Monday, May 21, 2012

Your Papers Please?



On the 20th of May as I was photographing at the corner of  9th and Sansom, a Philadelphia police officer dismounted his bike and asked me what I was I doing. I replied in a calm, normal tone: “Public street, I’m photographing.”  At the time of the encounter, I was intently aiming, from pedestrian level, a small lens at the window of an abandoned dry cleaning establishment. No part of my body or camera was in contact with the building. From my viewfinder I could see pretty much what an image search on Google Earth would reveal. I.D. was demanded.  No explanation was given except rather mechanical responses that told me little and some vague reference to “living in a post-911 world, the Patriot Act and ‘I’m just doing my job.’” No other inquiry was forthcoming. He would hear none of my protestations and was told if I continued I would be hauled in where they would lecture ME. Bottom line: I was harassed and treated like a criminal for no probable cause.

I was doing my job as well. I live, work and exhibit here. I pay sales, real estate, business, and net profits taxes. I’ve even worked for the City of Philadelphia doing photography as part of The Mural Arts Project. My charge is to reflect what is, which entails countless unpaid hours simply looking and literally thousands of image-captures. It involves miles of pounding pavement, in all kinds of weather, with valuable equipment out in plain sight under constant specter of experiencing theft, harangues and personal injury. Now I have to worry about the cops too?

Since 1994, I’ve walked nearly every street in central Philly, much of West and South Philly, in some of the worst neighborhoods and the saddest careworn streets. I’ve always shot from where pedestrians can readily access in spite of the temptation to trespass to get a better shot. I work alone, silently, joyously, like a tourist enjoying the sights; frequently greeting strangers I encounter. How ironic that yesterday’s first photograph was that of a downy baby bird and when I was apprehended, I was photographing an accumulation of dust.

I’m not here to debate the idiocy of the Patriot Act or the utter foolish nonsense of the American political landscape. The broader implications of this small incident are chilling and reveal volumes about the decline I’ve witnessed in America and the insidious and evil war against art, artists, freedom, and truth. It gives me great sadness to even have to think about venting such mental stench as this so I can get on to things of substance.


RA Friedman