THE DOCUMENTS OF A PHOTOJOURNALIST
Last April, San Francisco’s Superior Court played host to legal wrangling between the San Francisco Police Department and a young aspiring photojournalist. The ignition to court battle was the gang murder of Norris Bennett in the marginalized Hunter’s Point neighbourhood.
A young (then unnamed) photojournalism student had photographed at the murder scene of Bennett. The SFPD issued a warrant for the images and seized them during a search of Welsh’s domicile.
The photojournalist invoked California’s shield law to regain possession of his images and have them withdrawn as evidence. In July, at the time of the ruling, my colleague, Brendan Seibel, wrote a splendid piece about it for Wired’s Raw File.
THE DEFINITION OF JOURNALIST
A shield law is legislation designed to provide a news reporter with the right to refuse to testify as to information and/or sources of information obtained during the newsgathering and dissemination process.
What is interesting is that the ruling soon became involved in determining whether or not the young photojournalist was “a journalist”. Seibel explains:
Supporters of the student, including professors and professional journalists, highlighted several instances of publication in sworn statements. According to testimony filed in the motion to quash, photographs taken by the student have appeared, both in print and online, in San Francisco State University’s magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the Oakland Tribune. These articles have not been publicly connected to the photographer to protect his identity. The student had also approached the Wall Street Journal about publishing his current project, although the paper had not committed to purchasing the series.
The warrant was overturned and the student won the case. First amendment activists and free press advocates celebrated the ruling.
THE COMPETITION OUTING OF A PHOTOJOURNALIST
Welsh is the anonymous photographer.
The final photograph of Welsh’s winning portfolio is of an SFPD officer administering CPR to Norris Bennett’s body, with the added tragic caption that Norris was the second brother of the same family to be murdered.
I must say I was well aware of Welsh’s work at the time of its win. I posted it on my auxiliary blog Photography Prison, linked to Dvafoto’s respect and noted Welsh’s interview with NPPA … but I never put the pieces together.
That was until this week when I read The SF Weekly’s S.F. State student who invoked Shield Law reveals murder scene photo in national contest by Peter Jamison:
Alex Welsh, lowered the shield some time ago. His name was not revealed by police, the judge, or even the San Francisco Chronicle in its coverage of the case, but he did choose to announce it himself — in the country’s foremost student photojournalism contest.
Legally, this is a very interesting story and ethically it is quite troublesome. Obviously, we don’t know the exact nature of Welsh’s digital files from Friday April 17th. We don’t know if his images held information pertinent to the case. Whether he did or not is of no consequence if you look at this case from only a legal argument position.
If one searches Norris Bennett’s name on the internet, the returns are hundreds of articles about the shield law case, none about him, his murder or the investigation since. I don’t know if his murderers have been identified or how his family has coped in the aftermath.
To discuss this case without a curiosity for news on how his community and family fares would not be right. So while we may mull and judge the behaviour of Welsh, the SFPD and San Francisco’s Superior Court we should also think about the behaviour of mainstream media to forsake the emotional and familial stories following Norris Bennett’s murder.
Bennett was young. Welsh wanted to document the “strength, perseverance and hope of youth”. You can decide through Welsh’s images if he does them – and Bennett – justice.