Photography and Freedom

January 25th, 2007

D20 3807 Photography and FreedomI saw Joel Meyerowitz last night. He was giving a talk about his work at Ground Zero in NYC during the cleanup. He has a book out of the images he made there. The story of how he came to do those photos was compelling and had some important messages for all of us. It’s nice to encounter such a well spoken photographer, since so many of us are known for our inability to talk about what we do in a coherent manner…myself included.

Meyerowitz is a NYC native, but happened to be out of town on 9/11. As soon as he was able to get back into the city he went to see the site of the attack. When he got there he found the site blocked off with fence covered by tarps so no one could see anything. While he was looking he picked up his Leica to take a few snaps. Almost immediately a policewoman tapped him on the shoulder and told him all photography was forbidden.

I understand the rage he felt in response to that. I feel it any time anyone tries to tell me I can’t photograph. This is America. We are supposed to be free. No one has the right to stop us from photographing. And what we do with our cameras is important and powerful. So important and powerful that some in authority feel they must stop us from doing it because we are a threat.

Well, Meyerowitz knew that photos had to be taken of the cleanup at Ground Zero. It was important. There needed to be a record for the future and as a way of healing for all of us who have been affected by the horrible events of 9/11. So he did something about it.

Through a variety of means Meyerowitz managed to get into the site and make photos. At first he would be thrown out several times a day and simply walked to a different entry point and went back in. He didn’t sneak around to do his work. In fact, he did most of the photos with an 8×10 view camera. After a time Meyerowitz made friends with many of the people working at the site and soon they were helping him stay there whenever he was challenged.

It’s also worth noting that although he ended up being the only photographer who was able to document the cleanup, that wasn’t how Meyerowitz wanted it to be. In fact, he sent a written proposal to the mayor asking for a team of 6 photographers to be given permission to work there to produce a photographic archive. He never received a response to that proposal. So he did the job alone.

Thanks to Meyerowitz there is now an archive of fine photos to help us remember what went on in that cleanup operation. We all owe him a debt for that.

And we need to remember that we must defend our freedoms, including the freedom to photograph, from those who would stop us.

This reminded me of a memorial service for an uncle that I attended recently. His daughters spoke at the service and one of the many things they mentioned about their father was that he taught them that “No Trespassing” signs meant “Come on in and look around.”

Which, of course, harkens to the verse by Woody Guthrie:

I saw a sign
Sign said, “No Trespassing”
The other side of the sign didn’t say nothin’
That side was made for you and me.

That’s how we as photographers should be looking at the world.

This is getting long so I’ll stop and maybe write more about this and related subjects in future posts. But it reminded me that I must be careful to make sure I never let anyone tell me where I can or cannot make photos. And it reminded me of the times when someone has tried to do that to me and just how angry that can make me. When anyone tries to restrict our freedom to photograph what and where we want, it is the responsibility of all of us to stand up and protest. We can’t allow that in our free society or we have lost what is most precious. Thank you Joel Meyerowitz for not listening to the bureaucratic idiots who tried to stop you from doing what needed to be done.

The photo is, of course, Nola again in her attic, a private place that she shared with me so we could use it to make some art. Thanks, Nola.

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About this Blog

Photos and comments by Dave Levingston. This is the place to see my most recent work which may include nudes, dance, landscape, nature and whatever other kinds of photos I feel like taking.

Since it does contain nude photos, this blog is not intended for viewing by anyone under the age of 18.

All photographs and written comments on this blog are protected by the copyright laws of the United States.

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