Jan 23, 2010


This time in English

Five years ago a filmmaker called Jem Cohen (he worked, among others, with the recently deceased Vic Chesnutt and Elliott Smith -in the video-) was stopped for filming out of a train window between New York and Washington DC and had his film confiscated and turned over to the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the FBI. He was questioned by the police and the film was never returned to him.

Today more than 2000 photographers who belong to the group 'I'm a photographer, not a terrorist' gathered in London in defense of street photography. Their manifesto says, among other things: "Photography is under attack. Across the country it that seems anyone with a camera is being targeted as a potential terrorist, whether amateur or professional, whether landscape, architectural or street photographer". They are based in the UK, but since the 9/11 attacks happened, this kind of harassment is being reported all over the western world, the so called 'free world'.

Carlos E. Ovalle, from the series of self-portraits made by the 'I'm a photographer not a terrorist' group. He says: 'In Chile they are also paranoid about this issue'.

Jem Cohen's beautiful work would have never existed if he had had to ask for a permit anytime he chose to record the outside world. After his film was confiscated he wrote a very interesting letter that was published by Filmmaker Magazine and, that, unfortunately, it didn't outdated at all. In fact, it's even more current now than it was when it was written five years ago. That scares me. You can read it all here, but I chose a few passages:

"I was filming the passing landscape as I've often done over the past 15 years. As a filmmaker who does most of my work in a documentary mode and often on the street, my role is to record the world as it is and as it unfolds. [....] I believe that it is the work and responsibility of artists to create such a record so that we can better understand, and future generations can know, how we lived, what we build, what changes, and what disappears. This has been the work of documentarians and artists including Mathew Brady, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Gary Winogrand, Robert Frank, and so on. Street shooting is one of the cornerstones of photography itself, and it is facing serious new threats, some declared, many not".

"As a filmmaker, I am concerned about what this kind of clampdown means both to our livelihood and to the public, historical record. As a citizen, I am concerned about a climate in which a person can be pulled off of a train and have their property confiscated without warning or redress. I am also, frankly, concerned about terrorism, and genuine threats to our lives and cities. This leads me to ask if these are efficient, intelligent allotments of limited law enforcement resources and personnel. Does stopping us from photographing a bridge make us safer when anybody can search the internet and see countless photographs of the same bridge? Are all of those photographs to be somehow suppressed? Given that anyone can purchase a video recorder with a lens the size of a shirtbutton or any number of hidden camera devices, are the people openly taking pictures such an actual threat? What about all of those cell phones with cameras? As Ben Franklin said: "They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Are we even gaining any safety?
Given that intimidation and the curtailing of our freedom are exactly what terrorists want, I wonder if these infringements of our civil liberties are not in fact a form of capitulation".

PD: Cohen, along with other filmmakers, fought against City Hall to get back the rights of New York photographers to shoot freely in the streets of the their city (you can read about their battle here). They won and since 2008 the NYPD can't stop photographers and filmmakers for doing their job any more (at least that's what the city says on paper).

PD> El festival Punto de Vista (5-13 de febrero, Pamplona) le dedica a Jem Cohen una retrospectiva.


  1. I search and recently came across your blog and have been reading along. It was wonderful blog.



  2. The shutters view

    I am a camera
    My job is to capture what’s in my sight
    The camera, as you probably have heard, never lies
    And that is a risk, that the evasive want to overwrite.

    My owner alters my lenses focus
    Feeling their energetic eyelash brush my finder
    Knowing that a photo has a robust influence
    To make money, to discriminate and to be a good or bad reminder.

    All of you, have looked through your albums
    A picture has such a honest, shocking flair
    It can be moving as it can be entertaining
    Instant caught emotion without dare.

    Since every second in a persons life is not the same
    But not here in the distinctive land of celluloid
    I love my life as a camera, the way that it inhibits
    And the thoughts of it being censored makes me annoyed.

    I am aware that my purpose can be exploited
    But not everyone is a terrorist or hell bent on power
    It upsets me how untrusting everything is these days
    Watching behind our backs, permission has never tasted so sour.

    My shutters view closes and reopens to the mistakes
    The guilt that’s secluded yet they both still reappear
    So why not let people just enjoy their love of photography?
    Since if they aren’t doing something wrong, they have nothing to fear!

    © Daniel North

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