The Digital Journalist
Go Ahead. Tax My Day

by Peter Howe

April 2006

The movie Nazis are out there again. This must be the fourth or fifth time this year already. I think that there's a secret clause in every production contract that says wherever a film is located, and whatever the subject is, at least one scene must be shot within a 10-block radius of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I live within a one-block radius of this august establishment, and like most of my neighbors I'm fed up with navigating my way past cables, lighting equipment, catering tables and other assorted hazards associated with the making of films on location. My personal theory is that a co-op board in the vicinity once turned down an influential member of the Directors' Guild of America, and this is his or her revenge.

For those of you fortunate enough to live in an area deemed unsuitable as a backdrop for the somewhat haphazard entertainment provided by motion pictures, let me explain how the process works. The first indication that Tinsel Town is about to grace your neighborhood with its presence is the appearance of photocopied notices taped to parking meters, street lamps, scaffolding, trees, and anything else that's upright, including, probably, some of the slower-moving doormen. These notices are the equivalent of the leaves of autumn warning of the bleak winter ahead, and they give you details of when and for how long you will be inconvenienced, especially with regards to parking. The day before the planned invasion bright orange traffic cones will be placed in the gutters of the blocks that have been designated as a film set, some of which will be placed on the roofs of cars whose owners have been foolhardy enough to ignore the notices. This is a precursor to their forced removal, leaving the vacuum thus created to be filled by trucks from a company called Haddad's, based in Pleasant Hills, Penn., whose hills apparently are not pleasant enough to keep them there.

Once the street is full of vehicles containing lighting, makeup, wardrobe, and natty little numbers known as Star Trailers, the serious business of making the lives of the locals hell begins. This is chiefly the responsibility of aggressive and somewhat self-important young men and women bedecked with the latest in walkie-talkies. From these they receive orders from beings unseen to tell you not to walk down the street where you live until they give the all-clear. Unfortunately you have to obey their directives because one of the benefits provided by the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting is police protection, something that is probably necessary for any organization that takes the parking spaces of New Yorkers.

It is this same mayor's office that offers, even boasts, the justification for putting its citizens through such torture - that the money raised by these execrable activities helps keep down the taxes of those who suffer the iniquities that they cause. If they ever bothered to ask me I would tell them that I would happily pay an increase in my property taxes if my neighborhood could consistently maintain the level of dullness of which I am so fond. Send them back to California and let the special effects department deal with the problem. Since you can do anything with computer-generated graphics it shouldn't be too hard to produce a reasonable facsimile of 89th Street without anyone having to actually be there.

It occurred to me while ruminating on this that while as a rule increasing taxes is the biggest no-no in this country, there may be other examples where our fellow Americans would tolerate or even embrace some raises if the benefits were tangible. So in the spirit of April 15th (tax day for those of you who don't live in the U.S.A.) and for those politicians looking for new, creative and acceptable ways to increase revenue and reduce the deficit (if there are any) may I offer the following suggestions:

The Hummeraway Tax: This would be a tax imposed by the Motor Vehicle Departments in the states where the most Hummers have been sold, probably New Jersey, California and Montana. The money raised would be partly to compensate General Motors for revenues lost through the forced closure of the plants that manufacture these monstrosities. The benefits to the general public would be an immediate reduction of our dependence on foreign oil, and highways that were significantly more pleasing to the eye. It's a program that, to my mind as one who was brought up on Triumph motorcycles, could also be extended to Harley-Davidsons.

The Blistermenot Tax: A tax that would be embraced by all those people who hate blister packs. This is a particularly pernicious form of packaging that ensures you destroy the item you just purchased as you attempt to retrieve it from plastic bubbles that generally require a chainsaw to open. It would take the form of an increased sales tax for those customers who would prefer to have their goods handed to them in a plain brown paper bag. It would be very popular with the senior set.

The Civility Surcharge: The revenue potential for this is limited since it's not actually a tax, and probably would only apply to New York City, but to the inhabitants of the five boroughs it would be a godsend. We already pay a 50-cent surcharge to ride in a cab between the hours of 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. This is imposed as an incentive to taxicab owners to keep their vehicles on the streets during the time when most taxicab riders want them. You would think that the basic laws of commerce would do this automatically, but apparently not. My idea is to have another button on the meter that would punch up a further 50 cents, but only after the driver had turned towards you and said, "Good morning. How are you? Where would you like to go today?" or some similar greeting. Drivers who punched the button without giving the greeting would automatically lose their licenses, assuming, of course, that they had them in the first place.

This idle musing led me to speculate what the government could do for photographers that we would be prepared to pay for - well not actually pay for since experience has shown that it is easier to make stones bleed than get money out of a shooter. But if we go with the fantasy that photographers actually pay taxes, what is it that we need that we would be grudgingly prepared to pay more for? One that comes to mind immediately would be the:

I'm a Professional Too Tax: This would be paid by all working photojournalists, and would cover the cost of re-training every government employee to view the men and women who make their livings with a lens as dedicated professionals and not some kind of irritating insect that needs to be swatted. It would apply to the police, FBI, Secret Service, White House advance people, park rangers, and security personnel everywhere. The payers of this tax would receive an ID card upon which would be their photograph and the line "I'm a public servant too." On the back would be the slogan "Remember who pays your wages, buddy" just in case the one on the front didn't work.

Another that might be worth considering is:

The Copyright Protection Tax: Not only would this tax produce revenue for the federal government it would also significantly reduce their costs by eliminating many of the jobs at the Copyright Office. The way it would work is that anyone who makes a living by creating something, whether it's a photograph, a piece of prose, a play or a painting, would be offered the possibility of paying an annual tax that guaranteed that everything they shot, wrote, painted or sculpted would automatically and incontrovertibly be their copyright without having to go through the ridiculous and arcane hassle necessary now to prove that you own what you create. Fining companies that tried to offer work-for-hire contracts could also produce an additional revenue stream.

And finally, although not a tax, but rather the result of tax filing, may I suggest the:

Wealth Accumulation Revelation Statute: This would be a law whereby anyone describing their occupation as a photojournalist and declaring a gross annual income of more than $500,000 would be forced to explain on an IRS Web site how they came to make so much money from this profession. As a result of this declaration their peers would discover the secrets through which these photographers (assuming that there are more than one) make such a good living. Unfortunately I suspect that the secrets usually involve inherited real estate and so would probably be of little use to their poorer brothers and sisters.

In the real world, of course, I will continue to be bullied by the lower-level workers of the movie industry as I walk my dog to Central Park, military fantasists will still imagine that they're making the hazardous journey from Baghdad airport in their Hummers when in fact they're passing Newark on the New Jersey Turnpike, and New York City taxi drivers will continue to treat their passengers as they would intestinal parasites. Photojournalists will still work under conditions that would make union officials cry, and for a pittance that will make their accountants do the same. Media companies will still treat photographers the way N.Y.C. taxi drivers treat their passengers, and will continue to force them to sign contracts that contravene the Emancipation Proclamation.

But the good news is that despite needing anti-depressants after completing their tax forms, but lacking the medical insurance to pay for them, our plucky and resilient tribe will continue to go out and bring back the stories and information that our increasingly secretive and paranoid society so desperately needs.

Many years ago I was doing a story in Southern Arizona about working cowboys. Over the desk of one of the ranchers was a framed needlepoint message that I assumed at the time his wife had done -- although after "Brokeback Mountain," who knows? It read, "I love ranching so much I'm going to do it until I go broke." I think a lot of photojournalists can sympathize with that sentiment.

May your refunds be greater than you expect.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor