there are seven) Totally impractical, as New Yorkers are not big rule-followers.

As for tripods, it has _always_ been the City's policy to require a permit for their use on City streets. At least this was true for the dozen years before 9/11. I used to know a guy in the Mayor's office of Film and Television. Getting a permit cost nothing and was never harder to get than making a phone call, while standing next to a fax machine. Perhaps the procedure has been made more rigorous, but the principle is not a result of the new world order, or anything of the sort. Incidentally, the same relatively low level of difficulty existed (and still exists) at the Metropolitan Museum. No Flash allowed, and no tripod without a sticker from the front desk. Not hard to get except on days with the heaviest foot traffic. It is primarily a liability issue for the Museum.

While in NY I asked a Subway token clerk (with my camera bag over my shoulder) what the current policy was on photography in the Subway. She replied that I "shouldn't", but when pressed didn't say that I "couldn't". You pays your money and you takes your chances there, I guess.

For sure, express your outrage to the Mayor and anyone else who'll listen. I believe that a prior trial balloon on a "no-photography in the Subway" policy was shot down on this basis. But I don't think that we are talking a huge shift in restrictions -- more like an increase in degree rather than in kind.

Thoughtfully,

Ben Marks

Indeed, the proposed photography ban in the NYC subways failed. That proposal was related to security rather than liability. Here are some photos from one of the protests--

http://www.echonyc.com/~goldfarb/photo/mta/index.htm

The main concern of this would be the vagueness of the proposals - look like they could be pretty much open to interpretation by an individual applying them. Seems to becoming the norm with cities in the U.S. at the moment and one worry would be that it's a step toward more draconian measures.
- Paul @ http://www.photographyvoter.com

If you read the proposal you'll see you do not need a permit at all if you are going to take less than 10 minutes (with a tripod) or 30 minutes (without a tripod) at any location. That part isn't open to interpretation.

The proposed law PDF is here:
http://www.nyc.gov/html/film/downloads/pdf/moftb_permit_regs.pdf

I would personally print the law (once it passes) and carry it with me in the camera bag.

Looking more carefully at the proposal, it looks like you won't need a permit when photographing alone at all--with or without a tripod, and that you can photograph with one other person in one location without a permit for thirty minutes, and the ten minute limitation only applies to work with five or more people at one location for more than ten minutes.

Arguably, this is less restrictive than the current regulation, which technically requires a permit for tripod use anywhere on city property.

I recently posted the letter I send to city hall on this topic here: http://seanreiser.com/node/100

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