Oregon State Bar Bulletin — FEBRUARY/MARCH 2009
Profiles in the Law
Defending the Right to Shoot:
Bert Krages takes aim at photography bans
By Cliff Collins

In August 2002, two high school students, Emily and Jenny, were taking photographs for an art exhibit at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, as part of a project called "Northwest Artists Respond to Global Warming." They spent the day shooting pictures, from Mount Hood to the coast.

While photographing oil-storage tankers by the river in Northwest Portland, they were confronted by a security guard, who told them to move to the public sidewalk. They explained what they were doing, but he called the police, and told the girls that since 9/11, they could not "do things like take pictures of bridges anymore."

At least four police cars arrived on the scene. The police subsequently contacted the FBI, describing the girls as "two Middle Eastern-looking teenagers taking pictures near Portland bridges." The officers also threatened to confiscate the girls’ film, and told them that they would be placed on the FBI terrorism watch list.

The incident occurred a couple of weeks before the first anniversary of 9/11. The two young women may be on an FBI watch list because of working on an environmental art project.

Had the girls done anything illegal? Definitely not, says Portland attorney Bert P. Krages. In fact, it was exactly scenarios such as this — which he calls "a classic case" — that prompted Krages (pronounced KRAY-gus) to take up the cause of photographers’ rights.

Harassment and discrimination of photographers have become common, and in most cases, those doing the inflicting are at fault, not those taking pictures, says Krages, who has become recognized nationally as an advocate of the right to take photographs in public places.

An Early Start
Krages was born in Louisville, Ky., but as the son of a career Marine officer, he and his parents always were on the move: Krages attended 10 different schools from first through 12th grades.

He first took up photography in high school, encouraged by a couple of friends. Krages and his buddies would sit at the end of a military airstrip and take shots of airplanes landing and departing.

"High school was my first encounter with being harassed for taking a photograph," he says. He was riding his bicycle at a Marine Corps air station on Okinawa, when the military police approached him and confiscated his film. Krages eventually was able to recover it, but only because of his father’s position.

Krages’ parents tried to steer him into attending a military academy, but he decided to study environmental engineering in college. He obtained a bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University, then a master’s degree at the University of North Carolina, both in environmental engineering.

Krages worked four years as an engineer, but during that time he got interested in legal matters related to the environment. So he went back to school and obtained a law degree from the University of Oregon. He says he is one of the few attorneys in the United States with college degrees and experience in environmental engineering.

His first legal job was with Louisiana Pacific, focusing almost exclusively on environmental compliance issues. It was work he enjoyed, and he stayed with the company for several years, but decided to go into sole practice in 1995, and has continued in that ever since.

"I’ve always been interested in a more hands-on type practice," he explains. In his later years at LP, Krages had found he was doing less of that and more supervising of outside firms.

In sole practice, he continued doing work for LP, as well as for individuals and small businesses. By the late ’90s, when his environmental work was tapering off, he started to concentrate on intellectual property work. "That is what led to getting into photography law."

What You Can Photograph
One Saturday afternoon in 1998, he passed a Superfund site that was undergoing cleanup. "I stopped, got out and was taking some photographs. A construction manager asked me what I was doing," Krages says. "He was polite, and didn’t ask me to stop. He wanted to find out what I was doing and who I was. A few days later, I got a call from a lawyer representing a party in the Superfund site. He seemed a little concerned about it, I think out of paranoia."

The incident got Krages thinking about the various aspects of law related to photographing in public. He found that a fair amount of information existed about publishing rights related to photography, but there was little about what you could photograph. The realization prompted him to write a pamphlet, as well as a full book, on photography rights, which included advice about how to deal with confrontations.

His book on the topic, Legal Handbook for Photographers: The Rights and Liabilities of Making Images, sold well and now is in its second printing. His flier on the subject, posted on his website, www.krages.com, has attracted 625,000 downloads, an indication of the need to know, he says.

A Catalyst for Change
Krages has been interviewed by National Public Radio and leading photography journals, and the publicity has given him more name recognition in the photography community. But he says most inquirers want to know what their rights are, and they usually aren’t looking to pursue litigation. He views that part of his work more as a service.

"I think attorneys have a genuine obligation to the public to let people know what the general aspects of the law are," he says. "I didn’t like seeing photographers harassed, and I was unhappy with the misinformation out there. This was an opportunity for me to improve the situation."

Krages has gone on to write several other books, on topics ranging from photographic technique to environmental compliance, and even books giving writers advice on manuscript submissions and about how to write about the law in plain English. Yet, surprisingly, writing doesn’t come easily to him, he admits. "I’ve always considered writing to be a bit ofa struggle."

He doesn’t confine his photography to any specific topics, but most of his recent work has been of landscape subjects. Other areas where he has focused his lens include botanical subjects, street photography, landscapes, sports and astronomy.

Krages has some of his images with a stock agency, and uses his own images in his books. "I also have done photography in connection with legal matters. For example, I have photographed objects to use as exhibits in intellectual property litigation."

One of his goals is "to try to combat the perception that photography is a tool of terrorists," says Krages. "It really isn’t." Major attacks over the last 10 to 15 years "didn’t depend on photography." Instead, he contends that taking pictures helps discourage such events.

"Particularly with terrorism in a crowded area, citizen photography can act as a significant deterrent," he maintains. "The knee-jerk reaction is that people shouldn’t be taking photographs, when ideally, it would be better if everyone was taking pictures in subways."

This is especially true with the advent of camera phones, where citizens have taken pictures of robberies and e-mailed the photos to law enforcement, for instance.

Photography, he knows, can be a catalyst for change. He points to pictures taken during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which caused revulsion and action.

"That’s a major reason why this is important to me. When people are not allowed to take photographs, you are losing a lot of benefit to history."

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2009 Cliff Collins

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