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Papers please.

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To keep police away, keep the lens cap on


Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 10/22/04

I am not a gun owner. I don't own a weapon of any kind, unless you consider

my collection of kitchen knives. At least I didn't think so until recently.

Now, apparently, I am the owner of a huge arsenal of weapons ‹ my collection

of cameras.

I have found that carrying a camera in Atlanta, and most recently in New

York, arouses suspicion and can result in an unnerving conversation with a

uniformed officer of the law. Judging from what I hear from other

photographers, my experience is not unusual.

In Atlanta, a security guard told me I was "not allowed" to take pictures of

a building. At the time, I was standing with a friend on a public sidewalk

and giving him a photography lesson. I saw a painted brick wall with a

window. Light fell on the window from an angle that cast an interesting

shadow and made it a moderately interesting photographic subject.

"You can't take any pictures of the building," said the security guard. Huh?

I can't take pictures of the building because the wall belongs to a bank and

a picture is some sort of threat. Before anything else happened, an Atlanta

police officer arrived. I identified myself, gave him a business card and

explained I was giving a photography lesson. Ultimately, "terrorist

prevention" won out. We did not get the picture.

The next encounter was many months later, at another bank building in

Atlanta. This time, when the security guard made his move, I informed him

that he couldn't tell me I couldn't take a picture from the public sidewalk.

This time, I got my picture.

But it was on a train platform in Jamaica, Queens, that I got to know the

new and improved NYPD and their photo fetish. The Jamaica station on the

Long Island Railroad is a busy place ‹ a major transfer point between trains

headed to Long Island, Brooklyn and Manhattan.

With a telephoto lens, trains and tracks can make an interesting shot.

Lifting the camera to my eye resulted in a friendly visit.

No pictures allowed, said the officer, politely but firmly. I asked where

the signs were that informed tourists (like me) that photography was not


The answer: It's not allowed because of Sept. 11. No pictures of the trains

or of the "railroad infrastructure."

Well, I'm not going to argue with a police officer, so I put away the camera

and gave him a business card. Then I made a big mistake. I thought the

officer was human, so I tried to engage him in a conversation.

"You know," I said. "My father fought in the Second World War and my uncles

fought in the Second World War for our freedom and this is the world we live

in ‹ where it's illegal to take a picture."

That result was that seven officers, including a sergeant, swarmed over me.

I had to surrender my driver's license, and my name and driver's license

number were checked through a central databank.

I wasn't detained for very long, but I found the encounter disturbing.

Especially disturbing was an officer's rhetorical question to me: "Don't you

feel safer knowing that there's this much security?"

Actually, officer, I don't. You might have convinced yourself that we'resafer because you feel better throwing your authority around, but realterrorists aren't cowed by swagger.

A picture used to be worth a thousand words. Now trying to take a picture is

worth just these chilling words: "Your papers, please."

€ Charles Lyon is an Atlanta photographer.

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"Reporters Without Borders"

We're listed as 'satisfactory' on the press freedom index.

The 'free' nations of Europe are listed as 'satisfactory' or 'noticeable problems'. Nobody's perfect I guess.

Surprisingly Germany with it's history of authoritarianism is listed as having a good situation in regards to press freedoms.

Now I'm not suggesting we should be able to get that swanky 1200mm Canon telephoto (a $100,000 lens, btw) and shoot through the drapes of Christina Aguilera's window, but there are issues regarding press freedoms in this country.

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After reading the site some more, I'm thankful I'm progressively making a living covering something fun and enjoyable, such as the nightlife and culture in the Miami area.

More brave photographers than I are in the trenches, literally, covering the various conflicts around the world these days, often getting paid far less than they deserve, some even going out on their own and hoping to sell the results later....i.e. they could potentially be out there losing money each day, but they are still out there, telling the stories that need to be told, and potentially even being harassed in their homelands due to press restrictions.

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