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The Right To Image

The Heritage Inn

"There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism..."

- Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin's view might be overly pessimistic, but if he's even partially correct then that leads to an important corollary to his statement: that the ones who are the source of barbarism will never want it documented and will try to prevent others from doing so.

I experienced this recently. It was very benign compared to what many photographers experience while doing their jobs, but it made me think about the rights of photographers to document the world and the ways that people might try to deny those rights. I was asked by Dr. Robert Davidson to produce photos for his upcoming book The Hotel: Space over Time. The subject was the Heritage Inn, which at first glance looks like an average hotel near Pearson Airport in Mississauga, Ontario. In actuality, it is a privately-run detention centre that makes a profit by contracting its services to the Canadian Border Services Agency, which the CBSA then uses to detain (a euphemism for imprison) people who are waiting for deportation hearings. Entire families, including children, are kept here. Living in a hotel room, sometimes for months at a time, they are allowed to go outside for one hour a day.

I was there in the morning and even if there were any detainees in the exercise yard (created by filling the swimming pool with concrete) there was no way they would have been visible through the three fences that surround it. I started on the opposite side of the street, standing on the boulevard – public property. When I crossed I was still on the boulevard and even when I moved down the sidewalk to the driveway entrance I made sure that I didn’t for a moment go past the fenceline with the large “No Trespassing” sign on it. When I crossed the street again I soon saw two women coming towards me from the Inn. They asked me what I was doing and I told them – there was no point in denying it. When I mentioned the photos were for a book they didn’t look pleased. I noticed they had CBSA security badges and when I asked them in a pleasant tone who they actually worked for they refused to tell me. At this point, they told me I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the building. I pointed out that it was publicly visible, not a secure location, and that I was on public property. Next they told me I had in fact trespassed when I crossed the street. I again pointed out that this was false. Their next tactic was to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the detainees, which was impossible considering the distance, the bars, and the blinds on the windows. When I pointed this out, they tried to tell me that the detainees had seen me and informed security. Now, considering that these people are imprisoned and under 24-hour surveillance, I doubt that they had a problem with a guy across the street taking pictures. In any event, they finally resorted to telling me I just “wasn’t allowed to take pictures without permission” without explaining the basis for this. By now, I was annoyed and told them that simply wasn’t true. It became a pointless debate after that, with them only repeating that I needed permission. At that point I gave up and went back to work. They took down my license plate number and watched me until I finally left.

Again, it was a benign encounter. But it made me consider how readily people will overstep their authority in an attempt to deny you your rights. Sometimes they overstep in violent ways. Many photographers have been physically assaulted by police officers, had their cameras seized illegally, or forced under threat of arrest to erase their memory cards.

The best way to deal with these situations is to know your rights -- and to make sure that the person harassing you knows that you know them. An easy way to do this is to carry the card below (helpfully put together by PEN Canada) and politely hand it to whomever may be impeding you. In this way, you can calmly explain that you do indeed have the right to do what you’re doing and they, no matter the position of authority they might hold, have to honour those rights.

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