By Scott Bourne
(I apologize in advance for any who might be offended at my frank discussion of this touchy subject, but I wanted to get this off my chest.)
I’ve written about the war on photography extensively. I’ve commented on it on almost every photography forum that exists. But it occurred to me, I haven’t talked about, when it started; What started it; or Who started it? My research on this subject has led me to an inescapable conclusion that has no political motivation. But it’s one which I doubt anyone can really deny is at least worthy of consideration when looking at the facts.
The events of September 11 are so vivid because of photojournalism. Moving photos of brave firefighters and police officers have graced many a magazine and newspaper cover since that tragic day. In New York, a photo exhibition of September 11 events was created and to this date, outdraws tourists visiting the Empire State Building.
Several photojournalists were injured or killed documenting the horror of Nine Eleven. Many others risked their lives and their liberty to record the important story of that fateful day. It is the latter that particularly bothers me.
Several freelancers as well as some credentialed photojournalists were jailed for days without charge or trial in the days immediately after September 11. New York Mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani, seemed to declare war on photographers. He had the police block off more than a square mile surrounding the World Trade Center, calling it a crime scene. The Mayor ordered that anyone with a camera who even stopped or stood still near the area should be arrested and jailed.
Why did he do this? Was the former Mayor trying to get back at a press who was not always kind to him? Giuliani likes to think of himself as a serious photographer. Did he want to save the photo opportunities for himself?
What Rudy Giuliani did was impose undue restriction on a free press. And the cost of that decision may never be known. What photos did we miss? What if we had missed Tom Franklin’s moving photograph of the three firemen raising an American flag over the WTC rubble? Now that was an important photograph. It was so important that it is already the basis of a US postage stamp and the memorial to the slain firefighters to be erected at the WTC. But few realize that Franklin risked arrest by making the picture. If the police had seen Franklin, he would have been arrested and the world would not have had the chance to be moved by the story his photo told.
Like dozens of other photographers who were forced to sleep on the floor of cramped city jails while they choked on the soot that covered their bodies, Franklin would not have been able to call his family to tell them he was okay. His film and cameras would have been confiscated. He would not have received medical care or food for the first few days of his incarceration. And of course, he would not have been able to tell the story of the firefighters’ bravery.
Perhaps it is time for the Rudy Giulianis of the world to recognize that freedom of the press is important for a reason. We need to see the images that come out of national tragedies so that we can work to stop history from repeating itself. We need to know the stories these photos tell so that we can heal. We need to see the truth of what happened so that we can know in our hearts that the “war on terror” is just.
Other jurisdictions over-reacted to September 11th and photographers were jailed in a number of cities without cause. But it was Rudy and New York that led the way. In New York, photographer’s film, their cameras and their livelihoods were confiscated. In some cases, the equipment and film has been returned and all charges dropped. In still others, proceedings continue with no end in sight and no guarantee that the photographers will get their equipment or film back.
While New York has a right to see that order is maintained at Ground Zero, the almost Nazi-like complete ban on photography in the area is an inappropriate and disproportionate act. The moves made to confiscate property and deny liberty to the brave storytellers who still go to New York with nothing more than a camera in their hand, is an abomination in a supposedly free society.
Let’s remember the brave firefighters and police who worked to save lives on September 11th. But let’s also remember the photojournalists who were equally brave and who served a very important role that day the world stopped making sense. They made images that touched our hearts, motivated us to get on with our lives and gave us a drop of hope for the tough times ahead.
The war on photography started on the day of those attacks at the World Trade Center so many September 11ths ago. Let’s stop using the tragedy of that day as an excuse to arrest, detain, question, harass, harm, deter, interfere with or injure photographers today who are merely trying to tell a story with their camera.
It belittles the sacrifice of all involved in the tragedy of nine-eleven.
EDITOR’S NOTE: About the timing of this editorial…it’s deliberate. I have written pieces of this before and posted pieces of it before. I updated it and gathered it together for this blog months ago. But I didn’t want to publish it near the 9.11 anniversary, because I didn’t want people thinking I was trying to cash in on Google juice around a keyword. I am not that cynical, but some of you may be. Also, I didn’t want to publish it before the elections, assuming once again, that people would say there was a political motivation. I wanted to put it up at a time when the argument could at least have a chance to stand on its merit. Thank you.