We know that police in this country are receiving absolutely no training in how to deal with citizens who videotape or photograph them in public, much less on how to judge a photo for its esthetic value.
So it’s a little discomforting when he hear the Long Beach (California) Police Chief acknowledging that his officers are trained to detain photographers who are taking pictures “with no apparent esthetic value,” according to the Long Beach Post.
But it’s not surprising.
Especially after Long Beach police detained a man for photographing a refinery last month.
The truth is, even the most arrogant photo critics are not necessarily the best judges of a photo’s esthetic value.
Hell, we can’t even agree how to spell the word esthetic. I would normally spell it aesthetic, but now that I’m quoting from the Long Beach Post, I’m using esthetic for consistency.
I’ve covered Art Basel on Miami Beach for years and have been dismayed on how many blurry and crappy photos – photos that I would delete immediately from my camera – are selling for more than a $100,000.
Take the above photo for example. Personally, I don’t see any esthetic value to it. I wouldn’t give it a second glance, unless it was hanging in an art gallery selling for more than a $100,00, then I would bitch about it.
But Sander Roscoe Wolff, who took the photo, saw something artistic about it.
He also took the photo below, which is a little more interesting, in my opinion, but still wouldn’t win any prizes. And in fairness, these are just two photos. I have not seen the rest of his portfolio.
But those are the photographs that got him detained last month.
I know many photographers whom I respect who would completely rave about the esthetic value of these photos.
They would go on about the peeled paint in the second photo while I would point out the distracting crane-like object in the bottom right-hand corner.
The point is, the esthetic value of a photo is purely subjective.
And we really don’t need subjective when it comes to enforcing the law.
You either broke the law or you did not. You either did something that makes you reasonable suspicious or you did not. You either did something that gives police probable cause or you did not.
Taking a photo in public, whether it’s esthetic or not, does not fall into any of the above categories, unless you’re shooting upskirts or child pornography or into somebody’s bedroom window through closed curtains where they have an expectation of privacy.
And even then, many people would argue that those illegal photos are of esthetic value.
The Long Beach Post article is the third part of a series by Greggory Moore, who began writing about the issue after he was detained for photographing a courthouse in June.
“If an officer sees someone taking pictures of something like a refinery,” says (Long Beach Police Chief) McDonnell, “it is incumbent upon the officer to make contact with the individual.” McDonnell went on to say that whether said contact becomes detainment depends on the circumstances the officer encounters.
McDonnell says that while there is no police training specific to determining whether a photographer’s subject has “apparent esthetic value,” officers make such judgments “based on their overall training and experience” and will generally approach photographers not engaging in “regular tourist behavior.”
So what is regular tourist behavior?
We’ve learned that police officers throughout the country believe that photographing trains is illegal and dangerous and contains no esthetic value.
But we also know there is a huge subculture of railfans who get orgasmic photographing trains. And many of these could easily be tourists.
Personally, I prefer to photograph people in a photojournalistic sense. That’s just my style and background.
Of course, that can get me in trouble if I happen to photograph a kid or police. I tend not to photograph kids because I hate the stigma that comes with it.
But here are a couple of photos that I took a few years ago of kids I did not know personally.
The above photo I took during an immigration rally in downtown Miami a few years ago. I loved how the kid was wearing a Honduran soccer jersey but was waving an American flag, wearing an American flag bandanna and standing in front of an American flag.
To me, that photo summed up the immigration protests by confirming that many of us come from different backgrounds, but in the end, we’re all American.
The above photo was taken on Miami Beach. I wish I would have not cropped off the feet of the performer and kid, but it was very spontaneous shot and I did not exactly have a whole lot of time to compose it perfectly.
But I love the sheer naturalness of it.
Were those photos legal? Of course they were.
Did I ask persmission from the parents? No, the moment would have been lost (but I would have been happy to share the photos with them had they confronted me).
Could they have gotten me detained? We’ve seen that it can.
And do they contain esthetic value? That’s just a matter of opinion.
But whether you agree that it does or not, it should not get me detained. And neither should Wolff’s photos of the refinery.