Before the Vietnam War, wars were vastly under exposed during the great new medium development known as the permanent photographs; photography. Although by the time that many prior wars were occurring, photography was still emerging from its pubescent stages into its mature stages, the earliest SLR (single lens reflux) cameras were making their debuts thanks to Kodak, Minolta, Canon, Yashica, Nikon and Polaroid during the tail end of the Korean War. Photography had been in practice for 126 years when Vietnam exploded into action. Now more portable, smarter with better fixed images, photography experimentation, documentation, and photojournalism steadily inclined.
No other war had been, nor will ever be as well documented photographically as the Vietnam War. This was the first time that war had made it’s way into the living rooms of the growing American populace. This medium made war very real, and showed all of it’s thorns. American’s finally knew what it meant to be in combat; including the aftermath of bloody destruction. Partly due to the astonishing protest of war in respect to the photographs flooding back to the States, the American Government knew they had to cap this new medium and enforce strict regulations and restrictions. Thus, photography censorship emerged.
Today we are all aware that it’s much to dangerous to freelance your way through a combat zone as a photographer, that it is safer to be embedded with the American Military Troops; this is not fool proof, nor a guarantee of life, just a safer means. However, to even get extended the opportunity to be embedded with the American Military you have to jump through a great number of hoops, that are not limited to, establishment of a photojournalists, publications as a photojournalists, membership to national and local photojournalism photography groups such as the National Press Photographers Association and the American Society of Media Photographers; to name two well established ones. Once you pass the background checks, the health checks (yep, the same ones our military troops have to endure), you then have to go through debriefing regarding what you can and can not photograph, that all of your photographs belong to the American Federal Government, and you can not use them until they are released to you. At any point the government can confiscate your equipment, all of it, if you fail to follow any rule, and/or break any rules. We have the Vietnam War to thank for this scale of censorship.
Photography censorship doesn’t stop there, it far extends into our daily lives.
As a working, professional photographer, we all know that we can not photograph any government worker, including and not limited to police officers, firemen without expressed permission, even then it comes with expectations and rules in themselves. Everywhere we go to photograph we run into some sort of rule, expectation, censorship of one kind or another. For example, my recent trip to Alcatraz.
In doing a self inclined project regarding deteriorating prisons, jails, and insane asylums housing the criminally ill I ran into a whole fleet of restrictions. I was constantly being reminded gently to stay on the beaten path, to not put myself in danger trying to get a photograph, to not block other visitors to the island from passing by, and most importantly, if my guide said I could not go there, or photograph that, I had to listen. It was mostly free roam, only had a few instances, for example I wanted to climb the questionable stairs towards to cell block building on the back side to grab a better photograph; the Golden Gate Bridge side, where on April 27, 1936 there was an internal gunfire war in the main cell block between a hand full of inmates staging their escape and the guards. Officers scaled that particular wall to try to get in and resume control over the inmate population inside, which turned into a rescue operation to the guards stuck inside. This was a three day war of epic proportions, a mascure of innocent guards had occurred. To this day there has never been an internal conflict within a maximum security prison like this one; prior or present.
My main highlights of this trip was the 14 escape attempt locations. I was not satisfied standing on the main road way, even with my nice telephoto long zoom, I did not get the shot I had wanted, because I wanted to use a prime and not a zoom; lets call that artistic choice. I ran into this two more times, once again at the gun tower (under restoration) off of the main dock area, and the shore line where an inmate had hide out in a small island cave for two days before turning himself back in. I know there were simply looking out for my safety, which I can appreciate, however, still, the notion of no I could not do that, was still echoing in my ear.
So I pose a question, where should the line be drawn in terms of photographic censorship? Who has the right to draw it? For example, if I so chose to place myself in harms way to get that photo I want, is that my prerogative, or does the establishment have a iron fist on that? We all know as photographers, that sometimes we place our selves in harms way, or at the very least in very awkward, and uncomfortable stances straining to get that picture perfect photograph. Where is that line then? When does my safety become the concern of others if I willing and knowingly place myself in harms way? Why can’t I show the American populace what is REALLY going on overseas in conflict zones? I know that the government uses the scapegoat of not wanting to put the troops locations and safety at risk, but who says we have to upload those photos that instant? Who says that we can’t use those photos at another time, once the conflict is over? That sounds like a reasonable happy medium to myself? Why do we allow our government to protest our freedom of speech, press, and the ability to show our fellow American’s the truth through out lenses?
I may never know why these restrictions are truly in place, or if there is even a need for them, I will however, maintain my level of professionalism and adhere to them. Will we ever see the same scale of documentation and photojournalism as that of the Vietnam War ever again? I doubt it, if anything, I think the government would rather tighten those regulations more with newer technologies; like GPS tagging in camera. What are your thoughts on photographic censorship?
ASMP, NPPA, PAC, Mom’Ography Photography, Freelance Photojournalists
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