“You push the button, we do the
rest.” Eastman Kodak advertising the
first Kodak Box camera, 1888.
Barely sixty years after photography was invented the original Kodak
Box Camera brought photography to the masses.
With a Kodak Box Camera anyone could take a photograph simply, without specialized
equipment or the chemical knowledge required by early glass plate photographic
image-making. With the invention of
photography, and especially after George Eastman brought photography to
everyone, people everywhere began documenting their lives. A rich, detailed, visual history of humanity was
begun in the late 1800s because photography became easy and affordable. The ability of the everyman to document his
life changed the world. And the world
changed in profound ways. It became more
visual, distant places were brought near thanks to the photographic print, and
things unseen, or seen by very few, could now be seen by many.
The invention of photography was one of the most important,
zeitgeist-changing technological advances ever.
Visual communication changed forever with the Kodak Box Camera and even
more so by 1900 with the even more user-friendly roll-film Kodak Brownie
Camera. But today, nearly a century and
a quarter after the Kodak Box Camera, it is the lightweight and simple-to-use cel-phone
video camera that may prove to be an even more important technological
invention leading to widespread social change.
To put things in context, here is a very brief history of photography,
video, and cellular phones:
1827 Nicéphore Niépce makes the first
photograph, which took days to expose.
Louis Daguerre develops the daguerreotype
process, which took hours to expose.
The Glass Plate negative invented.
1840 William Henry Fox Talbot invents the
Calotype paper negative process.
1888 Kodak Box Camera introduced.
1900 Kodak Brownie, roll-film camera
1935 Kodachrome color transparency invented.
1983 Sony released the first consumer video
1983 First commercial cellular phone.
Kodak scientists develop the
Bayer-pattern sensor for digital cameras.
First consumer digital video cameras
2000 First cel-phone still camera, Samsung,
2006 650 million camera phones sold.
2007 Video capabilities added to cel-phone
2010 The worldwide number of camera phones
totals more than a billion.
In terms of easy and inexpensive image-making, photography has made
many profound technological advances in the past 189 years. But some other things, such as violent human
nature and abuse of authority have not changed at all.
With still and video capabilities available on a device that’s
relatively inexpensive, fits in a shirt pocket, and with such simplified
operation that virtually anyone can shoot a still photo or video I’m a little
disheartened that the narcissistic ‘selfie’ has become the commonplace
photograph of our time. With cameras in
everyone’s pocket, at the ready, I’d hoped to see some photos of such elusive
The Loch Ness
Any kind of
But we’re not seeing those photos.
Maybe those things don’t exist?
Or perhaps ‘phone photographers’ are missing the shots? Maybe the UFOs and aliens really can disable
electronic devices? We’re not seeing new
discoveries captured on cel-phone video, but we are seeing more videos of
what’s been going on for a long time, but rarely filmed until 2007:
Police, abusing their authority and murdering or beating the shit out
of innocent people.
Personally I’d rather see a
high-resolution image of a UFO, but society needs
to see authority figures behaving badly.
And let’s face facts here, unless you’re Caucasian/white, you know the police can beat the hell out of
you or even kill you with impunity. Most
white people know this too, but won’t admit it because they are the
beneficiaries of ‘white privilege’ and aren’t as effected by police brutality
as non-whites. But although I’m a gringo
even I’ve known since I was a little kid that the police are not really
our ‘friends’ and they can get away with pretty much any type of bad (and
illegal for the rest of us) behavior.
Even as a never-arrested, law-abiding, ‘privileged’ white guy, I’ve
had my share of run-ins with Bad Cops:
· The first time I saw my mother cry was when a
cop was leaning into the car, pointing his finger in her face, and screaming at
her. I think I was about 5 or 6 years
old and scared to death. I blame my fear
of, and life-long lack of respect for authority figures on this incident. This happened in Kansas.
· In high school I worked at a burger joint and I
rode a small, 90cc motorcycle. After
closing one night I rode home at about 1am.
When I pulled into my driveway, the place lit up with blue and red
lights and the next thing I knew I was being pulled off the bike and thrown
against my parents’ house. Two cops,
with guns pointed at my face, were arresting me for ‘stealing’ my own
motorcycle! They had no interest in my
protestations and nothing I said got their attention. What did
get their attention was the pump of 12-gauge shotgun held by my father,
standing behind them. Only upon staring
down the barrel of a weapon held by my Dad did they choose to listen to
reason. My family should have sued, but
instead the cops apologized to my Dad (but not to me) and left. This happened in Texas. And yes, I had my motorcycle license and my
Dad had the title to the bike.
· At the age of about 35 I got pulled over by a
traffic cop for allegedly speeding.
Before I could even get off the motorcycle he began berating and
screaming at me. I feared for my life;
I’d pulled over immediately and complied with his orders, except for one. I refused to remove my helmet because I
really did fear I’d be killed or beaten.
(There is no law that requires a motorcyclist to remove a helmet and I
didn’t need a head injury at the hands of a cop.) At that point I was handcuffed and tossed
into the back of the police car. The cop
actually screamed at me: “I can blow your fucking head off and toss your body
off that cliff, nobody will find your body, you piece of shit.” This kind of verbal abuse and intimidation
went on for over half an hour. Finally,
something came over the cops’ radio and he dragged me out of his car,
un-handcuffed me and drove off in a big hurry.
I was not ticketed. This happened
· Post 9/11, a rent-a-cop pointed a gun at me when
I aimed my camera at a public building.
I was not detained or shot but I didn’t get my client’s photo
either. This has happened a lot to
photographers after the terrorism of 9/11.
Photographers are easy marks for police harassment because we’re
unarmed. I was standing on a public
sidewalk. Photography is not an illegal
activity and there were no ‘no photography’ signs.
· I thought police harassing photographers was
confined to the city until I was harassed, asked for I.D. and subjected to a
lengthy and intimidating lecture while I was photographing a cactus in the
desert. I was fifty miles from the nearest
city and completely alone! The officer’s
excuse for detaining and questioning me was because, according to him, “…a
number of dead bodies have been found along this road.” The next day I checked the local news and verified
that the policeman was lying, no bodies had ever been found along that road. It’s really annoying to have to show a cop
your identification when taking a picture of a cactus in the middle of nowhere!
· At the ‘mature’ age of ‘well over fifty’ I was
pulled over by a traffic cop with my wife in the car with me. For over half an hour I had to listen to an
idiot cop lecture. It was intimidating,
emasculating and was extremely frightening.
I told the officer that he was causing both me and my wife to fear for
our lives. Was he going to kill us? That prompted another twenty-minute tirade
about the second amendment. All the
while I’m sitting in the car trying to shut up and be calm and just stay
alive. I noticed the cop was wearing a
bullet-proof vest, I could see the bulge of a weapon in an ankle holster under
his pant leg, he had a 9mm Glock in his belt holster, he had a Taser, and he
had a fire-extinguisher sized pepper spray.
I was unarmed and wearing a t-shirt!
We were not ticketed. My wife was
so frightened she begged me to go home, we never made the event we were going
to attend. This happened in Arizona.
That’s just a half-dozen of the many incidents that I have been
involved in personally. I list these
incidents to illustrate just how bad the police can be. None of these incidents were of major
importance nor involved any criminal act or endangerment to anyone (except me,
at the hands of the police). And to
restate, I’m a Caucasian, male, I’ve never been arrested and I do not have a
criminal record. I’m a good boy and a
law-abiding citizen, but I’m sure if I were non-white I wouldn’t be alive to
write this. As a result of these
incidents I am convinced of two things: 1) my ‘whiteness’ saved my life, and 2)
all cops are assholes.
Of course that’s just my opinion…
Based on personal experience… (In
that respect I’m no different than the average African-American man.) Yes, I’ve had a few encounters with ‘nice’
cops but in my view, about ninety-nine percent of them are assholes and liars. Unfortunately the problem with cops is you
can’t tell the good ones from the bad ones until it’s too late, or you’re dead. For one’s own safety one must assume that all cops
are killers. Cops do the same thing,
they assume all black men are criminals – which is exactly why so many
innocent, unarmed black dudes are murdered by cops. As far as I’m concerned all cops are potential murderers until they prove themselves to me that they’re not. The cops’ reputation precedes them and
currently that reputation is that of a killer, not a friend.
The only thing that can stop
a ‘bad guy with a gun’ who’s also got a badge and bad attitude is someone with
a video camera. Video cameras scare the
hell out of cops because they know they can’t lie their way out of their own
criminal acts caught on tape –although they do try and often their lies still allow
them to get away with murder in our corrupt system.
Now let’s look at an abbreviated history of photography, video, civil
rights and police killing or beating the shit out of unarmed Black Men:
The colony of Carolina developed the
nation's first slave patrol.
institution of slavery and the control of minorities, however, were two of the
more formidable historic features of American society shaping early policing.
Slave patrols and Night Watches, which later became modern police departments,
were both designed to control the behaviors of minorities.
1751 First American Police Force,
1807 First American Police Force, Richmond,
American Police Force formed in Boston.1845
American Police Force, New York.
1861 United States Civil War begins.
1865 United States Civil War ends. The 13th Amendment to the United
States Constitution frees the slaves.
– 1972 Gordon Parks (an African-American) serves as photographer for Life Magazine documenting the civil
rights movement.1970 Kent State and Jackson State. In May 1970, the collective student body of
the United States erupted in protest over President Richard Nixon’s invasion of
Cambodia. On May 4th, students at Kent
State were shot at by Ohio National Guard. Nine were wounded and four were
killed. On May 15th, in Mississippi, at Jackson State, a large group of
students had protested throughout the day. That night, police fired over 140
shotgun blasts at the group of students, killing two and injuring twelve. This was extensively covered by television
and print media.
released the first consumer video camcorder.
King beating. Era of ‘Citizen
Riots as a result of police acquittal for the Rodney King beating.
2005 Robert Davis, a black man and retired
elementary school teacher from New Orleans, was arrested and brutally beaten by
police on suspicion of public intoxication.
The beatings were videotaped by an Associated Press producer, who was
also assaulted by police that night. The officers were either fired or
suspended for their involvement, but many of the charges against them were
2007 Video capabilities added to cel-phone
Christopher Harris was outside Seattle’s
Cinerama Theater when an officer charged at him and slammed his head into a
wall, leaving him in a coma. Police were looking for a convenience store
stabbing suspect when two witnesses mistakenly identified Harris. The King
County sheriff's office investigated of the incident and says that it appears
to have been a "tragic accident."
This was recorded by surveillance video.
2014 Michael Brown, an 18-year old black man
in Ferguson, Missouri, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, 28, a white police
2014 Kajieme Powell was reportedly carrying a
knife, seemingly no larger than a steak knife, when police shot him down. We learned later that a bystander had
videotaped the entire incident on his cell phone, from before the cop car
pulled up to the scene, until Powell lay motionless on the ground as officers
cuffed him. The video has put on full, unadulterated display what it looks like
for cops to shoot a man down just seconds after arriving on the scene, without
trying any other mitigating measures first.
2014 Eric Garner. Garner was killed after a New York police
officer used a banned chokehold technique to restrain him, despite being
unarmed. He was wrestled to the ground by several police officers after a
complaint he was illegally selling loose cigarettes. In a video that went
viral, the black 43-year-old said: "I can't breathe" which was soon
adopted by protesters after Daniel Pantaleo, the only officer that was
investigated by a grand jury, was not charged.
2014 Tamir Rice. Twelve-year-old Rice was shot by Ohio police
in a public park as he was playing with a BB gun. It was reported at the time
that a man called police saying someone was brandishing a pistol but added it
was "probably fake". The police claimed Rice reached into his
waistband for the toy gun when the two officers ordered him to raise his hands. Cleveland city claimed Rice's injuries - and
subsequent death - “were directly and proximately caused by their own acts, not
this defendant” in response to the family's lawsuit. In the lawsuit, the family
accuses officers Frank Garmback and Timothy Loehmann of acting recklessly and
failing to provide first aid and also name the city of Cleveland as a
2015 Sureshbhai Patel. Mr. Patel was left partially paralyzed, his
family says, after being beaten by police in Alabama. The FBI has launched an
investigation into what happened to the Indian grandfather after his encounter
with police. A police officer has been arrested accused of badly injuring the
man. In a video released by police, it shows an officer throwing Mr. Patel to
the ground after officers stopped the man. He had been walking when police said
officers tried talking to the man who spoke little English. Larry Muncey,
Madison Police chief, announced last month that officer Eric Parker would be
fired and he has pleaded not guilty
I have to conclude the list here in its woefully incomplete form. This shit just goes on and on and on, these are
some of the ‘lowlights.’
We can see it almost every week on television news; ‘authorities’ and
‘leaders’ like police and politicians behave in aggressively stupid ways and
try to lie their way out of their own illegal, immoral, unethical and abusive
acts all the while their hideous deeds exist on video for all to see. Why do they lie knowing there is video that
contradicts their stories? Because for
so long there had been no record of
their wrongdoing and they knew their positions of authority granted them
immunity from penetrating questions. For
decades every cop knew that merely being a cop made them instantly
credible. For decades no one would
question a cop’s word, all the while disbelieving the black man --no matter how
credible ‘the black man’ might be. And
the police also knew that their cop-buddies would cover for them. Lying liars who support other liars while
noncriminal minorities lie dead on the ground.
They ignored the visual facts of video because for so long there was no
video, no visual record of their misdeeds, so they continue to lie today. They’re simply used to lying and getting away
with murder as standard operating procedure.
Although this won’t last forever in the new age of ‘citizen journalism,’
change is going to take quite some time; perhaps a decade or a generation. And no one changes their behavior until they first change the way they think; and cops still think they’re above the very laws they’re
tasked to enforce.
Today the ‘bad guys in blue’ use lame, weak and fallacious arguments
when their illegal acts are caught on video, like the videos being ‘edited,’
‘faked,’ or ‘taken out of context.’ But
video, unlike human perception, is easily analyzed and proven (or disproven)
authentic and those who abuse their authority are beginning to have their lies
exposed. Many police cars use dash-cams
that mysteriously fail or point in the wrong direction when the police are busy
abusing, beating and murdering their victims.
The call for ‘body-cams’ is a good idea that will easily be defeated
when the cop ‘accidently’ shuts off or disables the camera. I suspect the all-too-typical refrain of
‘he’s trying to get my gun!’ will be augmented with ‘the bad guy smashed my
body camera – if he hadn’t done that you’d see I was justified.’
Meanwhile the police act as if photography is an illegal
activity. It isn’t. The police want to make photographing and
videotaping them a criminal act with the knowledge that without video of their own criminal acts, they get away
with it. I’ve been a victim of
cop-photographer intimidation on more than one occasion and to be completely
honest, knowing that the law was on
my side was in no way helpful in the face of knowing the cop could kill me on the spot. And the cop who’d kill me? He’d get a paid vacation while a farcical
‘internal investigation’ took place while the police department trashed my
Again I reassert my whiteness.
I’m lucky! If I were black I’d be
dead at the hands of a policeman by now.
And this is normal, but none of my white friends get it. One of my (seemingly more intelligent) white
friends was amazed that the black guy on TV tried to run away, “Why doesn’t he
obey the policeman’s commands?” he asked.
Because, my clueless white friend, that black man knows he’s got no chance
with that white cop. He knows, guilty or innocent, he’s probably
going to die, so by running away he’s at least got a chance to survive his cop-encounter. This seems perfectly logical to me. Avoid the bad guy! But my dear dumbass white friend has been a
beneficiary of ‘white privilege’ his entire life and cannot comprehend that certain groups of people have a
generations-long legitimate fear of the police.
I’m sorry to say, but my white friend is part of the problem. He’s part of the problem because he doesn’t
recognize there is a problem because
it’s not affected him personally. He lives in a white neighborhood, his kids
went to white schools, he votes for white conservative pro-law enforcement
politicians who share his point of view and just doesn’t get it that different
demographic groups (re: dark-skinned people) might have a different experience. He thinks (without much effort, critical
thought or analysis) that if the cops detain someone then that person must have done something to deserve it. And
my dear white friend has a smartphone. I
wonder if he’d video a cop abusing a minority?
I hope he would because if he doesn’t, he could be a racist.
If we look at history, policing doesn’t have a good reputation in the
black community and never has. The very
first police forces, going back to the 1700s were founded specifically to round
up escaped slaves, who, by the way, were
black! A three-hundred year-old
institutional mindset isn’t going to change overnight but, thanks to easily
shot and shared cellphone video, it will.
The name Philippe Kahn should be remembered by history – and loathed
by police because Mr. Kahn was the inventor of the cellphone camera. In 1997 Mr. Kahn wired his cellphone, laptop
and a digital camera together to document and share the birth of his daughter. This began the era of cellphone
photography. A decade later, in 2007,
video capabilities were added and now, just short of a decade of cellphone
video later the ‘home movie’ isn’t what it used to be!
The social impact of cel-phone camera still and video photography has
been amplified tenfold thanks to the ease of sharing the imagery. Social media and free video websites like
YouTube allow for huge, instant-audiences for all kinds of imagery –including
videos of ‘authorities behaving badly.’
No longer are non-photojournalist images ignored and unpublished. Prior to the age of ‘citizen journalism’ a
photographer, videographer or filmmaker had to have a client, a publisher, to
get the images in front of the public’s eyes, but that’s not true anymore. Anyone with a cel-phone camera can upload
their pictures to the internet where they can be seen, shared, copied and
disseminated with democratic equality. In
our modern era, where just a few companies control all our news media outlets who cannot be trusted it’s best to go
around them, straight to the public, unfiltered. One person with a cel-phone video is as
powerful as CNN! The camera plus
internet sharing equals widespread awareness and only with widespread awareness
does society change. The ACLU even has a
free cellphone app called Mobile Justice
which allows the cellphone-videographer-witness-victim to record their police
interactions and immediately upload the video to the state office of the
ACLU. The immediate-upload feature is
especially useful when police (illegally) confiscate people’s cellphones. When police confiscate cellphones they’ve
effectively suppressed evidence against them –nobody ever gets their phones
back. Civil rights-era photojournalist
Gordon Parks (a black man) said, “I saw the camera could be a weapon against
poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.” A gun is a weapon that can only kill one
person at a time while the camera is a weapon that can change society. In 1961 Dr. Martin Luther King recognized
that, “The world seldom believes the horror stories of history until they are
documented via the mass media.” What Dr.
King could not foresee in 1961 is that by the early 2000s the people are the mass media.
"The fact is that photography is power," says Jay Stanley, a
senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and creator
of the organization's guide to
photographers' rights*. "People are loathe to give up power, including
Americans thought they’d made progress on civil rights and racism
after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination based on race, color, religion,
sex, or national origin illegal.
Although the act made institutional
racism illegal it did nothing to alleviate the visceral racism that still remained in the hearts and minds of many
white people. So, even with the ‘whites
only’ and ‘no Negroes’ signs removed, racism still existed in full force
quietly, subtly in the bosom of too many white Americans. Racism and discrimination never went away, it
was merely expressed less frequently, publicly.
Sexual discrimination never went away either and Americans were unable
to pass a simple, clearly worded Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S.
Constitution. Today, on average, a
female worker earns twenty-five percent less than her male counterpart doing the
same job. In 2016 a Republican
presidential candidate routinely calls women ‘pigs’ and no one cares. America has made zero progress with issues of
sexual discrimination and the progress made in terms of civil rights is
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 exposed ignorant racist
Americans at their worst. Fear and
‘terrorism’ now excuses discrimination and hatred based on religion (Muslims),
national origin (Mexicans, Syrians, Iranians, etc.), race and skin color (all
The election of Barak Obama, the first African-American President has
laid bare the hidden racism of America.
I’m sorry to have to point it out, but Americans (as a group) are more
racist than ever. We have one horrible
political party that has held 300 million Americans hostage as they spent eight
years obstructing virtually everything
‘President Blackula’ has done. I can’t
say that all Republicans are racists but the Republican Party does provide
shelter for racists.
When racism, misogyny, and unchecked hatred are combined with authorities with weapons we end up where
we are today, with fully militarized police forces terrorizing those they swore
Technology has always ‘evolved’ at a faster pace than man’s intellect,
morals and ethics. In medicine we have
technology to keep a body alive, but few ethical guidelines on when not to. Listen to our ‘fearless leaders’ (especially
conservatives) who talk, willy-nilly, about ‘nuking’ this and ‘bombing’ that
while ignoring the veracity of negotiation.
In the society we’ve created for ourselves, force beats finesse and
competition is valued over cooperation.
Although I live in a state with ‘open carry’ laws which allow any
dingbat to strap a gun to his or her belt and go to the shopping mall, I won’t
carry a gun. As a civilized person, I
don’t need a gun because my life is routinely not in danger. The only time I’ve ever felt absolute fear
for my life has been in interactions with police, the authorities, and I know,
even if I were armed, I’d have no chance whatsoever if the cop felt like
killing me, I’d be outgunned anyhow. And
I’m supposed to do whatever he says right?
If I don’t, he can just kill me for
not following his orders. All I can
do is kiss his ass, hope he’s not in a killing mood, and thank god I’m
Caucasian. This is no way to live and I
can completely relate to how minorities feel when interacting with police. When dealing with cops I’m just as scared
shitless as any black person would be.
The cops aren’t scared of me, but they are scared of my camera!
Why do police kill African-Americans at such a higher rate than white
people? The answer is simple although
they’d never admit it: police assume all black people are
criminals. It’s the inevitable
result of three-hundred years of institutional racism. They’ve been getting away with it forever,
why change now?
The camera doesn’t lie. But cops
lie –routinely. Most cops with whom I’ve
interacted care greatly about the second amendment (despite the inherent danger
to their own lives) but don’t give a damn about the first amendment. The first amendment protects journalists and
‘citizen journalists’ alike. But the era
of police lying to cover their own abuse of authority and bad behavior is
coming to an end thanks to the cel-phone video camera.
Yes, the objective, dispassionate, accurate, apolitical technology of
the pocket-sized video camera will eventually force the police and other ‘authorities’ to do the right thing
because when their crimes are laid bare for all to see they can no longer get
away with murder. Gordon Parks was
right, the camera is a weapon. It’s the best weapon to use when fighting for
The Truth. No one has ever been murdered
by a camera. A camera is not a dangerous
thing. A camera is not a tool used to
intimidate. While the police are armed
with guns which too often are used against us, we are now armed with cameras
–technology for truth! If officer Obie has
a problem being photographed then he’s afraid of the truth and your life may
very well be at risk. If the NSA can
rationalize eavesdropping on our cellphone calls by saying, “If you’re not
doing anything wrong, you have nothing to be afraid of,” then we can use the
same logic on the police. “Officer, sir,
if you’re following the rules, why fear video?”
The common police argument that videotaping somehow ‘interferes with
police duties’ is complete bullshit.
The momentum of change is upon us thanks to integrated circuits,
miniaturization of technology, Philippe Kahn, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and
Samsung. Human nature, ethics and the
abuse of authority has not changed on its own, but it is being forced to change as a result of cel-phone
video technology. For now, to preserve
our own safety we must assume all cops
are bad (the same as they assume all black men are criminals) until they
prove themselves otherwise. For
centuries we’ve given the police respect and they’ve abused it; now they must
earn it. In combination with a healthy
wariness of police we must use the video camera –and we’ve all got them in our
pockets now. The cel-phone video camera
is a dispassionate machine with no opinion or agenda, it’s a device for
recording pictures and sound –what it records is up the policeman. He can behave professionally, with respect
(so can you) or he can be an unprofessional, disrespectful criminal, either
way, ‘the tape tells the tale.’
We are at an epoch where video technology can change human nature for
the better. People do behave differently
when they know others are watching.
Continual videotaping of police will ultimately force them to be
accountable. Average citizens are filmed
by surveillance cameras every day for ‘our own safety’ on sidewalks, in parking
garages, office buildings and many public spaces; we can film the police for
the same reason, personal safety.
Photography is not illegal –and it may save your life. The cel-phone video, a democratization of
communication and documentation is the unblinking lens of objectivity which will change society and eventually make
us all better persons.
But until video forces police to change their behavior…
…this murder may be videotaped for training purposes…
*The ACLU Guide to Photographers’ Rights
Taking photographs of things that are plainly visible from public
spaces is a constitutional right – and that includes federal buildings,
transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying
out their duties. Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of
law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public
places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply.
When you are on private property, the
property owner may set rules about the taking of photographs. If you
disobey the property owner's rules, they can order you off their property (and
have you arrested for trespassing if you do not comply).
Police officers may not confiscate or demand
to view your digital photographs or video without a warrant. The
Supreme Court has ruled that police may not search your cell phone
when they arrest you, unless they get a warrant. Although the court did not
specifically rule on whether law enforcement may search other electronic devices
such as a standalone camera, the ACLU believes that the constitution broadly
prevents warrantless searches of your digital data. It is possible that courts
may approve the temporary warrantless seizure of a camera in certain extreme
“exigent” circumstances such as where necessary to save a life, or where police
have a reasonable, good-faith belief that doing so is necessary to prevent the
destruction of evidence of a crime while they seek a warrant.
Police may not delete your photographs or
video under any circumstances. Officers have faced felony
charges of evidence tampering as well as obstruction and theft for taking
a photographer’s memory card.
Police officers may legitimately order
citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law
enforcement operations. Professional officers, however, realize
that such operations are subject to public scrutiny, including by citizens
Note that the right
to photograph does not give you a right to break any other laws. For
example, if you are trespassing to take photographs, you may still be charged
If you are stopped or
detained for taking photographs:
- Always remain polite and never
physically resist a police officer.
- If stopped for photography, the right
question to ask is, "am I free to go?" If the officer says no,
then you are being detained, something that under the law an officer
cannot do without reasonable suspicion that you have or are about to
commit a crime or are in the process of doing so. Until you ask to leave,
your being stopped is considered voluntary under the law and is legal.
- If you are detained, politely ask
what crime you are suspected of committing, and remind the officer that
taking photographs is your right under the First Amendment and does not
constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Special considerations when videotaping:
With regards to videotaping, there is an important legal
distinction between a visual photographic record (fully protected) and
the audio portion of
a videotape, which some states have tried to regulate under state wiretapping
- Such laws are generally intended to accomplish the important
privacy-protecting goal of prohibiting audio "bugging" of
private conversations. However, in nearly all cases audio recording the
police is legal.
- In states that allow recording with the consent of just one
party to the conversation, you can tape your own interactions with
officers without violating wiretap statutes (since you are one of the
- In situations where you are an observer but not a part of the
conversation, or in states where all parties to a conversation must
consent to taping, the legality of taping will depend on whether the
state's prohibition on taping applies only when there is a reasonable
expectation of privacy. But no state court has held that police officers
performing their job in public have a reasonable expectation.
- The ACLU believes that laws that ban the taping of public
officials' public statements without their consent violate the First
at the airport:
Photography has also served as an important check on government
power in the airline security context.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) acknowledges that
photography is permitted in and around airline security checkpoints as long as
you're not interfering with the screening process. The TSA does ask that
its security monitors not be photographed, though it is not clear whether they
have any legal basis for such a restriction when the monitors are plainly
viewable by the traveling public.
The TSA also warns that local or airport regulations may impose
restrictions that the TSA does not. It is difficult to determine if any
localities or airport authorities actually have such rules. If you are told you
cannot take photographs in an airport you should ask what the legal authority
for that rule is.
The ACLU does not believe that restrictions
on photography in the public areas of publicly operated airports are