Tag Archive: agriculture


Ag-Gag Arrest: National Geographic photographer George Steinmetz arrested for photographing Kansas feedlot

Black angus beef cattle stand in a holding pen at a ranch near Ledger, Montana, USA. - M. Scott Brauer

Black angus beef cattle stand in a holding pen at a ranch near Ledger, Montana, USA. – M. Scott Brauer

We’ve covered the so-called Ag-Gag bills enacted across the US to outlaw the unauthorized filming and photography of agricultural operations. NPR’s On the Media has a great primer on the recent movement to enact such legislation.

Now, freelance photographer George Steinmetz, on assignment for National Geographic (he’s done 31+ major assignments for the magazine), was arrested after taking pictures of a feedlot in Kansas while paragliding. Steinmetz and his paragliding instructor are charged with trespassing because they took off from private land without permission and because feedlot employees believe that his low altitude and circling pattern constitute trespassing in the air above the feedlot. The case raises interesting questions about how far up above physical land property ownership goes, but also may run afoul of Kansas’ 1990 Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act, an early predecessor of current Ag-Gag laws. Wikipedia has a nice overview of such laws in various states.

A spokesman for the Kansas Livestock Association told the Hutchinson [Kansas] News that Steinmetz’s activities could pose a safety risk to the food supply and reminds agricultural operators to remain vigilant in identifying and reporting similar incidents.

A conversation with Scott Strazzante about Common Ground

I first met Scott Strazzante about 7 years ago standing in the dirt of a horse track after a million-dollar race. I didn’t know much about him or his work then, but he seemed like a nice guy. We met up for a drink this week in Boston while he was in town to shoot the NHL championship series, and he’s still the same nice guy I remembered. I’d seen his work over the past few years and become a huge admirer of what he does. He’s a skilled sports photographer, having photographed a number of recent Super Bowls, Olympics, and other big events, but his dedication to community storytelling through his work for the Chicago Tribune is what really sets his work apart. His 3-season effort to document different high school sports teams is well worth a look (though the website is a bit dated; here’s a 12 image edit of the first season following a girl’s basketball team, and here’s a short edit of a season following a men’s basketball team.) And check out his favorite photos from 2012 and 2011.

He’s received countless awards in the NPPA Best of Photojournalism contest, Pictures of the Year International, and the Illinois Press Photographers’ Association annual awards. His street photography, now exclusively done with a phone, has drawn 18,000 followers to his instagram account, but it’s his 20-year-long project documenting farmland that was turned into a suburban housing subdivision that has really taken the photojournalism community by storm. The work is a series of diptychs comparing life on the land when it was farm in 90s to when it became home to a number of families in the Willow Walk subdivision in the 2000s. The image pairings are surprising and emotionally charged, and have been published in National Geographic and Mother Jones. Now, Strazzante wants to make a book of the work (edited by Mike Davis, designed by Deb Pang Davis, and foreword by David Guttenfelder) and has a kickstarter as a way to pre-sell the book and pay for its creation. I’ve reserved my copy of the book, and you should, too.

We recently had a short conversation by email about Common Ground’s history and future, which you can read below.

dvafoto: Could you give just a basic overview of how the project came about? If I remember, you did a story about the sale of the farmland and then had an assignment in the same area of the new subdivision? It was only later that you noticed similarities in the pictures.

Scott Strazzante: In 1994, while working at The Daily Southtown, a south suburban newspaper, I was assigned to photograph Harlow and Jean Cagwin, as part of a story on people who raised animals in Homer Township, a mostly undeveloped area near Lockport, Illinois.

After my two hour shoot, I asked Harlow and Jean if I could come back and photograph them from time to time. They agreed and over the next 5 years, I would occasionally stop by for a visit.

In 1998, I moved on to The Herald News in nearby Joliet. The Herald News was a fabulous photo paper and I was encouraged to find stories to work on. I mentioned that I knew a pair of senior citizen cattle farmers and started spending a lot more time documenting the Cagwin’s daily lives. I photographed on the farm until July, 2002, when, a year or so after selling their land to a subdivision developer, the Cagwin farmhouse was razed just minutes after Harlow and Jean removed their possessions.

Several years later, I started to look for a subdivision family to document, but, nothing ever came of that.

In March 2007, I gave a talk at a College of DuPage photo class. After showing my farm story, a woman raised her hand and mentioned that she lived in the subdivision that was built on the Cagwin farmland. That woman, Amanda Grabenhofer, invited me to come photograph at her house on Cinnamon Court in the Willow Walk subdivision. I was excited to find a family to document, but, I was at a loss at how I was going to tie the two halves of the story together. My first shoot was during an Easter egg hunt on the cul de sac that the Grabenhofers lived on.

On my second visit, I photographed Amanda’s son Ben wrestling with his cousin while trying to tie each other up with a jump rope. That image reminded me of a photo that I had made of Harlow Cagwin struggling to lasso a two day old calf that had escaped out into a field. I put the two images together as a diptych and decided to tell the story of this piece of land’s evolution through pairings.

So, I first starting photographing in Willow Walk in April, 2007 with no real idea of direction and within a year the project was featured in National Geographic, was honored with POYi’s Community Awareness Award and Best Feature Video in NPPA’s BOP contest. Pretty crazy stuff!

After MediaStorm debuted Common Ground at Look3 in 2008, I have continued to document the Grabenhofers and their neighbors. I have made roughly fifty new diptychs since then, so, it will be cool to get some of those out there in the book.

Twenty years on the same project is impressive. It seems like you didn’t set out to work on the project for 20 years, but it just sort of happened. How do you keep things organized? Old notes and slides/negatives must have been all over the place before you started the diptychs.

I have photographed the project over a twenty year span, but, that is a bit deceptive. I photographed in 1994, 1998-2002 and 2007-present., so, it is, more like, a 13 year project over 20 years. The farm story was shot all on film and I have kept all the negative sheets in one big binder. The subdivison, which is shot on digital, was on a hundred cds until I finally organized them on several hard drives when I got ready to work with MediaStorm.

I heard Eugene Richards talk once about how disappointed he was with himself that he’s been shooting in basically the same style for decades (this was before The Blue Room). Is it surprising, comforting, disturbing, etc., that your style has stayed consistent enough to marry 20-year-old pictures with much more recent images? I’m still very early in my photographic career, but I couldn’t imagine putting some of my pictures from year 1 or 2 next to pictures from this year. Or perhaps, did you have to shoot in a particular way to match the style of the old pictures?

As a newspaper shooter, my images have to be accessible to a wide range of people with a wide range of visual literacy. In general, I try to not get too “creative” with my daily work. However, my street photography is a little more out there and, therefore, appeals to a more limited group of people.

Also, as a newspaper photographer, one day you are a sports shooter, the next day you are doing a food shoot, a magazine style business portrait and covering a house fire. You have no choice, but, to be a photographic chameleon. I haven’t ever thought about it, but, I guess, my story-telling style hasn’t changed much over the years, except, I don’t tilt my frames anymore, like I did back in the late 90s and early 2000s.

The one regret I have with the story is that I did the majority of the farm story on Mondays, one of my off days. At the time I did the bulk of the work, I was a single father of two young children, so, I didn’t have the flexibility to be at the farm on holidays or Sundays or other days that might have added a bit more depth to the Cagwin photos and given me more material to match up with the Grabenhofer photos. However, as a farm couple raising a herd of Angus beef cattle, Harlow and Jean never had much free time to do much and when they did, they were exhausted from their work.

I don’t know all of your work, but I think this is the only time you’ve worked with diptychs. Once you embraced that method, did you end up shooting to fill out a diptych?

The vast majority of my successful diptychs have come about when I just shoot without looking to match farm photos. Only two of the pairings were planned before hand. One was the aerial comparison and the other was shooting out of a second floor bedroom window in the Grabenhofer home to match a photo I had from the second floor of the Cagwin farmhouse. The rest happen when something I shoot on Cinnamon Court reminds me of a farm photo or I make an image that I really like and I pore through my farm negs looking for a match. I don’t really put much thought into the project as a whole when I am shooting at the subdivision. I photograph there like I do when I shoot any other assignment.

Basically, I have worked this like three separate stories- the farm, the subdivision and the evolution of the land.

You’re a newspaper photographer, and I know many newspaper photographers don’t retain the copyright of their images made for the paper. You’ve been able to license (I presume) these pictures in National Geographic, MediaStorm, and now use them in the book. What sort of arrangement did you have with the Tribune? How did you negotiate that arrangement?

After the initial assignment, this has always been a personal project. I worked most of it on my off days. However, wanting it to be published, I have made the work available to my employers for free in exchange for copyright ownership. This agreement started at The Herald News in Joliet when I made this deal with the managing editor Lee Trigg. When I was being interviewed at the Chicago Tribune in 2001, I mentioned this project and made the same agreement with Bill Parker, the AME of Photo at the time. If I hadn’t made those agreements up front, I highly doubt that I would have been able to get published in Mother Jones, Nat Geo or do the video with MediaStorm.

For me, this is a once in a lifetime project and for the rest of my work, I have come to peace with not owning my images in exchange for health insurance and other benefits.
I still self-generate almost all my stories and I do a ton of street photography when I am both on and off work, so, it is quite murky on which of my iPhone images I own and which the paper own.

$42,500 is one of the largest photo-related kickstarters I’ve seen, especially for one that doesn’t involve the creation of new work or travel. Where will that money be going? Why not go the traditional book publishing route, especially since the project seems to have a good deal of institutional interest or support (Nat Geo, Tribune Co., etc.)?

The $42,500 number came about from some quick math I did in my head- 1000-1500 books at roughly $20 a copy, editing and design costs, mailing the books to backers, thank you post cards, prints for backers and then, of course, Kickstarter takes 5% off the top and there are credit card fees that are taken out by Amazon. In comparison to other Kickstarter photo campaigns, I think mine is a much better deal. Instead of just supporting new work, my supporters get a book for $50, so, I am, basically, just pre-selling the book.

I did try to get Common Ground in book form through a traditional publisher, but, no one would touch a photo book project without me coming up with about half the cash. I couldn’t swing that. I guess if I keep searching maybe I could have found one that would have, but, I am pretty busy and wasn’t able to devote much more time to the process.

If all works out and I sell all the books, I will make some money off of the project, but at this point, I have made roughly 15 thousand dollars on Common Ground over the decades and that includes photo contest prizes. I figured it out at one point and I calculated that I have made about $1.70 an hour working on this. I hope no one gets upset if I make a little bit of money off of my hard work.

How have the subjects of the pictures (or their descendants/families) responded to the work? I imagine everyone in the pictures has complex emotions about the economics and emotions of the change in use of the land. How do the kids in the subdivision relate to what the Cagwins’ loss of the land and their home?

Both the Cagwins and Grabenhofers and their families feel honored that their lives have been given a bit of immortality. Harlow died last August and Jean expressed to me how much it meant to him to have his life documented and published around the world.

At this point, I don’t believe that the subdivision kids make a connection between me photographing them and the project as a whole. Overall, it just seems to be a normal occurrence in suburban America that homes on built on farmland and few, including the kids, even think twice about it.

What other plans do you have for the work? Exhibitions? Partnering with agricultural/housing/development organizations? Other educational efforts?

Once the project is funded, I am hoping to set up exhibitions around the country to coincide with the book printing. I haven’t put much thought into partnering with organizations because I don’t want groups to use my book as some sort of anti-suburban propaganda. For me, this is an unbiased historical document and is not intended to support a cause. I would like to keep it that way.

I have always been thrilled that so many photo teachers show Common Ground in their classes. Being part of the education of young visual documentarians is a huge honor.

Any other projects you’re working on that you’d like to share?

I am always working on stories at the Chicago Tribune and this year is no different. I still love to tell focused stories that have a bit of universality to them. Currently, I am documenting a 68-year-old man who is teaching etiquette to young residents of his apartment building as a way to stop the cycle of violence in Chicagoland.

How can people see more of your work or connect with you?

Shooting from the Hip blog, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Common Ground: The Book Kickstarter campaign

NYT covers legislative bans on photo and video of US farms

Black angus beef graze in open pastures on a ranch outside of Ledger, Montana, USA. -  photo by M. Scott Brauer

Black angus beef graze in open pastures on a ranch outside of Ledger, Montana, USA. – photo by M. Scott Brauer

We’ve written before about the so-called “Ag-Gag” bills that make illegal unauthorized video and photography of agricultural operations in various states. Today, the New York Times has an update on the increasing number of these types of laws throughout the United States: Videos show cruelty on farm, and taping becomes the crime. The NYT’s reporting connects bills across the country to a business advocacy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council. The organization creates model legislation for state legislatures to adopt such as The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, which would prohibit video and still photography of livestock farms and puts violators on a “terrorist registry.”

Though no laws including a terrorist registry provision have yet been passed, Iowa, Utah and Missouri have passed laws that make it illegal to document operations on farms and agricultural operations without authorization. Indiana and Tennessee will soon vote on similar laws, and California, Pennsylvania, and other states are debating similar measures. The Indiana law would require prospective employees to disclose ties to animal rights groups during the hiring process. Animal rights groups say that these laws make it impossible to document animal cruelty on farms and ranches. Opponents of bills have managed to stall or stop Ag-Gag bills in New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Wyoming.

I’ll Die For You – an interview with Laura El-Tantawy


I’m not sure what first got me to look at Laura El-Tantawy‘s I’ll Die For You, but I’m glad I did. It’s an ambitious attempt to photograph and tell the story of farmer suicides in India. The situation is staggering. From El-Tantawy’s statement about the project:

Over the past 15 years, more than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide in India. Many had borrowed money through government lending schemes or private lenders to plant more efficient crops, but could not pay off their debts. Because of the extremely fast transition has undergone — from a rural to an industrial, urban economy with an open market — farmers have been confronted by immense social and economic problems.

To tell this story, El-Tantawy uses archival materials, strong portraiture of the women left behind, and a visual examination of the land and place. It’s a refreshing approach to something so difficult to photograph, and it’s a departure from much of her other work (which you should check out while you’re at it). I thought I’d ask her a few questions about the project and her approach. Our conversation is below:

What got you started on the project? What drew you to the issue? How did you begin work for the project (such as identifying potential subjects, approaching subjects for the piece)?

The start of the project coincided with me taking part in the prestigious Reflexions Masterclass. It’s a two-year photography seminar directed by Italian photographer Giorgia Fiorio and French Curator Gabrial Bauret. The workshop is based around developing a photographer’s visual language and story-telling capabilities by assigning a series of themes that participants use as inspiration to build on a new body of work or continue to develop an ongoing series. At the time the theme assigned was “faces”. I really struggled with this because all my immediate ideas were centered around portraiture, which I always considered as an area of weakness for me. I felt a strong portrait should convey an emotion and lend some insight into the subject’s character, frame of mind or emotional state – this I had never accomplished well. Meanwhile, as I am thinking about this, I come across an article about farmers committing suicide in India. Everything seemed to come together at that moment for me, in a way that I can honestly say I never reacted to anything else, subject or story. There was something different about this work from the start. So from the moment of its initiation, this project was very unique for me.

I went to India with nothing but the intention to meet the families and photograph their faces. This was my main motivation. I wanted to understand why they were committing suicide, such a brutal act and one with finite consequences. Having been in India before, I always saw India as a country where people really work hard to live in order to avert death. It was the country of vibrant colors, crowded streets – a country where life is seen at its best and sometimes worst, but life and living dominate. Death was not associated with India in my mind, which is why I believe I reacted so instinctively and vigorously to the suicide of farmers, which ultimately led me to think about my own grandfather, who was a farmer all his life. Perhaps you can see there were just too many elements here that led me to pursue this story as passionately and seriously as I did.

In India I landed with ideas, but I had nothing in hand that could translate my ideas into reality. I wanted to shoot the work on film (which I had never done before). I bought the film from a friend of mine living in India and borrowed his Mamiya. He also offered to send his studio assistant with me to meet the families and she became my team-mate at that stage in the project, doing what I consider half the work: translation.

When we left Mumbai we had nothing but the determination to meet these families and hear their story. Once we arrived in the village we had identified as the starting point, we just asked around and things started to work out.

We approached the families with total honesty explaining I had come from London and wanted to hear their story. At that moment the work as I had visualized it only centered around documenting the female survivors and making an archive of photographs of the men who died. The idea of “Man and Land” came later and after much searching for a visual approach to show the strong bond between the people and the land they inhabit, which I believed was ultimately the cause of these suicides.

What was your strategy for telling this story visually? I imagine it was a difficult piece to develop, photographically–the events happened well in the past and the causes of these suicides are abstract economic and psychological notions that don’t present themselves in a straightforward visual way.

Intimacy – all I could think about was intimacy. Given the sensitivity of the issue in and of itself and the delicate nature of addressing issues related to life and death, I felt that I had to move slowly, but somehow give a sense of intimacy. It was imperative to me to attach a face to the suicides and not follow a conventional approach that would deprive the story of emotion or developing a relationship with the women survivors and the men who died. I wanted to focus on the faces to make the suicides real to myself and to viewers and not just portray this as something abstract that could happen anywhere to anyone. I felt the urge and the responsibility to anchor this in reality, or at least what I perceived as reality (we all have our different realities or interpretations of it). For me a more photojournalistic approach would not have told this story the way I felt it and instinctively reacted to it: the deep emotion, sorrow and absolute sense of anguish and deprivation these men must have felt at the time of the suicides, all feelings that were carried onto the women now surviving them. People died – thousands of them – and I chose to tell this story. I was responsible for what people would think and feel when they see the pictures. This was always at the back of my head.

The suicides are continuing to happen, so this is not an old story, but very much an ongoing one. In the past 15 years, more than 250 thousand farmers have committed suicide and the numbers are still rising.

How did you get the women to be part of the project? In parts of India I’ve visited, women tend to be hidden from the public and I imagine they initially did not want to be photographed. What about the issue of suicide? In some societies, suicide is a very shameful act. Was there a societal or cultural stigma that you had to overcome in order to get people to even talk about the suicides? How did you approach that issue with your subjects?

A few things could account for me being able to gain access to the families. Perhaps the fact that I was a woman myself allowed the women to gain some sense of comfort around me, but I think ultimately the main reason I was able to talk to them is because they wanted someone to talk to – they wanted to be heard and in all cases helped (which I shamefully explained I was not in a position to do). They wanted their struggle to be acknowledged and the fact I had come from an entirely different country to meet them and understand their plight probably made them feel some sort of respect and seriousness towards me.

Yes, there is a huge stigma attached to suicide. You must remember India is a predominantly Hindu country and suicide is not accepted within the Hindu belief. Surprisingly, this was not an issue that took much of the conversation I had with any of the families I met. It was about survival and for the men who had committed suicide, living had become an impossibility. Tradition among the conservative and modest farming communities dictates men are the main providers. Girls get married because their fathers can pay their dowry and are of a good reputation in the village, so once a man starts to sink below the expected status in the community, he starts to be overcome by shame. Status and community standing play a big role in the decision to commit suicide in these villages and I think they would in any village in the world. Farmers are a unique breed and their work and lifestyle are about modesty, pride and survival under the harshest of conditions. But I think if any of these elements start to shake, their whole existence comes into question.
Read on »

Iowa farm photography bill signed into law – illegal to lie to access farms

M. Scott Brauer - Cattle graze on a ranch near Highwood, Montana.

M. Scott Brauer - Cattle graze on a ranch near Highwood, Montana.

We wrote previously about Florida and Iowa lawmakers trying to make it illegal to record or photograph agricultural operations without the farm owner’s consent. Now, the Iowa bill has been signed into law, making it illegal to access farms without the owner’s consent and further making it illegal lie on farm job applications in order to gain access to farms. While the law no longer has language specifically addressing photography or video recording, both opponents and supporters of the law say that its intent is to prevent videos of farm operations from being made. Under the law, fraudulently entering a farm would be punishable by up to 1 year in prison and a $1,500 fine. Penalties increase for subsequent offenses. Activists have vowed to continue making videos of alleged animal cruelty, while supporters of the law say it strikes a balance in protecting farmers without preventing workers from reporting animal abuse through preexisting channels.

More states continue to press for similar laws. The Utah State House of Representatives recently passed Utah HB 187, which makes it a crime to record images or sounds of farm activity without the farm owner’s consent. Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and New York, are also considering such legislation.

As before, if you live in any of these states, contact your legislators.

On photographing America’s agricultural industry – a conversation with Barron Bixler

Earlier this year, we wrote about two US states trying to outlaw unauthorized photos of farm operations (The Florida was changed in a few important ways after our initial report). That’s been the most tweeted and shared post in the history of dvafoto, and generated a great conversation on the value and imperative of photography of American agriculture. Of the many comments and messages I got from that post, one of the most intriguing was from a California-based photographer named Barron Bixler. He’s been working on a project on agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, A New Pastoral, and wanted to start a dialog about these issues. As he said in his introductory email, “I’m sick of shouting into the wind about these issues and would love to start a meaningful conversational thread about it with someone who’s similarly implicated.” So that’s what we’ve got here below. Be sure to check out the rest of Bixler’s work, and if you’re near Fresno, California, between August 19 and January 6, 2012, you can see A New Pastoral: Views of the San Joaquin Valley in a solo exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum.

dvafoto: Why do you photograph the agricultural industry?

Barron Bixler: I’m going to begin with a fairly provocative comparison, so bear with me.

Last week I stumbled across a talk given by photography luminary Fred Ritchin in which he quotes one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders on the power of photography to document events that would otherwise go unseen: “Without a photograph we’ve never been able to prove a massacre….If we have no photographs, there are no massacres.”

Reading this quote within the context of agriculture, many will rightly ask what human rights abuse has to do with where produce comes from. The short answer is, more than you’d think. In September 2010, the “guest worker” recruiting firm Global Horizons was charged with operating the largest forced agricultural labor ring ever prosecuted by the federal government. Sadly, the Global Horizons case is anomalous only in its scale. Google “florida agricultural slavery” and you’ll get a cross section of entries that expose the high cost of cheap produce.

My own approach to photographing industrial agriculture operations in California is decidedly ambivalent, and my focus is on the land rather than the people who work it, but in the back of my mind there’s always this same nagging question: what price have we paid (and do we continue to pay) to farm in this massive, industrial way? Even Monsanto—the company that 50 years ago repurposed Agent Orange into commercial pesticides and has been a driving force behind the Green Revolution—has tacitly admitted that indiscriminate and ongoing pesticide use is probably not environmentally sustainable. So when we look at our industrial food system as it’s existed since the 1940s, and at the downstream social and environmental consequences of that system, what we’re left with is a fairly disquieting picture.

Through our federal ag and trade policy over the last century, we’ve engineered our food system in a way that measures success as a ratio of units of input to units of output. And while this all sounds good and highly rational in that 1940s-systems-engineering-fetish sort of way, the problem is the units of input aren’t abstract concepts or inert materials. They’re farmers and farm workers. They’re animals. They’re entire communities and ecosystems. All of which we’ve placed on the same level in our equation of success as John Deere tractors and gallons of petrochemical fertilizer.

At the same time, as consumers of food, you and I gobble up the seductive myth of the independent family farmer and allow ourselves to indulge, if momentarily, the belief that Hidden Valley Ranch is an actual place tucked away in the rolling coastal hills of California. (For a case in point, read The Story of Hidden Valley.)

Just today I passed a billboard in Oakland, California proclaiming that “99% of California Dairy Farms are Family Owned.” A quick visit to the California Milk Advisory Board website confirms the source of this latest campaign. Watch some of CMAB’s gorgeous short documentaries about family-run dairies and you might be willing to forget, just for a minute, well documented cases of migrant dairy workers drowning in toxic manure evaporation lagoons the size of football fields or official reports from the USDA, EPA and others about the role industrial dairies and feedlots play in global climate change and the pollution of local air, soil and water.

If nothing else, I hope my pictures of California agriculture destabilize our cozy vision of where most of our food comes from—and more importantly, what it leaves behind. After all, if we have no photographs to show how things are, there’s nothing a good marketing agency or PR crisis response firm or government information ministry can’t get us to swallow: whether it’s rounding up political dissidents for a massacre or the latest formulation of Roundup PowerMAX®.

You say you work both with permission of the farmers and without. Do the farmers you work with know that you have such a critical stance on their practices?

A few months back I posted a question on Twitter to the effect of, “As a documentarian, where do one’s loyalties lie? To ‘objectivity,’ or to the people who trust you to photograph them?” The question was prompted by a piece on the NYT Lens blog called “Bonding with Subjects in Harm’s Way” in which Finbar O’Reilly recounts personal experiences photographing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

For documentary photographers, these are the large and rather prickly horns of the dilemma that defines our discipline: to what extent can or should you strive for objectivity when your subjects are engaged in practices that are, at best, ethically muddy? How do you separate out the complicity of the individual from the larger system of which he or she is a part? How does your empathy toward or dependence on your subjects (in Mr. O’Reilly’s case this most certainly was a matter of life or death; in my case it’s more a matter of access and good will) affect your capacity to remain dispassionate and brutally honest? Who or what are your pictures ultimately in service of?
Read on »

Update to Florida farm photography bill

M. Scott Brauer - A rancher bales hay for the Big Sky Montana Beef free-range black angus operation outside of Fairfield, Montana, USA.

M. Scott Brauer - A rancher bales hay for the Big Sky Montana Beef free-range black angus operation outside of Fairfield, Montana, USA.

The NPPA reports that there have been some changes to Florida farm bill SB 1246 (previously) that would make illegal photography or recordings of farm operations without the written permission of farm owners. The Florida Senate Committee on Agriculture approved the bill with two significant amendments: the crime has been changed from felony to misdemeanor, and the proposed bill no longer makes it a crime to photograph farm operations from public places, limiting the scope of the bill only to recordings made while trespassing. These are important and positive changes in the legislation, but the prospect of increasing limits on photography remains troubling.

Incidentally, our previous coverage of the bill was our most tweeted and shared post in the short history of dvafoto, racking up more than a thousand social media links, thanks in no small part to a tweet by Michael Pollan. I’m glad to see the issue get exposure outside of photography circles.

Two US states move to outlaw unauthorized photos of farming operations (UPDATED)

M. Scott Brauer - Pregnant cattle stand in a holding pen awaiting ultrasounds to determine the progress of their gestation on the Judisch Ranch outside of Ledger, Montana USA.

M. Scott Brauer - Pregnant cattle stand in a holding pen awaiting ultrasounds to determine the progress of their gestation on the Judisch Ranch outside of Ledger, Montana USA. - image available for licensing

Sec. 9.1(a)(2) makes it a crime to “Possess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility” which was taken without permission of the owner.

Sec. 14.1.b makes it a crime to “Possess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the crop operation which was” taken without permission of the owner. -from Iowa House Bill HF589, passed March 17, 2011

We’ve covered states’ moves to criminalize the recording of police activity previously. Now, bills introduced in Florida and Iowa state legislatures would make photography, video, or audio recording of agricultural operations illegal without written permission of the farm’s owner. In Florida, violations would be punishable by up to 30 years in prison, according to the proposed Senate Bill 1246 (SB 1246). A similar law (HF589) passed the Iowa state House of Representatives. In a Washington Post article, agricultural industry representatives and lawmakers say the Iowa bill is intended to stop animal rights organizations from filming undercover videos that misrepresent farming operations. Wilton Simpson, a Florida farmer, says that the bill is needed to protect the intellectual property of his farming practices.

Both bills, frighteningly, don’t limit their protections to images or recordings taken while on farm property. For instance, section 3.7 of Iowa’s HF589 defines a “crop operation” as “a location where a crop is maintained, including but not limited to a crop field, orchard, nursery, greenhouse, garden, elevator, seed house, barn, or warehouse.” Under my reading of the bill (and I’m not a legal scholar), these aspects of a farm operation could not legally be photographed without permission, even if the recording or images are taken from public property. The Iowa bill would further criminalize anyone who possesses or distributes such images, reversing a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that allows news organizations to distribute recordings even if the recordings are obtained illegally. The NPPA says the Florida is similarly broad and would criminalize images or recordings taken from a public space.

If you’re in Florida or Iowa, contact your legislators.

UPDATE (22 March 2011): The Florida bill has been amended in two important ways: the crime has been changed from felony to misdemeanor, and the proposed bill no longer makes it a crime to photograph farm operations from public places, limiting the scope of the bill only to recordings made while trespassing.

(via the NPPA Advocacy Committee blog, which reports the NPPA has contacted lawmakers in Iowa regarding the bills)