Lately the hassle-meter has fallen off some, and it had been a few years since I'd been accosted for taking photos. I'd allowed myself to believe I was past all that. Wrong. Last Friday while shooting at the Lane County Fair, I was quietly surrounded by a small bevy of security guards in mirrored sunglasses.
You street photographers and petty criminals know the drill. Stay where you are. ID please. Get your hands out of your pockets where we can see them. What's your name? Where do you live? Who do you work for? Why are you taking photographs? What are you going to do with them?
Bubble pricked. All these questions out of nowhere. I was a bit unprepared. Why am I taking photographs? What am I going to do with them? I've spent my life trying to answer those questions. The answers are quite complicated. Should I really get into that? No, probably not. Instead I went for the direct approach.
"Yessir, Nosir, Rightawaysir. Name'sblakeandrewssir. Er, what'sthisallaboutsir?"
We saw you taking photographs of children.
Aha! The real issue surfaces.
"Yeah, I was. I take photos of whatever I see at the fair. Kids. Grownups. Rides. Stuffed animals. Is that ok?"
You can't take photos of children without permission.
Who knows what you might use them for. A web site. A magazine. Something pornographic maybe? In this age you can't tell. I'm not saying you're doing all that but you understand our concern.
"I'm not sure how I could take pornographic photos at a fair."
People do all sorts of stuff with computers nowadays. Get rid of clothes, alter postures, you name it.
You know what I'd do if someone did that to my kids?
Let's just say there'd be trouble. You got any kids? Would you be ok with someone photographed them secretly?
"Yeah, I've got three kids. I have no problem with anyone photographing them."
Well anyway, it wasn't just that you were taking photos of kids. It was how you were doing it. You were being sneaky. When I take a photo of my own kids I make sure they know I'm doing it. I ask them to smile. If it's not my own kid, I ask the parent's permission. We saw you taking photos like this (clasps hands in front of chest), without even looking. That's not appropriate at the fair.
They'd scouted me well. I'd been shooting sometimes from the hip, apparently against fair convention. But that's how I tend to approach a busy frantic scene like a fair. When I have time to line something up I pause and look through the viewfinder. But when I see something in passing I react quickly, often before I can I stop and look. Sometimes from the hip, or more commonly the chest. I mix it up. I don't plan. Some of my best shots have come that way, along with many of my worst.
We talked a little longer while one of the cops ran my license through the bad-guy database. I noticed that they were carefully positioned on all sides of me, as if I might take off running. Then I was summarily booted from the fair, told not to return during any of the remaining days of the event. Which would have been ok considering that after the interrogation I wasn't in a mood to take any more photos that day. The problem was I'd been planning to come back on Sunday with Tab and the kids.
On Sunday morning I shaved my beard, put in contacts, donned my sunglasses, and left my ratty cap and backpack at home. I'm not sure if I looked like a different person. I know that without a camera I felt and acted like one. I walked around the fair with my kids, ate junk food, enjoyed the rides. It was the first time in a long while I'd been out without any cameras. We spent a few hours, then left without any hassle.
I don't mean to add to the pile of "street photographer accosted" stories. I know this is just a drop in the bucket. It happens all the time, and in the grand scheme of things it's pretty insignificant. Certainly it doesn't compare to a Hispanic hassled in Arizona or an Arab hassled at airport security. That's a real hassle.
But I would like to ask the question, when did it become wrong to take photographs of children? Why is that wrong? Kids are the most carefree, spontaneous, unself-conscious humans on the planet. Why is it wrong to capture that? I can think of a few reasons, from basic privacy concerns to the increasing segmentation of childhood as a special zone in life with its own special rules, to a general societal paranoia which has draped itself all over the current epoch. I think all of these reasons can be easily debated, but there has been no debate. Instead the unwritten rule is "No photographing kids, period" and don't argue about it.
The result is that the more discouraged people are from photographing kids, the less common it is, and the stranger it seems when it happens. It's a vicious circle. To paraphrase the NRA, if photographing kids is outlawed, only outlaws will photograph kids. We're basically creating a criminal class from scratch, for no clear reason. It makes me wonder if Helen Levitt or Lewis Hine or William Klein could make their photos of children in today's environment, or would they be arrested?
There's only one solution. Go out and photograph kids along with everyone else. Make it an everyday occurrence. Make it normal. Get people used to interacting with cameras. God knows they're already surrounded by them in every store and on every street corner. Shoot, shoot, shoot, people. Shoot kids. Shoot nuclear facilities. Shoot whatever the hell you want whenever you want. If you get hassled, you must be on the right track.
Addendum 8/26: Read Part two, the response, wherein I steal a page from the skaters.