Photography Is Not A Crime

Lara[UPDATE: The criminal charges against him have just been dropped and the judge issued a court order for the release of his camera equipment. Good news for sure, but the points remain: 1) we need documentary shooters shooting the entire gamut, legal and not. 2) we need public defenders who understand this need and are prepared to help us defend it.]

This is nuts. LA photographer Jonas Lara has been arrested and faces up to a year in prison for ‘aiding and abetting’ two graffiti artists while documenting their work in February. Lara pleaded not guilty, wisely citing it’s within his rights as a photographer to be at the scene documenting the work of the artists. But here’s the rub: his public defender, David Gottesmann, has so far refused to consider his rights as a photographer as part of the defense.

PDN reports, “When he was arrested, Lara was working on a long-term project for which he has documented the work and creative processes of 30 visual artists. Lara met the two graffiti artists at an abandoned building in South Central Los Angeles to photograph the pair as they worked on the illegal mural. The photographer says the officers were understanding when he explained his reason for being at the scene. They told him they needed to process him, and that he would be free to go in the morning. After advising Lara that it would be dangerous to leave his car in the neighborhood, one of the officers even drove Lara’s car to the police station so he could avoid a towing fee.

Once he got to the police station, however, Lara’s situation became much more precarious. The police held Lara for eight hours before telling him he was being charged with felony vandalism. He was held for 26 hours in total…before his wife bailed him out.”

Now call me crazy, but this is pure bullsh*t. I’m not advocating crime, I’m advocating Lara’s rights to document it. His public defender won’t cite his rights as a photographer? Huh? If documenting crime is a crime, then why isn’t every photojournalist who documents drug abuse, war, and violence in prison? The guy is headed for the MFA program at Art Center in Pasadena. His work is legit. We need pictures like these.

Since his public defender doesn’t see the light (wtf?), Lara needs private council. He’s got a donation page here. Spread the word. And if you’re a photojournalist, please keep shooting.

(via PDN Pulse)

66 Responses to Photography Is Not A Crime

  1. Hankk May 12, 2010 at 10:36 am #

    If Lara is charged with vandalism, then by implication many photojournalists covering war zones could be charged with manslaughter, for not acting to prevent a death…

    • Rick Allen May 12, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

      Hankk, declared wars are not considered manslaughter in the eyes of the law. Perhaps a better analogy would have been, does a photographer have the right to cover a murder? Probably not. So, your question becomes one of degree, not kind.

    • Alexander May 12, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

      I agree with you Hankk. Photojournalists are essential to culture, and it is not their responsibility to try and make ethical judgments about every situation they are covering.

  2. david bram May 12, 2010 at 10:38 am #

    Hey Chase,
    PDN Pulse reported yesterday that he has been cleared.

  3. Ghislain May 12, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    It will always amaze me how we can let politicians, bankers, wallstreet do what ever they want but we’re ready to put in jail for taking pictures… while other ruines an entire country for their own pocket…

    What kind of world are we living in? What are we waiting for to go out in the streets and get this system out of our life?

  4. Joshua May 12, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    I cannot believe that we (photojournalists) still have to carry the burden of explaining to people the difference between committing an act and photographing an act. If Lara was practicing proper photojournalism, then there was NO WAY he was affecting his subjects in ANY WAY. That’s the point of photojournalism – to simply photograph the scene and subject as if you were not there. By that reasoning, he had no effect on the artists (and I do call them artists) at all.
    I’ve been caught in sticky situations before, but this is outrageous. I’m donating.

  5. David Peacock May 12, 2010 at 10:45 am #

    It’s a tough one, and a grey area. In principle, I agree with the notion that photographers are free to document that which they see. But at the same time, what’s unclear, is whether or not he encouraged the vandalism.

    Shooting someone you notice in the act of a crime is different to arranging to go out with someone next time they commit a crime. That’s an important distinction; was his desire to document the act partially their impetus for that day’s activity? That’s what needs to be clarified here.

    If the truth is that they were going to do it anyway, then I will fully defend his rights. But if the truth is that they only went out to draw graffiti because he was going to shoot them doing it, regardless of whether or not they did it in the past, then he’s probably in the wrong.

  6. Karen Strunks May 12, 2010 at 10:48 am #

    Thank goodness he has been cleared! The world is going mad. I was on a debate panel with police chiefs in my area recently about photographer vs terrorism (or criminal as in Lara’s case). I’m happy to say they were most accomodating and understood that photographers have a role to play – and a job to do – and were taking steps to make sure that happens without being questioned.

  7. Michal Fanta May 12, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    These kind of cases remind me why I am wearing a special t-shirt I had made while shooting out. If you are interested in the tee you can check it on my blog in the store section. Please do not count this comment as a spam, I made this tees to support our community of photographers.

  8. Harry Green May 12, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    Photography is not a crime. Assisting others in the process of criminal activity is a crime, and punishable. Being a photographer, does not grant us pardon from legal responsibilities. The argument of being a photographer, and rights of expression etc. is akin to being a photographer and saying he doesn’t have to obey traffic laws, because he is a photographer. The making of photographs is a creative process, and is still governed by the law of the land.

  9. Kim May 12, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    Interesting Case. Agreed that he should not be charged but would I think other if… he was going along with a rapist, serial killer, something more horrific…etc.. to document the horrors of these crimes?

    I think a lot of PhotoJournalist cover assignments where events unfold before their eyes not exactly knowing what will transpire. In this case he knew they were up to a crime.

  10. Justin Cary May 12, 2010 at 11:22 am #

    So… Last time I checked Heroin was illegal yet TV shows like “Intervention” can roll camera’s 24/7 while capturing the subject shooting up… Maybe I’m missing the charges, but isn’t this the same f’n thing? Go figure.

  11. Paul Treacy May 12, 2010 at 11:48 am #

    All of us photographers here in the UK are endeavouring to stand up the the authorities to defend our right to work and photograph in public. Back in January thousands of us, pro and am, gathered in Trafalgar Square in Central London under the banner, I’M A PHOTOGRAPHER, NOT A TERRORIST.

    It’s disgraceful that in an open democracy our activities should be so curtailed both here in the UK and Stateside.
    Here’s a short film of our “Mass Gathering”.

  12. Micah May 12, 2010 at 11:53 am #

    So what if he was documenting a rapist, a serial killer, or a child molestor, etc. Would that still be considered journalism?

    • Kennon May 12, 2010 at 11:58 am #

      Why is that always the argument? Yes, those are also crimes, but these crimes (graffiti) are not detrimental to anyone else. It’s a crime against buildings (arguably), but really.. nothing even close to resembling rape, murder, or a child molester. C’mon…

      • Neal Lippman May 12, 2010 at 4:12 pm #

        Well, it’s fair enough to note that grafitti and rape/murder/child molestation are not equivalent crimes. However, they are both crimes, and the difference in these crimes is (hopefully) reflected in the penalties one suffers for committing them. It is disingenuous to claim that because grafitti is a crime of vandalism and not of violence against another person, it can therefore be excused.

        Others have already expressed what I think is a crucial point: if the photographer in question happens upon a crime in commission and photographs it for photojournalistic purposes, that should be protected. If the photographer has arranged a meeting with potential criminals so as to photograph them as the commit a crime, he is an accomplice.

        There is no such thing as “it wasn’t much of a crime.” As the old urban legend regarding Winston Churchil goes: He was reportedly a a political function and asked an elegantly dressed woman if she would be willing to sleep with him for a million dollars (or pounds if you prefer). Embarrassed, she acknowledged that she would. He then asked her to sleep with him for dollars. She promptly slapped his face, indignantly saying “Do you take me for a prostitute?” His response: “Madam, we have already established that fact. We are now haggling over the price.”

        The degree of the crime does not change the fundamental principle here.


        • BM May 12, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

          The most useful comment up until now.
          Of course, many that write here are photographers so it’s understandable that they would *try* to defend one of their own. But thanks to the whole brouhaha, a person is now free even if he conspired towards a crime. One can say that mr. Lara even advertised the said vandalism. Good game… NOT!

    • Duckrabbit Digital May 16, 2010 at 10:36 am #

      Larry Clark, ‘Tulsa’.

      Is he a criminal?

      Weegee? Nan Goldin?

      Or, if we are talking about murder, how about the infamous photo from the Vietnam war of the man being shot in the head (by Eddie Adams)? Criminal?

    • Chase May 16, 2010 at 11:01 am #

      the documentation of murder, rape, and even child killings happens everyday around the world. they’re of course not sitting in a quiet room watching it happen, but they’re out there documenting it in war-torn countries everyday. and we need those photos in our culture to drive action and reaction. so clearly it’s not “what” they’re documenting that is the problem…

      • Fizzah May 18, 2010 at 8:54 am #

        I was going to comment after I read through all the comments. But this is pretty much dead on what I wanted to write. I think James Nachtwey in War Photographer said something similar about the power of a photograph to incite a desire or movement for change. I whole-heartedly believe that photographers don’t just take “pretty pictures.” As artists, we push the envelope and we challenge norms. Often that means capturing the ugly, dirty and bitter parts of our society. Also our work allows us to tell the stories of those who often are overlooked by the system.

  13. Jon May 12, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    That is what happens when you live in the land of the free.

  14. Simon Grosset May 12, 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    Chase – you probably don’t know what’s happening across the pond in the UK right now (and especially in London.) Have a look at this Facebook group: I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist
    The police are using the UK’s anti-terrorism laws to stop photographers anywhere they want. The latest incident was an established architectural photographer who was arrested while photographing a building in the City of London!

  15. Robert May 12, 2010 at 12:49 pm #

    Sorry there Chase…I agree with your main point strongly however I really object to the idea that this guy is ‘legit’ because he’s going to Pasadena Art College. This implies that only such a person or a ‘professional journalist’ should be considered a photographer when in fact anyone with a camera should be afforded the same protection.

    • Chase May 12, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

      Robert: note that i didn’t say he was legit ‘because’ he’s going to Art College. they were separate idea. namely 1) he’s serious about art enough to attend a high $ school with solid track record and 2) my opinion his work is legit based on my review of it, all things considered.

  16. Michelle May 12, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    The most important authority we should adhere to is our MORAL AUTHORITY. I think I would feel pretty shady if I were knowingly meeting up/following a vandal as they did their dirty work. There is a price to be paid when we do not listen to that compass that would ask us to take the high road. When, we deliberately meditate or contemplate doing something that feels sneaky….it is usually not the high road. I am not saying that I am pefect. I am not claiming to be a goody, goody. Yet, I do not feel that I would have taken part in this type of activity. Personally, I am not of the opinion that calling “art in the name of art” is justifiable or allowable when a crime is knowingly committed. Agree or disagree. The call is yours.

  17. Bryon Paul McCartney May 12, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

    Just out of curiosity, if a pj was following a home grown terrorist group and got arrested with them in the process of documenting their activities, how would we react? My gut feeling is that most people would have little sympathy for that person, we would say, well, he knew what he was doing was wrong.

    Of course, I am not comparing graffiti to terrorism, but I am curious where do we draw the line? Assault, domestic abuse, racketeering, drunk driving, street racing? How or who determines what is okay to document or not? Are there guidelines for such things?

  18. Rick Allen May 12, 2010 at 2:37 pm #

    In the process of standing up for our fotographer colleagues, let’s remember not to villanize other notable professions … like the Public Defender’s office. The LA PDefender’s office is widely recognized as one of the best in the entire country, and with CA’s debt issue puts this group under incredible pressure. Let’s make sure we stay focused on the issue at hand and not simply vent our anger in less than totally productive ways.

  19. kellyhofer May 12, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

    So that would mean that photographing a warcrime or any crime is a punishable act. As you were there and didn’t act upon it.

  20. aperian May 12, 2010 at 4:00 pm #

    i agree, this is rather ridiculous.

    oh, and one quick petty matter, it’s Art Center College of Design (Art Center or ACCD for short). sorry, current student here. ;)

  21. Michelle May 12, 2010 at 4:18 pm #

    I do not think that The Act OF photographing a warcrime or any crime is punishable as if you were the actual criminal. But, I do suspect that sometimes, photographers who have gotten away with, and received accolades for certain risky behavior run the risk of getting a God Complex, as in Above The Law. They feel that they are worthy of special priveledges because they are a great artist on a pedastal. OOPS! They always get knocked off! This happens. We have all witnessed it one way or another from hometown athlete, to worldwide rock star whose big head creates imbalance and they topple like humpty dumpty.

    Point to Ponder…What if (not to accuse this guy in particular) the so called photo jounalistic opportunity was actually thought out and SET UP in order to create “ART”?!! (state of shock, big gasp….what?… never you say?!!!)

  22. Ben Ruane May 12, 2010 at 4:18 pm #

    Sad story but leaves me impelled to ask the question. What actually is the legal position when a photographer documents a *violent* crime – outside of a warzone – where damage, hurt or harm is done to innocent people? I think a majority of people view this case as being over-the-top but it seems it’s more due to the nature of the crime being documented, ie not violent, involved no harm to people etc. Does a photographer have a an immutable right to document anything with no accompanying responsibilities? Since when do rights come without responsibilities? It becomes difficult (from the photographer’s perspective) when laws require judgement as to whether applicability is likely. Then, there is the moral compass angle, as posted earlier. Anyway, I’m glad the charges were dropped in this case and I am genuinely curious to hear an answer to my question at the start of my comment.
    Thanks, Ben

  23. gerald james May 12, 2010 at 11:02 pm #

    Unfortunately this country is becoming a police state with gestapo practices by law enforcement, in my opinion, is almost time to abandon the ship.

  24. Gavin Hall May 12, 2010 at 11:31 pm #

    IMO, photographing a crime in which happens to be progress is one thing, but I think there is a clear distinction here; according to the article, he:

    “met the two graffiti artists at an abandoned building in South Central Los Angeles to photograph the pair as they worked on the illegal mural.”

    Sounds to me like he actually planned the event….

    Say what you like about the skill involved, or the fact that it’s art, graffiti is vandalism and costs a fortune to remove. How about I come round to your house, and use a Red camera to catch in slow motion, the fine detail of your windows being smashed in? How is that any different? Or why not “document” an armed robbery that you know is going to take place rather than tell the police?

    You’re right in that photographers get a hard time already. Do we need to make it harder for ourselves by being seen to be part of a crew which is committing real crime? (and let’s get it straight, public image is about what you’re seen, or perceived to be doing, not what you actually do.)

    Sorry Chase, as much as I find 99.9% of what you say to be helpful and inspirational, on this I’m 180° out from your position.

    Best regards

  25. ian May 13, 2010 at 1:10 am #

    Chase checkout

  26. c.d.embrey May 13, 2010 at 1:13 am #

    Graffiti is different than tagging. Graffiti is just another form of Street Art. Why is it a crime? Most of the graffiti i’ve seen in Los Angeles improves the neighborhood.

    Anybody seen the movie “Exit Through the Gift Shop” a Paramount movie about this very subject. Is Paramount Pictures a criminal for releasing this documentary about Street Artists in action???

    • Neal Lippman May 13, 2010 at 9:15 am #

      Sorry, but grafitti is not “just another form of street art.” I don’t particularly appreciate someone painting the side of a building I own without my permission, however “artistic” they may be. Nor do I particularly want someone painting public buildings without prior authorization. The fact that the result may appeal to the artistic sensibilities of some viewers does not change this.

      Others are correct: as a photographer, I agree that we must be zealous in protecting our rights as photographers and as citizens. The problem is that when we protect the “rights” of those who are in the wrong, we diminish our message and our influence. Now, I am not saying the photographer in question _was_ wrong, because I don’t know the details of his situation. What I _am_ saying is that _if_ he was involved in the planning of a crime, his actions were not legal or defensible just because he is “creating art.”

      The moral question of what a photographer or photojournalist is to do when faced with a crime in commission is far more complex, at least to me. Does the photojournalist document a robbery, assault, rape, murder? Or does he intervene directly, or indirectly (eg call the police)? I remember reading once, I cannot recall where unfortunately, about the photographer who made the famous photograph of a young girl escaping a napalmed village during the Vietnam war. Later, he received criticism for having photographed this child rather than intervening to help her. Was his role that of a photojournalist, to document but not intervene, or was the moral imperative to intervene to help this child? Obviously his decision was the former, but if I am recalling the article correctly, this was a decision he wrestled with then and later. I don’t know the “right” answer here, and I’m sure this very question occupies many hours in journalism classes.


      • c.d.embrey May 13, 2010 at 12:39 pm #

        Nick Út did the right thing by taking the photo. Le Phuc Dinh filmed it for NBC. This, and others like it, helped turn the American people against the war, which helped bring it to an end.

        Eddy Adams photo of the Chief of Police shooting a prisoner in the head is another one that changed world opinion about the Vietnam War.

        • c.d.embrey May 13, 2010 at 12:42 pm #

          Make that Eddie Adams, sorry about the misspell.

  27. Panya C. May 13, 2010 at 1:56 am #

    Once I’ve read about a photographer in England. He was arrested, while doing some street-snap, for public nuisance… Man, I wonder how many tourists got arrested by taking their trip pictures? – -;;

  28. Ron R May 13, 2010 at 5:51 am #

    As in determining this guys participation in the event I believe the key word here is: premeditated.

  29. Javier Sepulveda May 13, 2010 at 7:34 am #

    How else are we to understand deviance in society. The fields o criminology and sociology should be illegal since most of it is based on studying the deviant mind and they’re act as they happen. Everyone who observes, captures, writes, researches or is a part of an undercover investigation with any illegal activity should be imprisoned if Lara does not get acquitted.

  30. fas May 13, 2010 at 7:49 am #

    Where is freedom in our world going?

  31. Mark May 13, 2010 at 10:19 am #

    I agree with all of you 90%, but on the flip side………
    If you follow a terrorists that are going to blow off their devices and even though there is no injury to people but just a property damage… that still an art or photojournalism ? Isn’t graffiti a property damage too? Unless they are doing it on their own property or with the owner’s consent.
    The law sees graffiti and tagging the same. And most off the time the graffiti artist know they are doing something illegal and lots of times they are trespassing on the property too. I’m sure Chase wouldn’t like the outside of his studio to be graffiti by some “artist” w/o his consent and than have pictures taken by another artist and post it all over. It might not be appropriate for his location.and degrading the value of the property that is around him. Yes I know beautiful graffiti usually take time to be done in front of someone store as opposed to tagging. Some people see the graffiti to as downgrading the neighborhood and it causes a lot of damage and frustration.
    I had my house graffiti and tagged few times and I didn’t like it. I had to clean it myself and on about half a dozen times I helped to clean it on my friend’s property too. Wasting our time and money.
    The whole stage with Lara was planned…. so how can be photojournalism ? It actually encouraged. And people usually go extra step knowing than they are being watched, taped or photographed.

  32. Jason May 14, 2010 at 9:04 am #

    Chase, I love you man, BUT…….

    I totally disagree. Here’s the thing. It’s all about calculated risk. :) If you CHOOSE to express yourself as an artist doing something that COULD be considered illegal, than you should be prepared to deal with the consequences, AND have a lawyer on speed dial. Same thing is true for war photographers. They SHOULD be there shooting and documenting, BUT they should also have their Wills and affairs in order, and maybe consider wearing a bullet-proof vest. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s not about right or wrong, but common sense.

    By all means, keep shooting, but know that every action has a reaction.

    And to comment @ Kennon above, Have YOU ever cleaned graffiti off of your own personal property? C’mon…. Maybe as “punishment,” Lara should have to ride around with the city workers documenting the cleaning of unauthorized graffiti off of public property.

  33. Mark May 14, 2010 at 9:34 am #

    When Photography is outlawed, only criminals will have cameras.

  34. Susheel Chandradhas May 14, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    As a civilian, and not an accredited photojournalist, you’re obliged to report a crime if you see it being committed. This is a duty that you owe your country. Else, every criminal could carry a camera and claim that he was just documenting the act being committed.

    If you are a civilian and you fail to report the crime, you are in fact aiding the person who is committing it. Whether it is minor or not is irrelevant.

    If you have a photojournalist’s ID card, then things are different.

    Chase, I think you’re way off on this call. From a legal POV, not from an artist’s perspective. As an artist we are forced to preserve and spread our art.

  35. keith robins May 16, 2010 at 1:50 am #

    TV is overloaded these days with CCTV footage of crimes being committed yet do the carriers / operators of these video cameras get arrested? I wear a yellow reflective jacket and take photos at all sorts of events but never once have I been asked what I was doing. In fact several passersby have asked me directions as if I was a public official, one even told me of a mugging down the road thinking I was a policeman!
    Ensure you stand out, ask permission, carry ID, smile a lot and never lose your temper or make sly remarks under your breath. Did our unfortunate friend provoke the authorities in any way, or was he just brash enough to think a camera was the only defence required to keep him out of trouble?
    I would love the opportunity to photograph a couple of grafitti artists in action, but without my ID or yellow jacket I’d make sure I could run fast.

  36. Alex May 16, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    As a business owner and have vehicles and a building. I wouldn’t be to thrilled about my property being someone else’s canvas. Granted some work is beautiful art and I appreciate it. Gang, unitelligeable and scribbles on my trucks are quite annoying. Although photojournalists seem to want a disconnect from the happenings around them, you are still citizens of this (and or your) country. Interesting place to be. I can see if he coaxed, paid or goaded them into doing this, I would take issue with it. If documenting like a casual observer, then this somehow turned into a circus to curb vandalism. This would set a bad precedent for any and all news reporting as well. Photos of the looting after Katrina… Hmmm how many can you think of? Or shot yourself for that matter.

  37. Macnimation May 17, 2010 at 1:01 am #

    What about cops sitting on so called stake outs and watching drug dealing going on and ignoring it because the want to catch the “bigger fish”. Does this mean the cops are breaking the law then?

  38. Egjunk May 19, 2010 at 7:26 pm #

    This is definitely a gray area. One could get a friend to record the graffiti and the friend could be absolved of it, even though they would be essentially being part of the crime. It definitely depends on intent and the circumstances leading to the crime. What if it were a bank robbery? murder? rape? The photographer would then have the duty to stop the crime.

  39. Janjan Perez June 1, 2010 at 11:09 pm #

    I’m both a photographer and a practicing criminal law litigator (private practice).

    I’ve gone against a lot of Public Defenders and in all honesty, a lot of them are quite good at what they do.

    So with all due respect Chase, let the Public Defender do his job. He knows the law better than you do. The best defense is not necessarily the most obvious one.

  40. M January 31, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    Professional media people understand law quite well, just ask ANY news reporter.

  41. M January 31, 2011 at 6:57 pm #

    I wonder if this concerns the mandatory dash mounted cameras on all police vehicles or the countless security cameras at every shopping center, gas station, city bus, school bus, ATM machine, grocery store, DHS, DOT, DMV, bank, traffic cam, park cameras, parking lot cams, bridge cams, and mobile phone cameras?

  42. Nikon D5100 Reviews January 20, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    Why doesn’t every reporter or photographer for a major network get arrested when they arrive prior to the police. They have scanners and often beat the police to crime scenes.

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