A Vermont photographer who specializes in street photography in the spirit of Henri Cartier-Bresson has been barred from entering a shopping mall because of his candid shots.
However, Dan Scott said all his photographs were taken outside the mall on public property.
And there is no evidence he committed a crime.
Nevertheless, if he steps foot inside the Burlington Town Center or any of its 67 business establishments during the next year, he will be arrested. Even if he doesn’t have a camera with him.
Now the question is, how much power should private businesses have over somebody’s First Amendment rights?
Seven Days, an alternative newspaper in Vermont, does a good job on bringing the issue to light.
Scott, 32, is an art photographer from St. Albans who works full time at the U.S. Social Security Administration office on Pearl Street. For the last year or so, he’s spent many of his lunch hours shooting artsy, black-and-white photos of people on Church Street: homeless people, the elderly, families with children, anyone who catches his eye. He insists that all his photos are taken on public property, not inside stores or through the windows or blinds of private homes.
Occasionally, Scott asks his subjects’ permission to be photographed. “And if they tell me ‘no,’ I go away,” he says. However, he admits that much of the time, his pictures are candid shots taken from a distance with a telephoto lens so his subjects aren’t aware they’re being photographed.
Over the years, some of Scott’s photos have been published in local publications, including the Burlington Free Press and Seven Days. However, most are taken for fun, not for profit, he claims, as a way of developing his photography skills.
“Look, I’m not doing anything to try to embarrass people or demean them,” he says. “I’m just trying to capture the human condition as it presents itself in the marketplace.”
The problem started on January 26 when Scott was taking pictures outside the mall. A security guard told him he was not allowed to photograph the mall.
Scott informed the clueless guard that he, in fact, did have a right to take pictures from a public street, regardless of what happens to be in the background.
The mall’s manager told Seven Days that its no-photography policy applies only to the inside of the mall. I’m betting they really have no policy.
After the incident with the security guard, two Burlington cops began harassing him, asking him who he was, where he works and what he was doing there.
Considering he was not doing anything legally suspicious, he was under no obligation to answer these questions. But Scott was trying to be cooperative, which led to officers showing up at his office the following day.
The officer grilled him for 45 minutes, demanding to know who he photographs and what he does with his photos. Scott told the cop he posts them on Flickr.
“He thought that was just despicable,” Scott notes.
Unfortunately, Seven Days did not link to his Flickr site, which is a horrible habit it obtained from the mainstream media.
A month later, Scott snapped a photo of a woman smoking a cigarette outside a coffee shop. He was about 50 feet away. She asked him to stop taking photos. He did.
But when she demanded he delete the photo he had taken of her, he refused.
The following Monday, a Burlington cop showed up to his office and issued him a trespass order that banned him from the mall for a year.
Lieutenant Jen Morrison with the Burlington Police Department says she’s not at liberty to discuss the details of Scott’s trespass order, or even confirm that he was issued one. Oddly, it’s not because there’s a criminal investigation pending; Scott hasn’t been charged with a crime. Rather, she explains, it’s because the police don’t decide whether to issue trespass orders; they simply issue them at the behest of businesses and property owners.
Business owners say the worst thing he did was snap photos of their customers without their consent.
Not very different from what business owners do with their surveillance cameras.