Censorship, Has it gone too far?
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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Sabine Goldman says
In a sense there should be more sensorship when it comes to war/combat photography. Recently there was a picture floating around facebook of a Marine dragging a fallen brother out of the line of fire. Pictures like that and others like it should not be posted or shown to the public. We, as a nation are being desensitized. I would not want to be the wife, mother, or sister of the one who was being dragged out of the line of fire. Allow the families of these brave souls to mourn without the public eye on them.
Erik Hawkinson says
I think for some of the restrictions placed on war photographers (being a member of professional organizations, passing physicals, etc) make sense, since that way they know they are getting professionals who have a better sense of what they are getting in to, and are not just amateurs who may needlessly put the troops at risk.
As for having to release the photos back to the photographer, it also kind of makes sense. It certainly sucks, but certain photos may put troops at risk. That being said, I think that there should be some middle road where the government gets copies of the photos to decide what can be immediately released but where the photographer can release all of them at some point in the future.
As a nitpick, though, stating that you may not photograph government workers is incorrect. If they are in public, in the US, then you may photograph them without consent. Generally speaking, if you can see something from a public space, you may take a photograph of them/it. For more on what you can photograph, you can look here: http://www.aclu.org/free-speech/know-your-rights-photographers and here: http://www.krages.com/phoright.htm.
Sarah Hales says
Excellent & thought-provoking post, April!
This stated that, “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. I have been told by the police that photographing them was fine however no sound recording could be made without permission. Has this changed?
Sabine Goldman: I understand that, I see your point from a non photojournalist pov, however, I’m just saying, yes we as the general public should be able to see those images, and we as the photojournalists should be able to capture those images, but the happy medium should be something where we can have them and take them, but not post them until after the conflict is over for a period of time, like 3-6 months? Know what I mean? Why should it be restricted? That’s life, that’s what is really going on, I think people want to run from the truth and that’s why there are restrictions in place. Know what I mean?
Thank you Erik for the link. However there is a preamble if you will for photojournalists that we must follow that the NPPA and other associations make you follow and enforce them, and some of those rules are to respect officers and not take their photos in uniform when you can avoid it. We can get creative and cut heads out of shots, etc, (meaning in camera crop, etc) and we can get hands and arms, etc. It’s one of those gray areas, not entirely black and white, and in some instances you can get away with it, others not so much. I wanted to just point out that I said that it could include and was not limited to these such professions. So it could happen where an officer will come up and tell you, that you can’t do that. So just be prepared. Pick your battles.
I absolutely agree, the restrictions they place on photojournalists such as health checks, physical checks, debriefing, etc, are great, I absolutely agree with your statement, and to me I’m fine with that. It’s keeping my images or saying that they belong to the government, when they do not. But then again anyone who has been in the Military or known a military service person will vouch for the fact that Uncle Sam says he owns you while you are a service person….. so….. I guess they extend that to photographs as well. I disagree with it. I brought my gear, I chose the shot, I composed it, and I will later process it, so all in all, I own that photo. It’s the main contributing factor as to why I do not volunteer to be embedded with the troops.
Thank you Sarah! =)
This is a Grey matter. It’s not entirely black and white, and it vastly differs from Region to Region, State to State, City to City and Metro area to Metro Area. It will also depend on the situation, and then further more on the officers (etc) involved. There are many resources that spell it out as black and white either way, however that is not my experience. I have found some to be more inviting, I have some that are willing to bend rules slightly and I have encountered some that are so strict, that I have them threaten to take my camera away if I don’t delete said photo in their presence and show them that I deleted it.
Just go out and shoot, and not worry too much, and take it case by case. When in doubt, ask. It never hurts to ask. Remember that No is still a valid answer. Be courteous, and respectful remaining professional.
Sorry I couldn’t give you a straighter answer, as you photograph more and more, you will see, that things are not always black and white, that’s why we have color now. =)