Sunday, November 18, 2007

Making Communist Yugoslavia look good

It's certainly very special when the Home of the Free makes Communist Yugoslavia under a despotic totalitarian government look good, but the experience of photographers in the USA is doing that.

Avram Grumer explains:

Back in the ’80s, my parents (who are Balkan folk dance enthusiasts) visited what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a Communist nation. While there, my father photographed a picturesque lake. He snapped off a shot or two, and was interrupted by a government official who told him that photographing that lake was forbidden, due to the presence of some militarily sensitive facility (I forget what; a power plant or something). My father put the camera away, and that was it. They didn’t confiscate the camera or the film, didn’t make him expose the roll to the light, didn’t haul my parents off for an interrogation. A print of the photo hung on my parents’ wall for years; no sort of industrial facility is visible in it. It’s just a photo of a pretty lake.

Compare that with the treatment this Japanese tourist got at the hands of Amtrak and the New Haven police:

The Japanese tourist was ordered by a conductor on an Amtrak train from New York to Boston to stop taking photos of the scenery "in the interests of national security", and threatened to confiscate his camera. The tourist, who spoke little English, complied with the order and put the camera away in his bag. Nevertheless, at the next stop, the train was bordered by police, who threatened to remove him with force:

The police speak through the interpreter, with the impatience of authority. [...] The officers explain, “After we remove him from the train, when we are through our investigation, we will put him on the next train.” The woman translates. The passenger replies, “I’m meeting relatives in Boston. They cannot be reached by phone. They expect me and will be worried when I do not arrive on schedule.” “Our task,” the police repeat, "is to remove you from this train. If necessary, we will do so by force. After we have finished the investigation, we’ll put you on another train.” The woman translates. The traveler gathers his belongings and departs.

To add insult to injury, it turns out that Amtrak has no such policy prohibiting photography on their trains.

The witness to these events wrote:

It doesn't take more than five minutes, in any airport in this country, before I hear the loudspeaker, "The current terror threat is elevated." We hear “terror” endlessly – traveling, at home, on television, in the news. Recent political campaigns have reminded – no, badgered – us, to be very afraid. What did Franklin Roosevelt say, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Terror. Paranoia. We can no longer differentiate between terrors. Is this our generation’s enlightened contribution to American culture?

Watching police escort a visitor off the train, I felt anger, not comfort. This action was beyond irritating. It is intolerable, unacceptable. If it bothered me, it paled in comparison to the way it inconvenienced, and will long trouble, this visitor to our country. We disrupted his travel plans and family reunion. Even greater than the psychological damage we inflicted is the harm we’ve done to ourselves. We missed an opportunity to show kindness, to be ambassadors of goodwill. The visitor will return home. He will indeed impress many people – not with pleasant memories and pictures of a quiet morning trip along the New England coast, but with a story of being removed and detained by American police for taking pictures. Do we imagine we’ve gained anything because a single visitor returns home with stories of mistreatment?

Such blatant attempts to intimidate photographers aren't limited to tourists or Arabs. Avram Grumer links to a number of sites documenting these incidents. At one of these sites, "C.E." explains that he's been a professional photographer for thirty years, been taking photos all over the world, during martial law, before and after military coups and terrorist bombings, and even once accidentally inside a military base, and he's never been subject to as much harassment as he receives in the USA. And he is an American.

I think the best, or at least the most amusing, comment explaining why these events are becoming more common came from Chris Waller, talking about the similar situation in the UK:

Increasingly in Britain a lot of overweight young men of low intelligence who are otherwise unemployable are being stuffed into ill-fitting uniforms and given the idea that they are saving the Western world from sinking into chaos as a result of terrorism.

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