See this innocuous advertisement for Coca Cola on Moscow’s Arbat Street. Does it look like a Russian state secret? Like it would have any value to a Chechen spy? Or be the basis for arrest if you took a photograph of it?
I was arrested for taking a photograph of this very sign when I lived in Moscow and I refuse for that to happen in America.
It was a damn cold night in Moscow, -34C. I know this number for the bottom of that Coke ad had a thermometer and when I saw just how cold it was, I pulled out my camera to document the moment – a tropics boy in the frigid north.
No sooner had the flash illuminated the night that two of Moscow’s
drunkest finest stepped out of the shadows and asked me for my documents. A standard small-time bribe shakedown I’d easily brushed past before. This time, they didn’t quickly return my documents.
This time, they asked me to come with them, a request I quickly questioned. The conversation (in Russian) went something like this:
Wayan: What? Why? My documents are in order.
Officer 1: No, they are not. It says you are American, but you are a spy! We saw you take that photograph.
Wayan: Spy? For taking a photograph of an advertisement? It’s a Coca Cola ad, not the Kremlin. And you can take photos in the Kremlin too!
Officer 1: You are a spy, a Chechen spy. Your Russian has a Chechen accent. You are wearing a Chechen hat. You’re take photographs at midnight. You are spying on Russia!
Wayan: I am an American, here with the Peace Corps. My Russian has an American accent and I bought this hat at Izmailovsky Park and I am taking photographs because I’ve never seen a thermometer read -34C!
Officer 1: You are a spy, get in the truck.
Officer 2: Go! (Officer 2 then pointed his AK-47 in my direction)
And then I spent a long, cold night in a Russian holding cell waiting for the police day shift to arrive and straighten things out. Yes, I was quickly released, unharmed if a little hungry and sleep deprived, when sober minds took a look at me and my paperwork. But that’s not the point.
The point is that this experience, while maybe expected in Russia, is now playing out in America. A country founded on freedom of expression and a right to public discourse. A country where unrestricted photography by private citizens has played an integral role in protecting the freedom, security, and well-being of all Americans by contributing to improvements in civil rights, labor practices, and police activity.
In addition, people (including children) on a public street have been found by the courts not to have an expectation of privacy and their photograph can be taken and even published without their consent. Using such images of the public for purposes of general commentary and criticism is also well established, and supersedes any organization’s “policy”.
Yet American photographers are being stopped, harassed, and even intimidated when expressing their freedom to photograph under the guise of “security” and misguided fears about terrorism. Even when the proliferation of digital camera and camera phones are actually preventing crimes, catching criminals, and generally preserving public order.
I was recently harassed for taking photographs on a public street in Washington DC, and have often be questioned when photographing WMATA. And now a private company who took over a public street in Silver Spring, a DC suburb, has banned photography and hassled a photographer who tried to take photos.
To me that is one step too far. One photographer harassment too much. And its time for a protest. Its time to join Metroblogging DC in a declaration of photographic freedom, a Silver Spring Photo Outing to remind Washingtonians that photography is NOT a crime.