Hello. I'm attaching an open letter regarding an incident that took place in
January. I was stopped from filming out of a train window and had my film
confiscated and turned over to the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the FBI.
I went to the ACLU, and have been assisted by a lawyer at the NYCLU (New
York Civil Liberties Union). I wrote a piece about it and included the
attached letter in the last issue of Filmmaker Magazine.
Recently, the lawyer called to say that the FBI was returning the film, as
it had been cleared by the authorities. When I went to pick it up, I found
that the original box and reel had been sent back, but the reel was empty,
save for a few inches of film. The matter remains unresolved, and for me,
Most of us are inundated with email, and I had mixed feelings about sending
yet another mass missive. Please forgive the intrusion.
I'm not asking for you to do anything, and that includes write me back.
I'm sending this simply because I feel that people should know about such
incidents. You are welcome to pass along the attached letter, although I
would prefer that my email address not be made entirely public.
I would be glad to talk to the press about it, although an editor I spoke to
at the New York Times suggested that it might not be of interest to the
media because such incidents are becoming too commonplace.
Thank you for having a look.
An open letter to the film and arts community:
On January 7th, 2005, I was filming from the window of an Amtrak train going
from New York to Washington D.C., and my film was confiscated by police, due
to supposed national security concerns. At first, I was told by a ticket
taker that I couldn't shoot because I was in the 'quiet car,' but when I got
ready to move, he said I couldn't shoot at all. I explained that I was a
filmmaker who'd done this for years, and politely asked to speak with
someone else about it. I stopped filming, waited, and asked again, but no
one came. When the train stopped in Philadelphia, at least four uniformed
officers entered the car and demanded that I step off the train with the
camera. They took my personal information and told me to give them the film
from the camera. Not wanting to ruin it, I insisted on rewinding the roll,
which I then gave up. Upon arrival in D.C., I was immediately met and
questioned by more officials, this time out of uniform. My film has
apparently been given to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and then to the
F.B.I. As of this writing, I have not been able to get it back. (I took my
case to the American Civil Liberties Union, who are working on it).
I'd been shooting in 16mm, using an old, hand-wound Bolex. 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 build projects
from an archive of footage collected in my daily wanderings, and in travels
across this country and overseas. I film buildings and passersby, the sky,
streets, and waterways; the structures that make up our cities, life as it
is lived. I cannot pre-plan and attempt to obtain permits every time that I
shoot; it is an inherently spontaneous act done in response to daily life
and unannounced events.
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. In New York, the MTA
apparently intends to forbid all unpermitted photography of and from its
trains and subways. I have heard about a film location scout in upstate New
York being interrogated for hours, even after presenting clear documentation
that he was working for a legitimate production company; about documentary
crews having their license plates called in and being visited by the FBI;
about photojournalists working for the New York Times being stopped from
doing the work that they have always done.
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.
I write this to urge the film and arts communities to keep a
record of such incidents and to notify their representatives in Congress and
such organizations as the ACLU when they occur. This is also a call to
publications, curators, and programmers: I recommend that you make the
public aware of what important past work would not exist if these
restrictions had been in place.
Lastly, I write this to encourage a more general awareness of the ways in
which, under the rubric of an endless "war on terror," we are seeing the
denigration of due process, free speech, and the right to privacy, which are
crucial safeguards of a free and democratic society.
As printed in Filmmaker Magazine, Spring 2005
I was recently informed by my contact lawyer at the New York Civil Liberties
Union office that the FBI was returning my film, as it had been cleared by
the authorities. When I got to the office I was relieved to see the original
film container. Unfortunately, the reel inside it was empty, save for a few
inches of film.
One bit of great news: faced with opposition from the public and the NYCLU,
the MTA has backed down from its proposal to ban photography in and of the