by Dick Kraus
Staff Photographer

OK. So what's all this big deal down in Florida? They count the ballots. They disqualify the ballots. They re-qualify the ballots and then they count the ballots all over again. It was supposed to be over, this morning, when I awoke. But, maybe not because it's going to the Supreme Court. And, maybe by the time you read this, it will be over. Or maybe not. Strangely enough, I really don't care. If it matters to you, I didn't care a fig which candidate won, even though I did vote for one of them. I think the country is too much for one man to run and it'll boil down to who the Man's advisors and Cabinet are as far as how well the country fares for the next four or eight years.

So, where's the beef? I'm sure that all of you have watched the endless weeks of coverage of the recounting. It was usually always the same scene. A group of people staring intently at computer punch cards to see if the holes were punched clearly or whether the "chads" were pregnant or dimpled. "Chads." There's a term that will be with us for some time to come. Sometimes we were treated to a close-up of an inspector peering at the card. But, day after day, it was the same scene, be it in Tallahasee, West Palm Beach or Miami. Same scene, different faces. I don't blame the tv or still photographers. They shot what was there and I'm sure that their movement was restricted. BUT, Godammit, they had access to the scene in Florida. They were allowed into the building and into the room where this important process was taking place. John Cornell, one of the photographers with whom I work, spent several weeks down there and told me when he returned, that generally they were allowed into the area for 5 minutes. Well, Hell! It doesn't take much more than that to photograph everything that's happening.

I guess you want to know where I'm going with this. Well, I'll tell you. On Election Day I was assigned to cover some of the local politicians who were involved in races in Suffolk County, here on Long Island, NY. I'm the early man so they usually send me to cover some of the minor functionaries to show how they spend the day waiting for the results. Of course, I don't really get the time to spend the day with anyone. I usually have two or three to cover and I try to get a generic shot of whatever they purport to be doing when I show up. They are probably just hanging around waiting for me to show up, but please, let's not get into the ethics of that. So, I shoot them playing with the baby or raking leaves or shaking last minute hands with potential voters at the mall. And I've done that for year after year after year. The resulting photos are rarely used because they are supplanted by shots taken of them after the results are known, which makes more sense. But, old habits are hard to break and I don't even whisper an objection, anymore.

And, after I have finished my alloted candidates, I radio my desk to inform them of this fact, and I am always asked to stop at a polling place and get a generic shot of people voting. They try to get some from various locals around the island and maybe one will insinuate itself into the news pages, somewhere. So, everyone looks for the winsome kid hanging onto Momma's skirt, under the voting curtain. Or Dad with his hands full of toddler trying to sign the voter's register and hang on to a lollypop sticky child. Or, maybe a large turnout with long lines waiting to vote. Or maybe a sparse turnout during an apathetic voting year.

 In the past, all we needed to do was show up at a polling place, find the chief inspector and identify ourselves and show our press credentials. Usually we were given free reign, as long as we didn't interfere with the process. Sometimes the inspector would ask us to wait until he cleared with the Election Commissioners. But, there was never any hassle. Until this year.

The night before elections, as I left the office, I was handed an envelope containing a letter from the Nassau County Election Commissioners, identifying me and each other staffer who would be covering elections, and stating to the local inspector that we were to accorded every courtesy enabling us to do our job. I was a little annoyed that such a letter was even necessary but the next day I was even more annoyed when I found myself working in Suffolk County where no such proclamation existed and the first place I went to wouldn't allow me to take pictures. I showed the cantankerous woman barring my path, the letter from Nassau.

"This is Suffolk" she stated. "I'll have to get clearance from our commissioners."

"Then please do so with dispatch," I said. "I've already had a long day and I'd like it to end soon."

She went to the phone and came back with the announcement that my name wasn't on the list of photographers at Elections Headquarters so I couldn't make photographs. I mentioned the fact that elections were a free and open segment of our democracy and she was subverting that freedom by her actions. Nice try. No cigar.

DAMN! I contacted my desk by radio and informed them and they said to wait there and they'd make a call to Election Headquarters. I waited in my car for an hour and fifteen minutes. Finally they came back to me and said it was cleared up and I could go get my photo. I was met at the door by my dour adversary who said that her commissar...I mean commissioner had called and that I would be allowed to make my photo but not until written permission had been received in her gnarly little hand. I lost whatever cool I may have had left.

"It'll take an hour to get that paper down here from Headquarters. If you think I'm spending another minute here, you had better think twice. I'll find some other damned polling place and you can be damned sure that I'll never use this place again on Election Day."

That sure put the fear of God in her. I left her quaking in her boots as I drove to the polling place where I always vote and where I've had no trouble taking photos for the past few years. I really would have liked to vary the location, but at this point, I just wanted it over with. So, I got a photo. What's the big deal? The big deal is when I see the access accorded to the media in Florida. In NY, now, you need special credentials to get even the most basic photo. Florida allows cameras in the courtroom and have done so for years. I understand they even construct special courtrooms with one way glass for the photographers when they have high profile cases. NY had a short experiment with cameras in the court and each year they took away more and more of our ability. Just before they shut us out again, the only people we were allowed to photograph were the judge and the attornies. Jeez. I believe that NY is one of only four states in the union that bans cameras in the court.

And it doesn't stop. The public is aware of the ongoing controversy and I don't know how many times people have come up to me lately, in a public situation, in a public venue and put their hands over my lens and told me that I can't make photographs.

Last week I was assigned to photograph the CEO of an important local software company addressing the Long Island Association breakfast meeting. I have covered many, many of these meetings. I have always been allowed to roam around the room to get my photos, but I always try to do it with a minimum of distraction. I stay off to the side, or down on one arthritic knee until I pop up to knock off a few frames and then I am down again.

This time, there were large screens set up around the room. I saw that if I worked from one extreme side, I could probably get a nice shot of Charles Wang, the CEO, in profile, with his company logo on the screen behind him. I wasn't working with sticks and it was a long lens shot, so I boosted my Digital Camera's ISO to 800 and planned to brace myself against the wall and squeeze off a number of shots from that angle. I plopped my heavy camera bag on the floor near the wall, and was standing against that wall waiting for the preliminaries and introductions to end. A large woman came over to me and announced that I couldn't stand there. I hoisted the press card dangling from my neck.

"You have to stand on the camera platform with the other photographers." She pointed to a low stand about two thirds of the way down a very long room. On the stand were three video cameras belonging to cable news stations.

I tried to explain that I couldn't stand way back there. My lenses were nowhere near as long as the video cameras' zooms and my flash wouldn't carry that far. She still insisted. I tried to be patient and explain how I had been doing this for as long as the Long Island Association had been holding these breakfast meetings and I had never had any problems. Her response was that she'd have me thrown out.

My response was, "Have me THROWN OUT! You'll HAVE ME THROWN OUT!! You don't have to do that. If I can't make my photos the way I've always made them, I'm walking the F--- out." Ooops.

A man in a suit detached himself from a group and came over and whispered something to the large lady. Then he came over to me and pleaded. "Please, take whatever you want but please be discrete."

I apologized for my outburst and went on to take what I consider to be the best shot of any that I have ever made at these meetings.

But, why does everybody seem to have the right to tell you what you can or cannot shoot and from where and for what reason? Where are the editors and publishers when we tell them about these restrictions on our ability to photograph what is happening in our society. Little by little, our freedom of the press is being eroded. Especially in NY. It shouldn't be our fight. If such restrictions were being placed upon the writing press, you can be sure the editors and publishers and news directors and station owners would be out there fighting for freedom of the press. I know that I am preaching to the choir, here. Maybe, just maybe, some publsher or editor will read this and take some action. I hope so.

Dick Kraus

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