This came to us as a special contribution of one of our photographers, Erin McCann
Via the Post comes word today that the National Archives has decided to ban photography. That means that after next month, unless you are a professional photographer, you’ll be forbidden from using a camera inside the building whose No. 1 purpose is to display the documents of freedom on which our country was founded.
Archives officials opened the issue for public comment last summer with an announcement in the Federal Register. (What? You don’t scour the register?) After two months, they had only three comments, all of which were against a change in policy. Despite this, David S. Ferriero, the chief archivist for the United States, wrote that the agency “does not believe that this rule will create problems for tourists. The agency believes this rule creates a better visitor experience.”
With all due respect to Mr. Ferriero, it’s troubling that such a fundamental alteration of the visitor experience was made without considering the millions of people for whom a camera is an important part of the visitor experience. The First Amendment guarantees our right to create images, to capture life, to tell stories. That he would deny us that right in the very building housing the Bill of Rights is outrageous.
There are two points the Archives is citing to justify the ban: The first is that flash photography damages the precious documents; the second is that photographers ruin the experience for everyone else. Both blame photographers for the failure of Archives employees to adequately control their crowds. We’re being punished because some tourist from South Dakota doesn’t understand how to work his camera. The logic is maddening, and it dismisses the importance of documentary photography. You know all those old pictures the museums around town—Archives included—have displayed on their walls? They weren’t created by fairies, Mr. Ferriero
The announcement includes the helpful reminder that “for those visitors who wish to take home an image of the documents, the National Archives Shop has facsimiles of various sizes and price ranges available for purchase.” It’s not just about the documents, though: photographers document the experience of the archives. It’s through the work of amateur photographers and tourists that we can document the mood of this living, breathing DC monument.
The agency has branded itself with an invitation to the National Archives Experience. Apparently, there’s only one way to experience the National Archives, and those us who see life through a lens are not welcome to participate.
At this point, the policy change seems inevitable. Over at DC Photo Rights we’re mourning the policy change, and there’s talk of a photo walk being planned on Feb. 20.