Photographers vs. Police: A Tale of Two Cities

Inspiration September 1st 2013 10:44 AM 3 Comments

Photographers and police officers have an interesting relationship. At one end of the spectrum everyone gets along. Each realizes the other has a job to do and sometimes they even manage to help each other out. At the other extreme you have conflict, with police requesting permits, kicking photographers off “private property,” and sometimes even going too far in confiscating personal property. Some photographers are convinced that police are power hungry, while some police think that nosy photographers should mind their own business and stick to the “rules.”

It’s at this uncomfortable intersection that the Hatfields/McCoys, Sharks/Jets, Montagues/Capulets, Yankees/Mets, Paper or Plastic, all converge into one seriously confusing minefield. Okay that might be a slight exaggeration. The reality, of course, is that most of the time these two professions co-exist quite well and without incident.

But not always.

The Story in New York

In New York this week, NYPD’s not-so-finest police officer Michael Ackerman was indicted by a Bronx grand jury on three felony counts and five misdemeanors, accusing him of fabricating reasons for the August 4, 2012 arrest of freelance photographer Robert Stolarik. Charges against Ackerman included filing false records and official misconduct. Stolarik, who was on assignment for the “New York Times” at the time, was photographing an escalating street fight when one officer told him to stop taking pictures of an arrest. Despite identifying himself as a journalist for the “NYT,” another officer reportedly grabbed the camera and slammed it into Stolarik’s face. His cameras were then forcibly taken from him as he was pushed to the ground and arrested himself.

Ackerman tried justifying his actions and the subsequent arrest by claiming that Stolarik had repeatedly fired his camera’s flash in his face. An examination of photographic evidence submitted to the D.A.’s office determined not only that Stolarik had not been using a flash, but that he didn’t even have one on his camera. Of all the witnesses interviewed– including other police officers– Officer Ackerman was the only one who supposedly saw a flash.

While all charges against Robert Stolarik were dismissed, Officer Ackerman, if convicted, could face up to seven years and the loss of his job.

Thankfully, not every clash between photographers and the police ends with mug shots and fingerprints.

The Story in Detroit

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing unveiled 10 new ambulances and 15 new police cars emblazoned with a photo of the city skyline last Thursday. Detroit commercial/wedding photographer Bobby Alcott– convinced that the city had used a photo he had taken in 2006– did what any photographer would do when faced with an infringement of their copyright– he took his outrage to the internet and social media in an attempt to bring the offenders in line and receive compensation for use of his image.

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Mayor Dave Bing, Police Chief James Craig, and local business leaders unveil Detroit’s new police cars and ambulances.

Launching the first volley of his attack on Facebook, Alcott posted, “Detroit is unveiling new police cars right now — and the Downtown Detroit Partnership…has STOLEN MY PHOTO to use on the cars,” adding that “The image is registered with the Library of Congress and has been copyrighted since 2006. I’m REALLY SICK of being ripped off. PLEASE SHARE THIS so maybe I can be compensated for the blatant ripoff that the Downtown Detroit Partnership has committed.”

Dialing it back a little bit, Alcott later told WWJ Newsradio 950, “I’m not trying to be mean about it. I’m not trying to be a jerk. I’m just saying it’s my property. And if anybody had something that was theirs that was stolen or used, you know, illegally, you’d probably want to defend your copyright as well.”

The only problem? It wasn’t his photo!

Time for a little background. Alcott took his photo of the Detroit skyline back in 2006, and has been battling its infringement and unlawful use over the years. One such unauthorized use surfaced in March of this year, when the Downtown Detroit Partnership– a Detroit civic leadership group– announced an $8 million initiative to purchase new emergency vehicles and lease them to the city. The mock-ups and artist renditions of the new cars which were circulated to the media showed a design which incorporated Alcott’s photo.

The Mock-Up…

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An artist’s mock-up of the proposed squad cars with Alcott’s photo.

Fast-forward to this past Thursday (August 22, 2013), when the Detroit media was covering the downtown press conference at which the first installment of new vehicles were being unveiled. Since his photo had been used in media presentations for several months already, Alcott assumed that it was his photo on the actual cars.

“That morning, a friend of mine sent me an article– and I found a second one– that showed the mockups again. I assumed that this would be the final form of the car. Of course, I was wrong in the end. A friend of mine at DeadlineDetroit.com sent some photos of the actual cars to me and my copyright attorney. The moment I saw the actual photo of the new cars, I knew it wasn’t my photo.”

The Actual…

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One of the actual cars, with a different photo.

So, in what can certainly be described as an “Oops– my bad” moment, everything really was on the up-and-up. As it turns out, the DDP had purchased a different photo from a Canadian photographer when it came to actually putting the artwork on the cars and ambulances.

Posting again on Facebook later that same evening, Alcott said, “I’m thrilled to say that they are NOT using my photo! They bought a photo from a Canadian artist, from what I understand. I’m very happy this is over so we can all get on with our lives. However, if anything positive comes out of this, I hope that people start respecting copyright of all types.”

Accepting his share of the blame for the local media frenzy that ensued on the heels of his first Facebook post that day, Alcott says, “If the articles referring to the delivery of the new vehicles had used what the vehicles ACTUALLY look like, none of this would have happened. So, without playing the blame game, I suppose there’s enough to go around.”

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Alcott’s original photo of the Detroit skyline.

Conclusion

The work we do can be deeply and intensely personal. Any photographer who doesn’t jump at the chance to defend their copyright does themselves an incredible disservice. In the aftermath of this story, I think even Alcott agrees that seeing an actual photo of an actual police car probably would have been a better place to start. Either way, there is no denying his final comment to me on the matter. “I hope if one good thing comes out of this, that it is a more broad awareness that any intellectual property– no matter where you find it– is not necessarily free for the taking.”

__________________________

P.S. Dear City of Detroit and Downtown Detroit Partnership– In light of recent economic events and Detroit’s portrayal in the national press, are you really telling me that there was not a single photographer in the entire city of Detroit or state of Michigan from whom you could have purchased the photo for your new emergency vehicles? You really had to go across the river to Canada? Just curious. –Jeff

Photo Credits: Bobby Alcott, CBS Detroit and The Detroit Free Press.

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About

Jeff Guyer is a photographer based in Atlanta, GA., currently specializing in commercial and portrait photography, as well as weddings and sports. In addition to his time behind the camera, Jeff also spends a few days a week at the front of a classroom, teaching his “Digital Photo Challenges” class for kids. When not photographing for his clients or teaching a new generation of photographers, Jeff– still an avid film shooter– can usually be found somewhere on the streets of Atlanta, chasing light and telling a story.

You can see more of his work on his website, or you can follow him on Facebook at Guyer Photography, or on Twitter @guyerphoto.

3 Comments

  1. Jon

    The PS should not be addressed to the City of Detroit. The City of Detroit is no longer under the control of itself but rather under the control of a dictator appointed by Governor Rick Snyder under a law previously repealed by referendum but put back into place during a lame-duck session of the state legislature and is immune to referendum again due to abuse of the state’s constitution.

  2. NIck

    Re: p.s.

    What’s wrong with Canadian photographers? Are they not entitled to a piece of the pie? Canadians purchase goods from the U.S. all the time…

    • Rob

      Nothing wrong with Canadian photogs. It’s just that you’d think that since they originally stole the image maybe they should have actually paid Alcott and licensed his? You think? Or do as the PS suggested. Canadians purchase goods from the US all the time and the same can be said in reverse. Living near the US-Canada border I cross often and spend plenty in Canada. Doing so I’m also acutely aware that the general standard of living in Canada is well above that in the US currently. This is a case of why in the world would a local govt agency use a Canadian photog? It doesn’t exactly make sense. Tell you what, I’ll take a picture of Windsor, Hamilton, St, Cath, Toronto, Vancouver, etc. and sell them to your local Canadian govt agency? That work for you?

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