Looking Back: The Aurora News Blog on 9/11

Crowd in Los Angeles clamors for news hours after the terror attacks of 9/11

Below is what I wrote for the Aurora Photos News Blog.

The phone rang, jarring my wife and I from our sleep. Dawn was just creeping under our bedroom shade, but the feeling of dread had already enveloped the room before I grabbed the handset. I had no idea why the phone was ringing, but I did know that the likelihood of the other person bearing good news was nearly nonexistent.

“Turn on the TV” my brother in Rhode Island hollered into the phone. “Quick!”

I hung up and scrambled across the house to turn on the television without waking our five-year-old son. The phone began to ring again. I managed to catch a glimpse of Tower One on fire while grabbing the handset fully expecting to hear my brother’s frantic voice again. But this time it was Martha Bardach, TIME magazine’s West Coast Photo Editor, asking that I get to downtown Los Angeles as soon as possible. No one knew where other attacks might occur, she said, but one rumor had it that a plane was heading for Los Angeles.

I made it to LA and began photographing as people assembled on the streets, talking on their cell phones, looking skyward with a sense of disbelief. The plane, thankfully, never materialized and people started to make their way home only hours after arriving for work. By this time it was being reported that the U.S. had been attacked by terrorists, yet LA had not directly been hit. I ventured across the city to the Federal Building near UCLA and found that the FBI were guarding the facility with assault rifles while listening intently to earpieces. At a nearby newsstand, a growing number of people were gathering. I stopped and began photographing as Angelenos (or were we all Americans at that point, I remember wondering), desperate for news and information, scrambled for position and thrust their money at the clerk in attempts to claim a copy of the LA Time’s extra edition published only hours after the terrorist attacks. “TERROR ATTACK” screamed the headline.

Hours later, I was sent by TIME to document citizens lining up at a Red Cross facility to donate blood for the victims and then onto a large, non denominational prayer service where tears flowed, heads bowed and prayers went out to victims and their families.

I then drove home to my wife and son who were safe and healthy. I cried along with my wife that night, knowing that the world had changed fifteen hours earlier when I reached for the phone.


Security and the Right to Photograph

Added security of those entering the country. ©Todd Bigelow

Rather good timing for this refresher from the ACLU. Many of my students at Cal State University, Northridge and UCLA ask questions about where they can legally take photographs. My standard response is that if you are photographing from a public location and shooting images easily seen from such a location, then you’re good.

One result of 9/11 being explored by media during the week long lead-up to the 10 year anniversary is the added security in our society. Few will argue that added security is a good thing, but photographers and law enforcement have had many run ins over the decade since the terrorist attacks that clearly show a pattern of increasing harassment of photographers working within their constitutional right (you know, the 1st Amendment and all).

Give this link a look over. It’s a worthy refresher on the right to photograph in public: http://www.aclu.org/free-speech/know-your-rights-photographers

When you’re done with that, give NPR a listen as they have a frightening report about surveillance in the Mall of America that illustrates a drastic change in surveillance of Americans following 9/11. http://n.pr/plxOzO

DREAMING of a Future

Young boy peers into the U.S. from Mexico.

The final days of the lame duck Congress are upon us and Democrats are scrambling to pass significant legislation before ceding their power to an influx of conservative Republicans. The tax cut debate was settled last night, though many democrats were quick to voice their displeasure with the extension of tax breaks to the wealthy. Nonetheless, that was one piece of legislation President Obama was dead set on pushing through now. The second piece of legislation that has caused partisan debate is the Dream Act.

The law that would grant legal residency to undocumented immigrants who arrived before the age of 16, lived in the U.S. for at least five years, graduated from high school and completed two years of college or honorable military service. Essentially, it’s designed to take the unfair burden off of our next generation of scholars or veterans who, by no fault of their own, were brought to the country illegally as young children and have lived in the shadows despite achieving academic excellence.

Alma, an undocumented immigrant, was brought here as a toddler. The couple waited nervously outside Federal Building for the outcome of a deportation hearing.

Why should children be punished for something they had no role in? A child who was carried across the border illegally at age 5,  raised in a loving family, excelled at school and gave to their community should have the opportunity to be a citizen of this nation of immigrants. Further, our country benefits from these students who have endured hardships and know the meaning of perseverance. They have and will contribute to our country the rest of their lives by becoming teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers and business owners.

This is not an amnesty. This is an example of humanity. It’s doing what is right in the best interests of all parties involved, including the country as a whole.

As if on cue, the United Nations recognizes tomorrow, December 18th, as International Migrants Day. The 10th anniversary of this day is meant to honor all the immigrants who have contributed to the country. The timing for this day couldn’t be better. I hope Congress pays attention and realizes the best way to honor International Migrants Day is to pass the Dream Act and open the door for the next generation of immigrant success stories. Let’s pave the way for the young kids who had no choice in their legal status to step from the shadows and give back to the only country they call “home.”

The Food on our Plates

In the world of journalism, it’s well understood that timing is a great asset. Time the story right and it will often receive more attention. A poorly timed story will languish in the background of a world of information overload.

With Thanksgiving, the end all holiday for food, upon us the Southern Poverty Law Center released a special report long in the making about women in the food industry. “Injustice on Our Plates: Women in the U.S. Food Industry” takes a look at women toiling in the fields picking grapes and fruit to women across the country working in fields and factories producing food for our consumption. Living on the margins of society and impoverished by most accounts, these women often are victimized in a multitude of ways. From unsolicited sexual advances to unfair labor practices and pay, women in the food industry often suffer out of fear of being outed as an undocumented worker. It’s worth noting that many of the women who I photographed as part of the report are reluctant to complain. Humble and grateful for what they have, it’s not always easy getting the women to open up about abuses.

Migrant woman working Central California field

I spent a bit of time photographing various women in central California who either worked or are currently working in the fields. From the Grapes of Wrath to many other accounts, much has been written about the plight of migrant field workers. But when you see them twisting vines, snapping twigs and yanking oranges, it gives you a new perspective. This is truly tough work. The women, hands offering a contrast of nail polish and hardened dirt, work long hours in tough conditions. And as the SPLC report clearly defines, the wages are low and the workers are destined for a life of poverty.

No matter where you stand on the immigration debate or your political leanings, the next time you pick up some grapes at the store or enjoy a glass of vino at Thanksgiving, just give some silent appreciation for those who picked them.

Give the report a look here. It can be downloaded as a PDF: http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/publications/injustice-on-our-plates

One last thing! SPLC is one of the nation’s most diligent non profits working on behalf of those with no voice in society. They have fought the long hard battle for decades dating back to the Civil Rights movement. Please consider donating, even a small amount is helpful. Go here if you can swing a small gift: https://secure.splcenter.org/donations/donate/overview

President Obama Announces Immigration Reform Package

By now there isn’t much new to say about immigration reform. President Obama made his plan for comprehensive reform known today and, to no one’s surprise, Republicans for the most part slammed it. Claiming the reform package which, incidentally, is co sponsored by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, is nothing more than an attempt to legalize the millions of undocumented in the country, the Republican party is once again trying to engage in politics instead of engaging in problem solving. My earlier post about Arizona Senator McCain’s pandering is case and point. Many Republicans who backed similar proposals when Bush was in office are now opposing Obama’s measure. If they voted for it once, why not again? Politics, folks.

A man covers his his heart and recites the Pledge of Allegiance at a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens.

It’s simply time to stop playing to the cameras and do the job our elected officials were hired to do. Govern our country so that we go forward. There is no way to do that without finding a path to citizenship while strengthening security at the border and in the workplace. Enough posturing, just get it done. It’s a good start at true reform, not just a ceremonious “border build up” that on its’ own is ineffective.

As for the Arizona law due to take affect later this month whereby police can ask people for documents, the Obama administration is challenging it legally. The SPLC has issued a travel warning to Arizona for possible human rights violations of citizens. I have a bet with a high priced, respectable NYC lawyer who has dealt with immigration law for years that SB1070, as it’s known, will be struck down as unconstitutional. He claims it won’t. Time will tell, so stay tuned.

Pomp & Circumstance: The Future for Photojournalism Grads

I’ve seen a lot of really talented, young photographers coming out of various colleges and universities in the past few years, their portfolios showcasing meaningful images of social concern such as poverty and drug use. Their slick, digital portfolios transition from classic reportage to subtle portraiture and on to sports related imagery effortlessly as soft music guides the viewer along. Such a presentation reflects the clear direction of photojournalism programs to prepare the next generation of photographers for the world that awaits them once the cap and gown come off.

Too bad that world is poised to chew them up and spit them out.

There’s no argument that students today are aptly prepared to create quality images. They take classes ranging from photojournalism to audio/video, from lighting to sports action. They learn quickly how to create beautiful presentations of their work before graduating. But that’s merely the technical side of the equation. Important, yes, but less so if the business part of the education is neglected.

Photojournalism programs need to evaluate how well prepared their students are for today’s environment because it’s drastically different from even five years ago. And the evolution is hardly complete.

Which begs the question that should be on everyone’s mind: How will the emerging class of photojournalists earn a living?

Twenty years ago it wasn’t difficult to find a staff photographer job at a local paper upon graduation. Today? Good luck. First, if a local paper still exists, it’s likely been trimmed to the point of near non-existence. Although some community papers are weathering the publishing downfall better than their big city brothers, many across the nation have disappeared. And their larger counterparts have suffered even more. Mid and large size newspapers with sizable photo staffs like the Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post Intelligencer, Honolulu Advertiser (this week), Albuquerque Tribune, Tucson Citizen and The Christian Science Monitor are just a few named by the website http://newspaperdeathwatch.com/ that have vanished. Some have moved to online only, but the point remains crystal clear. Staff jobs, once a meaningful way to enter the photojournalism profession, have gone the way of the afternoon paperboy and the mom-and-pop hardware store. And rest assured they are not coming back.

That being indisputable, the vast majority of graduates will exchange their rented cap and gown for a career in freelancing. Mind you, the vast majority of graduating students I’ve personally taught and spoken with have absolutely no experience or knowledge about the most prevalent issues freelancers encounter on a daily basis.

Ask them about copyright, licensing, work-for-hire and other contractual issues and you’re likely to be met with stone cold silence. Inquire about their understanding of creative fees, expenses, flat fees, space over rate fees, guarantees versus day rates, and other assignment fees and you might as well be talking to a wall. Ask them about distribution arrangements and it’ll be like asking them to explain how a CMOS sensor works. “Huh,” they’ll grunt. “How do you plan to get your photos seen?”, the teacher will ask. “Oh, either Facebook or Flickr, I have accounts at both,” the student will likely respond.

Far fetched? Hardly.

The point is that a photojournalist’s education must include a thorough foray into the business world. Not a lecture or two, but an entire semester at the minimum. Doing otherwise is like graduating a mechanic with his new set of shiny, Craftsman tools but who has no idea how to start building a motor. What’s the point? You’re short-handing the student before their career even starts.

With freelancing careers by far the norm now and in the future, we owe it to our own profession to prepare them well. By doing so, we all contribute to the growth of the industry in a healthy manner. Too many of us already have seen the repercussions from photographers who don’t know the value of their copyright or who don’t understand what “use in perpetuity and in all mediums” actually means as far as dollars and cents. The institutions of higher learning owe it to their students to give them the business sense necessary to sustain themselves in today’s world. Otherwise, the majority of the graduates will face a uncertain career marked by an inability to provide for themselves, much less a family, without taking on a different career path.

And that’s no stretch at all.

Senator McCain and his Pandering on Immigration Reform

Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Los Angeles to protest against the new Arizona law, SB 1070, that created strict immigration laws against the undocumented.

Nothing drives me crazier than hypocrisy. Nothing makes me want to run into traffic more than a politician who blatantly flip flops on issues and then blames the “interpretation” or “the media” for “misinterpreting” remarks. Folks, when a politician introduces and/or supports legislation, the bill works it’s way through congress. It’s pretty hard to “misinterpret” the clear wording on a bill.

On this election day, consider the opportunistic king of immigration pandering, Senator John McCain. Here is a man who has served his country in war and in congress. He has my profound respect in that regard. But stand your ground, Senator. Don’t pander to the right wing “tea party” activists simply because your poll numbers are down. Sure, you’re in a reelection campaign, but wouldn’t you rather lose knowing you fought for your beliefs than win knowing you changed your stance to retain your job? Sad…….

Read the LA Times story here. If you’ve paid attention, as I have, over the years to immigration issues, you’re well aware that Senator McCain has fought long and hard on the issue. After all, Arizona is on the US/Mexico border. But you’ll also recall, as the LA Times analysis does, that Senator McCain was pushing for legalization of undocumented immigrants and that building a fence was not sufficient. He called for comprehensive immigration reform in a floor speech five years ago whereby a guest worker program, additional security, and a path to citizenship for the undocumented was unveiled. To hear him now, you’d think he always advocated standing on the border with a assault rifle and nothing else. Sure, he took political heat for it back then and alienated a few staunch Republicans, but that’s politics.

Stand for your beliefs. Don’t pander, Senator. You are well versed on the intricacies of the US/Mexico border. Your state is going in the wrong direction. Be the hero you were in war and turn it around. Do what you advocated doing five years ago and fight for true reform as opposed to fighting for your job.