A State of Fear

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has finally responded to the Thomas Hawk incident (our coverage) with a terse media release claiming that Hawk was photographing staff in an “inappropriate and harassing manner” and admitting no wrong. SFMOMA concludes the statement by saying that “We have heard the concerns that have been expressed, and we hope that online discussion concerning SFMOMA can now return to focus on the terrific exhibitions we currently have on view…”

It would appear that SFMOMA believes that they are beyond reproach, and that the legitimate concerns raised in the matter need not be addressed. A perhaps typical answer from an old fashioned cultural institution that believes itself to be better than the general population. The facts remain that Hawk offered to show the pictures to Museum employees, that he was not using a zoom lense but a wide angle lense, and that he was taking shots looking down into the atrium at a distance. They have now slandered Hawk, and with any luck this may end up in court, where the truth may eventually be revealed.

I don’t want to dwell on the points of the case, but the whole thing raises something far more concerning for society as a whole: that today we live in a state of fear. A fear that a person taking pictures is a pervert, a pedophile or even a terrorist.

How did we get to where we are today?

The obvious target is the media, who likes nothing more than beating up minor incidents into national or international stories. I don’t seek to belittle the serious nature of crimes, particularly against children, because one incident is one too many, however the number of perverts behind cameras as a general portion of the population is extremely small. And yet, today if you are taking pictures from the ledge of an atrium, or even of your child playing in the park, society has been conditioned to label you a pervert first without any due process or evidence. It is healthy to be wary that there are evil people in society, but have we gone so far as to have created a state of fear where photography has become a crime, at least in the eyes of bystanders? And what of the lost opportunities, the artistic expression that is lost because people feel unsafe in taking photos? Are we as a society better off in this state of fear than we were before?

We of course cannot blame the media alone, for ultimately we choose to fear, and we choose to presume the worst in varied situations, where as 20 or even 40 years ago we presumed the best first. I just hope no one reading this will ever be on the receiving end of the mob justice such fear inevitably delivers, I’ve been fortunate, but I know every time I pick up my camera that the mob can often be around the next corner.