A couple of years ago I was forced to examine what it takes to be an American in America today. I was walking down the sidewalk, with my camera, taking pictures of anything that sparked my interest. Consequently, since I was photographing near a military installation, I had peaked the interest of some concerned individuals. Mainly, the military police of the base I was near. McConnell AFB.
I was near the back gate of the base casually walking along the sidewalk when a white, unmarked vehicle pulls alongside. Two Air Force fellows get out and approach me. Much to my surprise. “May I ask what you are doing?”, one of them asks as they near. I told them I was taking pictures. “Of what?” he says. Nothing, in particular, was the answer I gave and quickly, the more vocal of the two airmen stated that I am unable to photograph around here because of the base. Not knowing any better I apologized and put my camera away. And they left.
Later, I realized that the encounter affected me on two fronts. The projection of authority made me instantly comply, with an apology, for my not ‘knowing’ any better. I also thought that if I can’t take pictures around here where and what can I take photos of? So I did my research.
The first amendment, of the Bill of Rights, allows American citizens the freedom of speech, to assemble and petition, to believe in any religion, and the right to free press. The Free press part of the 1st amendment means that I, not just print or television news, may take pictures of anything or anyone I so desire. As long as I am in public and on public land. The Supreme Court of the United States has clarified this to a degree that allows me to take photography to a whole new level. So I did.
Armed with my new knowledge I wanted to test the limits to see just how far I can go. But how? I know. I’ll go visit the rear entrance of McConnell AFB again, with my video camera, and see if they react the same way as before.
I did some research, to make sure I was familiar with property lines because if I am not on public property this test, or ‘audit’, won’t work. Once I was familiar with where I should stand I grabbed my camera and headed out.
Walking up to the back gate of the base, I took out my video camera but did not hit play. I only have about 30 minutes of video on this particular camera so I didn’t want to press play until I was sure to have an encounter. I did not have to wait long. It took all of two minutes before I had an Air Force security vehicle leave the base grounds and pull up alongside me. Time to press ‘play’.
I videotaped the whole encounter depicting the mp’s trying to find out what I was doing. Who I was and why was I taking pictures of their base. I was nervous as hell in the beginning. You can even see my camera shaking a bit at the start. Within a few minutes, I was surrounded by three or four airmen who have never had an encounter with the likes of someone purposely taking pictures or video of the gate and guard shack. I could tell that they really didn’t know how to deal with this new, yet seemingly harmless activity suddenly compromising the security of this particular military installation. However, when it was all said and done, the security personnel passed the audit.
How did they pass? Well, the purpose of a 1st amendment audit is to show that we can take pictures and videos, in public, of whatever we want, whoever we want, and where we want as long as it is public. The McConnell Air Force security forces who responded to my Constitutionally protected act did not keep me from taking any photos or video. They did not identify me. They tried very hard to find out who I was; although, I did give up my first name as a courtesy, but that’s all they got. Since I did not break any laws they could not legally ask for my ID. So, I was allowed to finish and be on my way.
Before this event, I did not know the border of the free press and just how far I could take photography. However, with just a little study I know now that I have the power. The same power the paparazzi possesses while taking pictures of celebrities in public. I have also. Just as the local television news cameras record footage of crime scenes from behind the yellow tape. So can I. I have that power now because now I know. To know, regardless of context, is so empowering. Knowledge is power.
Blogger, Photographer, Activist