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March 15, 2010

"F-Stop That!" More Fallout From Church Street Photography

Localmatters-photographer This week's story in Seven Days"A Photographer Is 'Banned' for Taking Pictures on Church Street" has generated enormous reader interest, both here in Vermont and elsewhere. Several photography websites have jumped on the story. One, Photography Is Not A Crime, highlights the fact that the Church Street Marketplace, which endorses the Burlington Police Department's universal trespass program, has received federal funding in the past.

But what about the fallout for the subjects of the article themselves, namely, amateur photographer Dan Scott, and Brenda Vinson, owner of the Church Street coffeehouse Uncommon Grounds? They don't agree on much, but they both wish this story had never happened.

"I haven't picked up my camera since this story ran, mainly out of fear that I'm going to be assaulted," says Scott, 32, who used to spend his lunch hours twice a week shooting photos on Church Street. "I've got a real job and a family. What am I going to do, get myself beat up or killed?"

According to Scott, he's received threats in the virtual world as well, including one posted on Craigslist last week suggesting,  "It'd be a real shame if your camera got smashed." Fortunately for Scott, his boss at the Social Security Administration office, where he's worked for 10 years, is supportive. As Scott puts it, "They know who I am here. I can't tell you how many background checks I had to go through just to get this job."

For her part, Vinson isn't exactly thrilled by the article's blowback, either. She says both she and her employees have fielded numerous threatening phone calls from people, including some who have shouted profanities at them. (When I called Uncommon Grounds this morning, the woman answering the phone didn't even identify the business.) 

Apparently, those comments have also bled over into the virtual world, where the store's Facebook page has been inundated with angry posts. 

People, people! Can't we all just get along? Besides being rude, hostile and misguided, such responses are clearly coming from people who know nothing about the business itself, which has supported local artists, including photographers, ever since it opened. (Ms. Vinson declined to comment further on this story.)

As for the letters to the editor from our readers, last Wednesday's issue generated more responses in one day than any story we've ever run. As a result, this week's issue will include an expanded letters section, where the responses have been all over the map. All  of the responses will be posted online.

Incidentally, anyone interested in seeing Scott's photos can check them out here.

Photo of Dan Scott by Jordan Silverman.


My statement is legally correct, but one could certainly pose circumstances such as yours that may need further examination. However, your example of a close-up of the face really lays no new ground. Take a look at the Emo Nussenzweig case, it's very representative of the law. The subject of the photo objected because, a) taken surreptitiously and without permission, b) not only published, but sold for $10,000 or so per print, c) he had a religious objection. He lost.

Your position that it is impermissible to take pictures of people in close up, or with them as the primary position may well be a morally supportable position, but it is in stark contrast to the law. You can, in fact, take a close-up, "studio style" picture of an individual in public without their consent. I'm not offering an opinion on that, that's been well settled law for years. Seriously, that's the basis for the legality for security cameras, some of which, by design, take closeups of your face.

Yes, it's a dilemma for the UG employee. She doesn't want her picture taken, she knows if she goes out front it might happen. I have sympathy for her. If the alleyway were private property, but observable from public, it's still fair game, so to speak. I suggest that she should tell the photographer she doesn't want her picture taken, as she did, and he agreed to no longer take her picture. Seems she's ok to go outside and smoke now. The only disagreement was his unwillingness to delete the photo...and I suspect it was because she insisted rather than asked. I react that way, also. When people demand things that they have no right to, I dig in as a matter of course....when they ask me to do something, I'm usually quite accomodating.

What if the photographer's camera allowed him to see through my clothes? (That technology exists, by the way, but isn't yet commercially available -- but you know it will be.)

I'm going to have to call bullshit on this. Please reference some evidence for this not-yet-public x-ray vision camera equipment.

I'm afraid there really is no expectation of privacy in a public space.

Haik: Sony's nightvision on their handycams had this effect under some lighting conditions. They pulled the effect from subsequent issues of the camera. Haven't seen it on a DSLR, but I suspect that one converted for IR might have a similar effect.

Here's an article:

But, you are correct about the expectation of privacy.

Hmmm. OK so x-ray cameras may not be bullshit, but then another question arises in terms of what constitutes public space and what constitutes private space. I think a case could (and should) be made that even when standing on public land, the space underneath one's clothes is still private to the individual. Using an x-ray camera to photograph under one's clothes is tantamount to prying their mouth open to look at their fillings. Both would constitute assault.

Haik: I think your analysis is correct, in that there IS an expectation of privacy to your naughty bits under your clothes. It wouldn't be assault, any more than the guy who photographed that sportcenter woman thru the peep hole was assault, though.

It raises a lot of interesting questions. Sunlight alone could be the techology that makes certain clothing see-through. Maybe people will just have to learn to start dressing against infrared they way they currently avoid see-though by dressing against bright light. If we were going to write a statute about x-ray cams where would we draw the line? With what is visible with the naked-eye? This really gets to some core shit. Would the corresponding statues about audio technologies have to be held to the same standards as the ones about visual technologies? How sticky would that be? Clothing is what separates people from animals. Forcing nudity on someone to inflict humiliation is a human rights abuse. It's all something to think about. The original story boils down to "you could have just deleted the picture but you didn't so now this is happening. Eat some poop. The end." The really big questions about privacy, law, and our essential humanity go on.

By the way I saw all kinds of people with all kinds of cameras out taking pictures on Church Street today.

Haik, I'm afraid you've nailed it.

@ Torgeaux:

You started out complaining bitterly that the manager of UG had this guy banned from entering Church Street businesses. An interesting debate ensued. The result is that: a) what the guy did was legal (we think -- unless he's doing something illegal with the images he refused to delete) but, to some, rude and obnoxious; and b) what UG did was also legal.

So in the end, Haik was right. What are you complaining about? Everyone acted within their legal rights (we hope, in the case of the photographer). I don't like what the photographer did, but it was legal (we think). You don't like what UG did, but it was legal (we KNOW).

The End.

PS to Haik:

""What if the photographer's camera allowed him to see through my clothes? (That technology exists, by the way, but isn't yet commercially available -- but you know it will be.)"
I'm going to have to call bullshit on this. Please reference some evidence for this not-yet-public x-ray vision camera equipment."

Haik, they've experimented with see-through-the-clothes viewing technology at airport security stations outside the US.

So I go back to my point. One does NOT abandon all rights to privacy just because one walks down the street.

So I go back to my point. One does NOT abandon all rights to privacy just because one walks down the street.

That wasn't the point you were making. You said there is some expectation of privacy in a public space and that's still wrong. There isn't. There is an expectation of privacy under your clothes, because that is not a public space.

Webber: That's easy. The folks at UG have taken action to chill the constitutionally protected rights of a citizen. You should be upset at them...anyone should. Their actions aren't taken to address the perceived "wrong", and they admit that. They admit that he did not do anything wrong in any of the spaces from which he's banned, but they're going to punish him because they don't like that behavior. It's reprehensible, and what distinguishes "good guys" from "bad guys".

As for whether we "know" the photographer did nothing illegal, we know no one ever, ever, accused him of anything illegal. So we know BOTH parties acted legally, and we also KNOW one party is acting in a way that is unAmerican, but increasingly "OK", and that's UG.

And, this may well still not withstand legal challenge. It's punitive in nature and it's vindictive (doesn't address or correct the complained of behavior). I hope to see the ACLU explore this a bit. I'd really like to see some local outrage at a business acting like this, instead of, "well, the guy WAS rude, after all, why should he be able to buy razors?"

Boy, you still don't get it. UG wasn't trying to "chill" constitutionally protected anything. They made a perfectly understandable decision to keep an f'ing jerk out of their store. THAT'S LEGAL. He's not in any constitutionally "protected class" that prevents any place of public accommodation from excluding him from their premises. They can keep him out and it's quite possibly the same decision I would have made.

You admit that both parties were behaving legally but you say only one of them was being Un-American: the store. Wrong! The photographer was also being Un-American.

You can interpret the First Amendment any way you like, i.e., any jerkus can take any unwanted picture of any person who dares to step foot on Church Street. But you can't force me to admit jerks into my private space because excluding them would, in your view, "chill" the photographer's right to be a First Amendment jerkus. The jerkus can stay on Church Street.

Good luck with that ACLU thing.

Webber: Why the sudden return to anger? Curious.

UG wasn't trying to do anything except stop legal behavior, by punishing the photographer in unrelated ways; that's the definition of trying to chill. The "jerk" wasn't trying to enter their store, so no, they aren't trying to keep him out. He's not in a protected class, his activity is protected. Clearly, repeatedly, by the courts.

How is the photographer acting unAmerican? Insisting on his rights? That used to be our way, no more. I'm not suggesting your little strawman here, that UG must let him in, but rather that the common ban is being misused. Look at the original article where the practice is each instance for illegal conduct that hurts the business. It's being abused here to curb legally protected conduct.

Thanks for the wishes of good luck. I'll take them as politely intended, despite the obvious, and surprising, hostility you developed again overnight. I'll be supporting the artists over the oppressor every time, thanks.

I was responding to your clearly resurgent anger and vitriol at UG, which had seemed to calm down, but then resurfaced vehemently in your 2:16 pm post.

You don't seem to get it. UG's motive wasn't to try to stop legal behavior. It was simply trying to deal with a jerk who behaved creepily to its employee. You seem intent on turning what UG did into something other than what it was, so you can have your "artist's rights" crusade that you apparently so much want to have.

Your characterization of UG as "the oppressor" reveals clearly your paranoid mindset.

I think you're wrong in your accusatory attitude toward UG. We seem to have reached an irreconcilable impasse. We'll just have to agree to disagree.

Good luck.

Very disturbing. Plain and simple. In a public place, anyone can be photographed. People need to understand, you don't have the right to privacy when you are out in public.

Webber: Stop making this personal between you and me. I'm not paranoid, and the anger I was pointing to was your "what are you complaining about" comment, not your next one. You restate simplistically, "gee, everyone acted legally, what's the problem?" as if that was the issue...and you know full well it never was.

No worries. Engaging you in debate was wasted effort, since you still seem to feel that if it's lawful it's ok on UG's part, but if it's lawful it's being a jerk on the photographer's part. I see your position clearly. Yes, we have an irreconcilable difference, our divorce is final. Best wishes, to you in every other endeavor, though.

Staying out of the fray of the specific issue in the article, I'd just like to chime in and support Cathy and Ken's handling of troll(ish) comments in this thread. There's nothing wrong with calling out trolls in a comments thread, even for journalists. This space would become utterly unreadable if left unmoderated (e.g. any Free Press comments thread of any length) and the owners of this space need to lead by example. Notice the shift in Torgeaux's tone from before and after the phone conversation with Ken. That's a fantastic example of directly addressing (pseudo) anonymous vitriol and bringing it into the relative calm of personal communication (and kudos to Torgeaux for picking up the phone and making the call!). The Blurt comments section is a terrific example of how this sort of open forum can succeed, even in the face of some bad anonymous actors (or actor, in the case of Bob/Ron/Dan/Sue...).

Thanks, Bill. Actually, it's kind of nice talking to a reader over the phone about his or her specific concerns about a story. Sometimes, it's enough to break down the barrier between reader and journalist and allow us to see eye to eye. In the case of Torgeaux, he and I have views that are more in common than these threads might suggest. And even when that's not the case, sometimes just agreeing to disagree in a more civil manner is enough to satisfy me.

1. I think it's crazy that everyone is arguing without the benefit of more information. It's like debating whether or not a movie that none of us has seen should be censored.

2. I am irritated by the false dichotomy which implies that one is either a sophisticated patron in favor of a photographer's right to do whatever s/he wants in pursuit of his/her art in public places OR you are an anti-art, anti-civil rights fascist philistine. There is gray area. All over the world (including parts of the United States) laws have been put in place to protect a certain, small measure privacy while in public. The laws use language like voyeurism, "video surveillance with prurient intent", "surreptitious intrusion", "protection against surreptitious recording of
individuals’ intimate body parts while individual is clothed" (aka upskirting/downblousing), "improper photography", "criminal surveillance", "indecent viewing or photography", "Surreptitious Photographing, Videotaping, Filming, or Digitally
Recording", "Surreptitious Visual Observation or Recordation", "Photographing, Videotaping or Electronically Surveilling", etc..

Do some of these laws go too far? Oh, yes, I'm sure they do. However I think that some legal protection is necessary because unfortunately for every 1,000,000 perfectly innocuous street photographers out there, there is also one dirtbag or stalker who is going to try to take his/her rights to the nth degree in order to victimize someone. If you go to Flickr and search the tag 'upskirt', you'll find shots like this:[email protected]/4443156293/ and this: Should women just stop wearing skirts in public because anyone has the right to use whatever technology they need to get intimate shots and then distribute the images?

I'm not saying Dan Scott did anything dirtbaggish. I'm just saying that people, especially women and parents, do have legitimate reason for concern.

Hear, hear.

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