That’s About Right(s)

By now everyone will remember that I am a very proud graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and that I share the same values the institution stands for from the very beginning. I assume you also know the reason for this note.

In November 2015, at the peak of the campus protest at my beloved alma mata, it was very heartening to see Missouri photojournalism major Tim Tai conducting himself professionally in the face of threats and abuses.

If you have not seen the footage, I strongly encouraged you too.

Instead of just insisting that the First Amendment gives him all the rights to gather news in a public place, he stood his ground and explained his position as courteously as he could.

The way he conducted himself against the mob speaks volume of the solid grounding he has received, and sadly, I have seen more mature adults losing their cool in less trying situations. I am sure and hope that he will go on to achieve bigger things in life.

When I was a photojournalism lecturer, one of the questions I got asked a lot was about a photographer’s rights to make pictures in the public space.

My short answer, almost without fail, was always,

“Yes you have all the rights in most cases, but it doesn’t mean you won’t get into trouble.”

And I would also be quick to add this advice:

“Don’t assume others know your rights and never challenge anyone to call the police. Try a bit of diplomacy and see if that works.”

Quick disclaimer: Although I live in Singapore, which ranks one of the last in the world in term of press freedom, photographers don’t get arrested for taking photos in public places;)

At the risk of alienating some of my more ‘hardcore’ friends, I would say that the freedom is not ‘absolute’ and should never be taken for granted. (Note the quotation marks around the word absolute)

For a simple reason – we can’t assume that everyone knows.

Let me elaborate.

The picture  in this post was taken close to 25 years ago, when I was a sophomore at Missouri.

One of my all-time favorite images, very few people know of its existence, not to mention seen it.

Taken at the music school in front of the Ellis Library, this seemingly harmless picture landed me in some really serious trouble.

Upset that I had made the photograph, the student rounded up a few stout guys who surrounded me and demanded that I surrender my roll of film.

Of course I told them I about the First Amendment and reminded them the Missouri has a very famous journalism school.

Fortunately, I was not physically harmed but the episode did not end here.

That night, I was visited by a few campus police officers who also urged me to give up my roll. But credit to them, they asked nicely, and explained that they didn’t have any rights to compel me to surrender my film.

I thanked them and explained that I could not accede to their request because that would go against my belief in the First Amendment.

They left but the trouble did not end here.

My next stop was to the International Student Office where the student had lodged a complaint. Again I stood my ground even though I was told that my action had caused the student much grief.

To make sure I had conducted myself correctly, I paid a visit to a respected journalism professor and shared my story.

He left the ultimate decision to me.

In the end, I passed on the message that I would not give up my rights but since this was not a very important picture to me (at least not aesthetically), I would make a promise never to publish it or share it publicly.

After that summer break, I went back to the International Office to check if the aggrieved student was still upset and they said she was no longer complaining, but I kept my promise to this very day.

I am pretty sure some of my esteemed colleagues would say that my compromise was cowardly, unnecessary and did a disservice to the journalism profession, and I will humbly disagree.

To this day, I am proud that I managed to get out of this little ordeal alive. I am proud that I did not have to raise my voice to get my points across.