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Archive for Sunday, June 22, 2008

Behind the Lens: Photographers work with restrictions while covering courtroom events

A blimp bag covering a photographer's camera is used as a quieting device for courtroom photography. Although photography in courtrooms is allowed by news organizations, it is not without restrictions.

A blimp bag covering a photographer's camera is used as a quieting device for courtroom photography. Although photography in courtrooms is allowed by news organizations, it is not without restrictions.

June 22, 2008

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About this series

"Behind the Lens" is a weekly look at photography, written by Journal-World staff photographers. Have an idea for the column? Contact Thad Allender, photo director, at 832-6359 or tallender@ljworld.com.

At most of the events I cover as a photojournalist, members of the general public are also free to take photographs. I may receive special press passes for events that sometimes includes unique access, but beyond that anyone with a camera can probably photograph the same subjects I do.

One exception is in the courtroom. I was thinking about this exception and of a former photojournalism instructor of mine recently as I stood in the back of a Douglas County District Courtroom to cover a preliminary hearing wearing a "blimp bag" on my camera. (More about the bag later.)

It's hard to believe, but it wasn't until the late 1970s that photographers' presence in the courtroom became acceptable. The circus-like atmosphere of a number of 1930s high-profile cases, such as the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby (700 reporters and 125 photographers covered the events of the trial) caused such disruption that it led the American Bar Association to amend its Canons of Professional and Judicial Ethics to prohibit photographic coverage of court proceedings in 1937 (It's Canon 35).

The former instructor I was thinking about was Joseph Costa. Starting his career in the early 1920s, Costa was active as a newspaper photographer or photography supervisor at several New York daily papers for 44 year. He was also a founder of the National Press Photographers Association and was its first president. In the 1950s, Costa and the NPPA lobbied to appeal Canon 35. Since that time, many states have responded to the efforts of Costa and others by allowing courtroom photography. But it is not without its restrictions.

As I stood in the Douglas County Courtroom I was aware of a few of these restrictions: By the authority of the judge, I am the only photographer allowed to be present. I am limited to a specific area of the courtroom. I am not allowed to use a flash or a motor drive device. And I am required to use a "quieting device" on my camera.

The quieting device I'm using is a rather bizarre, overstuffed, thing called a blimp bag. It covers the entire camera like a large, deformed tea cozy. It includes a hole for a lens, a hole to insert your hand to operate the camera and a small hole for your eye that sometimes aligns with the camera's viewfinder. It's hot and awkward to use, but I know Mr. Costa would approve. It's a fair price to pay for freedom of the press.

You can see all the restrictions and the Kansas Supreme Court Rule 1001 on Media Coverage of Judicial Proceedings at www.kscourts.org. Choose "court rules" in the left-hand column, then choose "media coverage of judicial proceedings."

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