NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Don’t Shoot The Messenger

The Fargo mob panicked last week over a shooting. It didn’t involve guns and the Second Amendment, though. It was touched off by a camera and the First.

By now the whole region knows about the furor generated by a would-be guardian of the peace who spotted a man taking photos above Island Park Pool. He became suspicious because he felt the photographer was “lurking” (in plain view on a public sidewalk beside a heavily traveled street at midday) and possibly photographing children in the adjacent pool area (which hadn’t yet opened for the day).

The alarmed observer posted an inflammatory warning plus his own photos of the presumed miscreant on Facebook … setting off a citywide hysteria exceeding anything spawned by an actual crime in a good long time.

(A quick note on the First Amendment: Photography has long been well-established as personal expression under its umbrella of free speech. Taking photographs of anyone and anything in a public setting is legal; the courts have established that there can be no “reasonable assumption of privacy” on public property.)

“Outed” by the admittedly well-meaning vigilante who spotted him (in plain sight), the photographer voluntarily took himself to the Fargo police, where officers reviewed his images, including those erased from his camera, and found nothing amiss.

Nevertheless, the community’s paranoia took on a life of its own. Comments about pedophilia and child porn were flung to and fro, despite the complete absence of evidence. A Clay County sheriff’s deputy actually posted via Facebook that bystanders “should of (sic) stomped out [the photographer’s] guts.”

The Park District banned him from park property for three months … ironic, since he’d actually been observed outside the park. The local daily newspaper spread his photo and name across its front page, and talk radio exploded with typically heated invective. And the ripples still are spreading. A popular website for photographers topped Monday’s news with its less-than-complimentary coverage of the Fargo story, and there’s certainly more national coverage to come.

I am purposely not using the pilloried photographer’s name here — sadly, far too little and way too late to stop the character assassination of an innocent man. He told the local newspaper Saturday, “This is destroying my life.” He said he’s changed his appearance and fears losing his job over the publicity. All that remains now is a conference with a good attorney well-versed in libel.

The incident seems to perfectly fit the formula: defamation, identification, publication, falsity, harm or injury and negligence. Check, check and check. Yes, Facebook counts as publication.

Let’s back up for a minute to the past week here in the city that’s “north of normal.” By now, the actual factual bones of the story are simple as A-B-C.

A) The photographer was doing absolutely nothing illegal, immoral or even particularly unusual. Even if he’d been shooting a pool full of kiddies, he would have been in the clear — and he wasn’t. The park and pool are public spaces, with no expectation of privacy. He was entirely within his rights under a longstanding principle firmly established by the courts.

B) Concluding he was “creepy” was the judgment of the Facebooker who started the whole debacle … along with the 4,500 who shared his post and countless more who joined them in the online echo chamber, none with firsthand knowledge of any kind.

The online photos show a well-dressed man in his 20s or 30s wearing the kind of business attire that any male office worker might sport on a summer Monday. His long-sleeved shirt struck some as sinister because the day was warm. Oh, and he had shoulder-length hair and wore sunglasses, two more obvious clues that he was up to no good. I suppose this might fit someone’s profile of a pedophile. It also adds up to an office worker who spends the workday in air conditioning, taking casual pictures in the park on his lunch hour.

C) The photographer was trying to avoid the notice of the diver whom he apparently was photographing. The whistle-blower dubbed it “lurking” because he was standing behind a wall and shooting through a window.

But the wall and window in question are entirely different than the clandestine peeping this suggests. He was standing on the public sidewalk on First Avenue South beside one of Fargo’s weirder landmarks, the freestanding facade of the long-gone Ice Arena that was preserved in the name of Art Deco design. The window offered him an eye-level vantage point of the diving board above the adjacent pool, which is well below street level.

Photographers looking for candid street photos do try to avoid drawing attention to themselves, as every photojournalist will explain. The minute people spot a camera, the dynamics change, and the critical moment is lost.

Yes, I understand how protective parents must be of their little ones. But photos of kids in swimsuits splashing happily in a public pool are about as far from actual child porn as fortune cookies are from the Fed’s economic forecasts. Nor are such summer-fun photos rare in any sense. Chances are good that the very same parents have posted photos of that sort on Facebook, Instagram and other social networking sites — up closer and a lot more personal —  where most anyone on Planet Earth can access them with ease.

Somehow the notion that photographers need permission and a release to take strangers’ photos in public has spread among the vigilant but uninformed — not just here, but in other less knowledgeable corners of the land. Lest Fargoans get too much credit for inventing this nascent fear of cameras, a quick Google search reveals our outraged north-of-normal neighbors were simply displaying the same degree of logic and calm, clear-headed thinking as another recent mob … this one down in a “Deliverance”-style corner of Appalachia.

In March, a very similar situation arose in the distant hollers of McDowell County, W.Va. As reported by WVVA-TV in Bluefield, professional photographer Marisha Camp and her brother passed through Raysal, pop. 458, on a cross-country photo documentary trip. After shooting pictures at a church revival meeting down the road, they paused to fill up their bland beige Volvo, with its suspicious Massachusetts license plates … only to find themselves boxed in at the pump by a screaming local couple in their minivan.

The furious pair had heard rumors that creepy strangers were taking pictures of their teenage sons without permission. As their shrieking drew a restive crowd, they threatened that Marisha and her companion weren’t leaving until she turned over her camera to them … and then showed her their gun.

An audio recording of the incident captures a man in the growing mob growling, “You don’t live around here. You don’t need to take a picture of even a g-d damned rock.”

A woman can be heard adding, “Have you looked at yourself in a mirror? Y’all don’t look like upstanding citizens.” She later told the TV station’s reporter, “They didn’t look the documentary part to me.”

Even though photographer Camp explained what brought her there and let her accusers click through the church-lady images on her camera — guess what, no shots of kiddies —  the threatening crowd continued to grow as the tale spread far and wide on Facebook.

Eventually, a West Virginia state trooper arrived in time to prevent a violent climax. Rather than investigating the locals who’d threatened and held the visitors against their will, he simply dispersed the still-muttering crowd and escorted the photographers out of town. Camp — who had done nothing wrong in the first place, and never taken the kid photos that supposedly inflamed the know-nothing mob — was essentially run out town.

Does any of this sound familiar, Fargo?

Photography is permitted in public areas. Period. Whether the camera-wielding suspect is male or female. Whether the camera-slinger is a teen or tottering Baby Boomer. Whether he or she is a photojournalist, a hobbyist or just an amateur snapping pix on an iPhone. If you’ve taken photos at the fairgrounds or the craft show on Broadway, you’ve benefited from the same legal principle yourself.

Have you –— or a photographer whose looks you don’t much like — happened to capture a frolicking child or a bikini-clad sunbather or a couple walking their dog or a tired retail clerk trudging back to her car after work? Perfectly OK. If you followed them home and snuck a shot in their back yard, that would be a different story. If you sold that shot to Scheels to emblazon a billboard, that’s different, too. But as long as you are in a public place, both you and others have the right to take pictures of whatever you see around you.

Not only that. The photographer doesn’t need to explain himself to you or show you his identification or let you review the images on his camera … although he very well might if you ask politely.

Vigilante “justice” misfires more often than not. Last week, a good share of Fargo went nuts over what turned out to be exactly nothing. Along the way, they destroyed the life of an innocent man.

Of course, parents want and need to protect their families from the kinds of scary threats we hear about. “Stranger danger” of the kind that fueled this episode, though, is far, far rarer than the public estimates, steeped as they are in sensational headlines, bloody crime shows and nationwide Amber alerts. Professionals who work with molested children emphasize the far greater danger lies with the people who are part of our children’s daily lives, the everyday people whom we recognize and trust.

When you see someone who looks different than you taking photos at the pool, please don’t jump off the deep end! Call the cops to investigate. Concern is good. Figuratively lynching an innocent man based on his appearance or his camera … not so much.

Facebook hysteria takes the rap for this one. It’s the equivalent of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.


One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Don’t Shoot The Messenger”

  • Therese July 20, 2015 at 8:57 pm

    Good factual information. Thanks for your rational take on this issue.


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