Freedom and Photography: Texas / by M Durquet

On the street in downtown Austin.
When I returned to the US after photographing in Paris, I immediately felt that I was in a freer place, artistically speaking. No longer would people yell at me for taking pictures in public, as the French often did. The French privacy laws have made the land of Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson a rather inhospitable place for that same type of photography today. But, how interesting it is to come to Austin, Texas, which has changed dramatically in the 20 years since I last visited. It is a vibrant city and one of the highlights for me was seeing the "First Photograph" which is enshrined at the Henry Ransom Center. I always teach my students about this image by Niepce, yet I had never seen it. It is kept behind glass and walls in its own “section” of a room, with guards close by, next to the Gutenberg Bible. I love the story of the making of this photograph as it shows the tenacity and drive that people had to create an image, using materials such as bitumen and lavender oil, waiting for hours to make an exposure that often resulted in failure.

Texas is involved in recent debates over laws about photography. I learned that it is legal now to take pictures up womens' skirts here, otherwise known as “upskirting.” To get a full understanding of the law and the reasoning behind it, one must read the article, and go beyond the obviously lurid subject. This is a far cry from France. Texas is actually a place of freedom, even if in a perverted sort of way. One could say that it is a place where photography matters and debates are possible. The judge in the case, Sharon Keller, wrote: “The camera is essentially the photographer’s pen and paintbrush. A person’s purposeful creation of photographs is entitled to the same First Amendment protection as the photographs themselves.”

Whereas in France people hold on to these charming old world ideas about their ability to control their privacy or their lives (through striking or fighting Uber, or not working on Sundays), Americans have long since given up on such ideas. They pursue their private ideals, having mostly accepted that they are under surveillance all of the time anyways. Artists like Doug Rickard, can exploit the new methods of surveillance to coax art out of them and break new ground in the practice of photography.

One of the joys of photography is making images of things we don't normally have access to or pay attention to and sometimes these can be disturbing and uncomfortable. But the American law protecting freedom of speech is there because it supports a "free society." For me this means a society that examines itself, however imperfectly. The collective presence of all types of photography helps us do that. There is another issue, of course: censorship. We know that the American government has censored and impeded an enormous amount of photography related to our recent wars, but at least on an individual level, there exists a certain freedom to keep the spirit of photography alive.