Friday, April 29, 2011

seized up--a cautionary tale

The four cameras and leather bag pictured here were taken from me and "held" for almost a week.  I've alluded to this in another post on another blog.  Now that things have been resolved, I wanted to share some details about the incident with others, especially with those who routinely enter and exit spaces having cameras or other recording devices on their person.  Here's how it all began:

Early last Friday morning, my friend and I went out on a photo shoot.  While I'm not comfortable naming the location of the shoot at this time, rest assured that we had researched the location online and saw nothing at all to suggest that cameras (or taking photos, more generally) were disallowed.  What's more, the location seemed pretty art/photo-friendly and I certainly saw other photos taken at the same location posted in various places online.  Upon arriving at the location, my bag was not searched (nor did I necessarily expect it to be).  Upon leaving, however, I was asked to hand over my bag to be searched.  I did so.  The bag was given back to me and I was asked (and not kindly) to unzip it.  I did.  Upon seeing the cameras, the individual who insisted on searching my bag asked what "these" were and why I had so many of them.  I told her they were "cameras."  [I didn't know quite how to respond to the second question:  i.e., "Technically speaking, this really isn't that many, I usually bring 9-10 on a shoot."  But I figured this wouldn't be a helpful response in this context.]

At this point, I received a lecture (or maybe a "chastisement" is a more accurate way of naming what I received) about their "no cameras or recording devices" policy.  I apologized, explaining that I had researched the place online and didn't see mention of that policy there.  At this point I was informed that there was a sign to this effect where I entered the location.  I apologized again, explaining that I hadn't seen it.  [My friend went through again to look and there was, in fact, a sign, but there was a lot of signage there and it could be easy to overlook this one.]

The chief concern expressed to me was that I might be leaving the location with content of that location.  Fair enough.  There was a brief discussion about whether I'd have to expose the film in the cameras--something I was more than willing to do.  As an aside:  I was cognizant at that point that I had violated (though not intentionally so) one of their rules and didn't think it unfair of them to request that I expose the film.  At this point, however, things felt to me to get a bit out of hand.  The idea of my exposing the film (again, something that would have resulted in allaying the chief concern represented to me--that I had taken photos of/at the location) was no longer on the table.  "For all we know," I was then told, "you might have taken these cameras from the location."  In less than a moment's time the accusation shifted from my violating the "no camera" policy (something I admitted to) to my stealing property from this location.  [Though I've not named the location, suffice it to say that my finding these particular cameras, in the condition they were in and fully loaded, at that, would be a long, long shot at best. . .]

The majority of people with whom I've shared this story thus far usually interject at this point, asking why I didn't call the police right then and there.  And all I can say is this:  As one who tends to be a rule-follower, who hates the thought of causing and/or getting into trouble, and who was just almost-accused of theft, well, calling the police seemed (at least at the time) a potentially foolish move.  What if they too thought I had stolen these cameras?  Wouldn't I then be risking hastening my arrest and/or at least increasing the odds I'd be detained till I proved the equipment was mind. If I had it to do over again (and I hope I do not have to do this over again, ever) I'd have called the police.  But as they say, hindsight is. . .well, you know how that goes.

And here's where things get just a little bit worse in terms of my making decisions (or, as it certainly felt at the time, letting things happen) that look really, really stupid in hindsight.  After being told that they would have to hold my property till someone else (i.e., "someone in charge") could make a decision of what should be done.  To be clear, as I understood those options, perhaps nothing would need to be done, or maybe I'd have to expose or hand over the film, or maybe they'd decide whether or not to press charges for theft.  Yikes.  Not the way I wanted to start the weekend.

But wait.  There's more. Because it was a holiday weekend, it was likely that the person making the decision wouldn't even be in till Monday. And here's the extremely-regrettable-in-hindsight-part:  I left the location without my bag or cameras and without a receipt for my property.  All I had was a flier for the location, upon which the person who took my shit wrote her first name next to the phone number of the location.

I spent most of that day (it was only about 9:30 am when we left the location, camera-less) and the rest of the weekend in shock and disbelief at what had happened.  When I was crying, I was raging.  We tried calling the location a number of times that weekend but without the best results.  Once when we asked for the owner, we were put on hold and then hung up on. We felt strongly that we were being given the run around.  And shoot, with no receipt for my stuff, it felt to me that it would be their word against ours as to whether or not this had even gone down:  "Cameras?  What cameras?"

Over the weekend, we consulted with a lawyer friend and with other non-lawyer friends to get a sense of how they thought we should proceed, what options, if any, we had, etc.  And we both did lots and lots and lots of research on the company, on instances when photos were taken there and we even figured out (since that info apparently couldn't or wouldn't be divulged by the woman who took my shit) who the owner was.  Even got his personal email address and cell phone number.  Thanks to Facebook I even found out the last name of the woman who took my shit. [A research-related aside:  Perhaps not surprisingly we received varied info/opinions about the place and people with whom we were dealing with.  In one case, we were advised to check ebay to see if they had listed my shit online for sale. Yikes.  In other instances, like I said to start, our inquiries suggested that the place was (or could be) supportive of the arts and concerned about maintaining a somewhat positive public image.]

Bottom line:  Not knowing who we were dealing with (again, my fear is that the people who had my stuff would eventually wind up saying:  "Cameras?  What cameras?"), and not wanting to make the situation worse than it already felt like it was, we called again on Monday, as instructed, and learned that the woman we were supposed to talk to wasn't in.                   

It was at that point, we decided to file a police report.  And why didn't we do it sooner?  In part, because my understanding that there was nothing, really, the police could do to help with the matter at this point.  That said, they were more than willing to have an officer meet me at the location to help me peaceably mediate a discussion about getting my stuff back.  Thus, while the majority of people we talked to about the matter tended to agree that keeping my stuff was, well, theft (especially since I had been more than willing to hand over [or expose] the film and everyone knew it was more than unlikely that I'd find four cameras in this condition at that particular location), the fact that the place had a no photo policy meant--whether fair or not--they had a right to determine how to handle things, namely, the consequences I would face.  By filing a police report, however, I'd have something on record, something to refer to for a civil suit, which would have been the next step if we kept getting the run-around.    

[Note to self:  Take less artsy/abstract photos of any or all items you have that you might need to prove ownership of someday.  The image above contains a copy of my written statement and the images I brought to the police station with me to demonstrate ownership of the cameras.]

Coincidentally or not, the morning after filing the police report, we were able to make contact with the woman who confiscated my stuff.  She said that "a decision still hadn't been made" and again refused to give us the name of the person who was making the decision.  She said she'd call us by the end of the day.  That didn't happen.  We called before the place closed and were told we'd receive a call before the place closed.  We didn't.

Feeling like we'd run out of options (and I was well beyond having run out of patience at that point), we decided that we'd take the police up on the option of meeting us at the location--give it one last try before pursuing a civil suit.

The woman called the next morning and said that we could pick up the items.  No other info or explanation was given at the time.   My friend went back to the location and was given my bag.  Again, no other info or explanation given.  [As yet another aside:  I was thankful that I didn't have to go back to the location as I am still experiencing, to varying degrees, feelings of anger, shame and sadness over what happened, at the way it was handled, and at the thought of having potentially lost those particular cameras over something that might well have been avoided.]

So there it is.  While I can understand and fully accept the consequence of exposing or surrendering my film as a result of violating the "no camera" policy, I remain deeply resentful that the equipment itself had to be confiscated.

By the by, I got the cameras AND the exposed film back--it appears that no one even looked at the cameras--the tape on cameras (put there to gaurd against light leaks) hadn't been disturbed.

The experience has gotten me thinking or wondering about this, however.  Say I go back to that place (or say anyone goes to that place) with a cell phone.  [I don't have one, but say I did.]  Say that the cell phone is capable of taking still images or recording video.  Say I'm (or they are) searched on the way out.  What's to keep that property from being confiscated as well?

Oh, yes.  And of course this question remains:  What were they so concerned about my having gotten photos of?

And at the risk of stating the obvious, this question also remains: If I had, in fact, been trying to "get away" with taking images at the location, why on earth would I have brought those cameras and/or so many cameras?  Why not bring one camera and/or a much smaller one--one that would have been incredibly easy to conceal?              

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