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03 October 2007

Richard Ross/John R. MacArthur Lecture, Part 2

The following is the second installment of a conversation between Richard Ross and John R. (Rick) MacArthur, regarding Ross's work and his book Architecture of Authority, published by Aperture this fall.

To read opening remarks made by Diana Edkins of Aperture Foundation, click here.

To read the first installment of the conversation between Ross and MacArthur, click here.

JRM: Probably the emblematic photograph in this context is the one of the 70th precinct… Does anyone have an association with the 70th precinct in Brooklyn? What happened there? [No response.] It’s the Abner Louima precinct.

Photograph from Architecture Of Authority, published by Aperture, Fall 2007.

[In 1997, Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant to the United States, was arrested by officers from the 70th precinct. He was brutally assaulted by the arresting officers at the precinct, and an attempt at a cover-up was made. Several officers were eventually indicted and found guilty of various crimes; the longest sentence issued was 30 years and almost $280,000 as restitution. New York City also settled a civil lawsuit for $8.75 million. –ed.]

…[Richard’s] father worked in that same precinct, what, fifty years earlier. And I suggest that, even in those days, such a thing could not have taken place. Now, I don’t know for a fact that nothing like that ever happened, and I stipulate in the essay that, after all, lynching was going on unpunished in the South into the early ‘50s. But it’s still really different. The 70th precinct is the same building, but it’s a different world. And [Richard] is bridging it.

RR: Well, fifty years ago… history kind of repeats. The scene of one of the more notorious police scandals in New York City history… The claim to fame was when I sit there with my wife and watch Serpico. [Al Pacino’s] Serpico says, “This is so big, this is so corrupt, it’s bigger than the Gross bookmaking scandal!” And it’s something that took place in the ‘50s.

[Harry Gross was a Brooklyn bookmaker who hit his prime in the 1940s, employing public servants, like police officers, in a successful attempt to hide his growing illegal profile. He was eventually charged, tried, and convicted in 1950 and spent eight years in jail.—ed.]

When I found out about what went on and why, a million bits of family history that were well-buried—I did some research in the Times archives and the Herald-Tribune, the World Telegram and Sun—this all bubbled to the surface. I found out more about white collar crime and the ‘50s. Which was all very benign, theoretically, but then repeated itself with crime that was not so white-collar in the ‘80s.

RM: The other thing I wanted Richard to talk a little bit about is what it’s like dealing with the American military, and authorities like the Secret Service and various police organizations. Because—and you picked up on it when [Richard] was talking, probably—there’s a kind of a strange cooperation between authority and our photographer here, which I don’t understand. As a reporter over the years, I’ve bullshitted my wan into dozens of places I wasn’t supposed to be in. But you’re only carrying a notebook. You don’t look threatening in the least. You can convince the person that the stuff you’re scrawling into your notebook isn’t gonna do them any harm; they shouldn’t feel threatened by it. You show up with a camera, it changes the relationship immensely. I’ve had it myself, when I’m shooting pictures myself…when I was in Africa, for example, in Uganda, I’ve had that experience of the guards grabbing for your camera and trying to pull the film out. So I know that cameras are threatening to authority.

So why in the hell were these people so cooperative? There’s that tense moment where they’re almost not gonna let you do it, but then they do let you take pictures of the isolation cells, the outdoor cells.

RR: Forty percent of the military force in Iraq, when I was there, were reservists or National Guard. And these are just absolutely normal people that are caught up in something they didn’t necessarily want to be in. And as long as you treat them with respect, and as long as you tell them absolutely everything that you’re doing and trying to figure out, and don’t bullshit them, they’re fine. They don’t understand the power of the camera. They don’t understand the power of a photograph. And it’s a batting average. You don’t get to everywhere that you want to go to, but if you’re persistent, you get a lot.

Going to Guantánamo took nine moths of persistence, and my hero is always James Garner on The Rockford Files. [Laughter.] Where he would have an offset printing press in his glove compartment and he would be Jim Anderson, insurance investigator. And he would make up a card and go into whatever situation he needed. So I wear the hat of a university professor, I wear the hat of a photojournalist, I work for a European journal, I can work for an American publication… it doesn’t matter.

Photograph from Architecture Of Authority, published by Aperture, Fall 2007.

And also, the nice thing about growing up in New York was that “no” was always a starting point. So if somebody says to me, “No,” that just means I have to figure out some other way of doing it. But I said to Rick earlier, in looking at conversation and interview/interrogation, I was trying to deal with people at Fort Huachuca, in Arizona. And originally they said, “You can come and photograph,” and later they said, “We did some research on who you are, and who you’re working for, and we don’t feel that your photographs will be complimentary.”

So the first day they say, “You can come,” and the next day they say—and this is in an email—not complimentary. And I’m looking at their website and their mission statement from the Pentagon, and it says that the public information office is to make [the fort] apparent, transparent and information accessible, to the U.S. military and the American public. And somehow, it doesn’t say “complimentary.”

Yet this is the relationship that the media has evolved into, where it has to be adversarial. And there are people in the military, and a lot of people in the bureaucracy that feel comfortable, and people that DON’T. And you have to seek out the people that want to help, and seek out the people hat want to tell a story that they feel will be honest. And people that don’t want to be used. And I think the book is pretty honest. It’s drawing some conclusions visually, that are maybe surprising to some people, but I’m not lying or fabricating, and there’s nothing Photoshopped in there.

So it’s an ongoing battle, but it does come back to the idea that is that I’m not a good artist, but I’m a good photojournalist. No matter what Rick says. And I have a hard time accepting no as an answer.

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